Berle had been under hospice care for the past few weeks. He had been diagnosed with colon cancer last year.
As one of the last of the great comedians — among them Jack Benny, George Burns and Red Skelton — who came of age in vaudeville, Berle’s passing marks the end of an era. Berle went from child actor in silent films to vaudeville, radio, Broadway and Las Vegas and, soon after World War II, became television’s most celebrated comedian. He was adored by millions as “Uncle Miltie” on “Texaco Star Theater” and may have been the most famous media personality of his era.
His zany, cross-dressing entrances on the variety show, which he hosted from 1948 to 1956, made him the medium’s first superstar. But as a writer for The New York Times once commented: “Television didn’t make Milton Berle; Milton Berle made television.”
With a beaming, Cheshire Cat-like grin, withering stare, cigar (and a notorious reputation for stealing jokes), Berle riveted viewers at the dawn of the television age.
Texaco Star Theater was built like an old-fashioned vaudeville show, the original program opened with four Texaco Service Men singing “Oh, we’re the men of Texaco, we work from Maine to Mexico ...,” followed by a musical introduction of Berle, who came on dressed in women’s clothes or in some other outlandish costume.
Introduced as “the man with jokes from the Stone Age,” Berle entered as a caveman. Announced as “the man who just paid his taxes,” he came on wearing a barrel. The show closed each week with Berle singing his theme song, “Near You.”
During the show’s eight-year run, the number of TV sets in the United States jumped from 190,000 to 21 million, almost all of them tuned into Uncle Miltie.
The saga of Milton Berle is inextricably bound to his mother, Sandra, one of the classic stage mothers of show business. (Berle’s father, German immigrant Moses Berlinger, was a dreamer who lacked the drive of his wife and son. He worked at various jobs, including housepainter, paint salesman and night watchman.)
“My mother had always wanted to be in show business herself,” Berle once told Bob Thomas of The Associated Press. “When she was young, it was sinful for a woman to be an actress. The family forbade her. So she brought all her energies into me.” She had energy and nerve, having worked as a detective in New York department stores.
Little Milton’s career began at 5, when he attracted attention on the sidewalks of upper Manhattan with his Charlie Chaplin imitations. An agent saw him and found him work as the Buster Brown boy, the advertising image for a line of children’s shoes. Chaplin himself sent for the boy, and Milton appeared in silent films with Chaplin, Marie Dressler, serial queen Pearl White, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.
Milton made his Broadway debut in a 1920 revival of the musical “Floradora” as a $15-a-week member of a boy sextet. Sandra Berle then pushed her son into vaudeville, teaming him with a little girl in a dramatic act as a juvenile Romeo and Juliet. They toured the country and even played vaudeville’s Valhalla, New York’s Palace. As he grew older, Milton shifted into a solo act, telling jokes, singing and dancing.
“Mama was with me all the time,” Berle recalled. “She traveled everywhere with me, made me do my homework on the road, and sat in the audience for every show — two a day, four a day, even when I did 10 shows a day at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. She used to be a very big critic to me. She’d say, ‘That joke didn’t do very well; take that joke out.’
“My mother held on to me with a tight grip; she didn’t want to lose me. It isn’t considered right today, but I thought she had the feeling of owning me and not wanting to be my mother but to be my wife — without incest. It’s the old telltale story about the mother’s power over her son.
His mother’s influence remained strong until she died in 1953 at 77. Berle married, divorced and remarried show girl Joyce Matthews, and they adopted a daughter, Vickie. Their second marriage lasted six years.
In 1953, Berle married former publicist Ruth Cosgrove. They had an adopted son, Billie. She died in 1989.
In later years, Berle also said he found much solace in Christian Science, and called himself a Jew and a Christian Scientist.
In 1982, he became the national chairman of the American Longevity Association, and was president of The Friars Club.
As a pioneer in television, Berle always was ready to try something new.
“Too many people simply give up too easily,” he once said. “You have to keep the desire to forge ahead, and you have to be able to take the bruises of unsuccess. Success is just one long street fight.”