Comedian George Burns, who died 15 years ago today just after turning 100, had an amazing 90-year career. After starting out in vaudeville, he and his wife Gracie Allen enjoyed successful runs in radio, film, and television as the comedy team Burns and Allen. After Gracie died in 1964, George continued working, winning an Oscar at the age of 80, and whimsically portraying the Supreme Being in 1977’s Oh, God!
I met George Burns on two occasions. “Met” is actually too strong a word – encountered would be more accurate.
The first encounter took place at LAX when an escalator malfunctioned and he stumbled on top of me. I helped him up, made sure he was okay, gave him a knowing nod after recognizing who he was, and we went on our merry ways.
The second took place at the spot where you can find him today: Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale.
I was supposed to be in church that morning because the religious college I was attending at the time required that I go, but was powerless to make me happy about it. I made an appearance, but when I saw a jerk that I knew mount the podium to deliver the sermon, I grabbed a friend and bolted for the door.
My friend knew that I liked to explore cemeteries to find the permanent homes of the famous and infamous and had always wanted me to give him a tour of Forest Lawn. It seemed like a perfect place to hide out for a couple of hours from the all-seeing eyes of the church police, so we drove to Glendale.
I took my friend around to the graves of all the biggies at the top of the hill – Walt Disney, Errol Flynn, Spencer Tracy – and then went inside the mausoleum to introduce him to lots of other folks, like Nat King Cole, Alan Ladd, Clara Bow, and George Burn’s late wife and comedy partner, Gracie Allen.
We exited the building and turned the corner, and for the second time in my life, I literally ran into George Burns.
Now, I’m not a big guy, but compared to me, George Burns in his eighties was a Smart Car next to a Hummer. (It was like the time at Warner Bros. when I rounded a soundstage, and bounced off John Goodman like a pinball.)
Luckily, he was none the worse for wear, and gave us a quick “Hello, boys,” before heading into the building to visit his beloved Gracie.
After he walked away, my friend turned to me and said, “See what happens when you talk me in to cutting church? God himself shows up!”
I stop by Forest Lawn from time-to-time to check in on George and Gracie. They are now entombed together with Gracie’s name listed first, since George wanted her to finally get top billing.