In 1960, as television's second decade got underway, Milton Berle found himself virtually unemployed. NBC had little to offer -- at one point they asked him to host the weekly Jackpot Bowling show -- but, otherwise, considered him "yesterday's news." Making matters worse, his 30-year iron-clad contract made it impossible for him to work elsewhere. "If I stop working, I die," Berle complained at the time. "If there's another way of life, I don't know it." When NBC refused to tear-up the deal, Berle decided it was time to reinvent himself once again. Enter Berle, the serious actor.
On October 24, 1961 -- a Tuesday evening! -- Milton Berle returned to NBC as the star of "Doyle Against the House," an episode of the new Dick Powell Show anthology. The one-hour drama not only won Berle critical acclaim (and an Emmy nomination), it launched him on a whole new career.
Appearances on The Barbara Stanwyke Theatre and Bob Hope's Chrysler Theatre followed -- and in 1963 he did a second episode of the Powell show, "Thunder in a Forgotten Town." He also made two comedic appearances on The Joey Bishop Show. All, of course, were on NBC. In 1964, CBS offered Berle a guest appearance on its award winning legal series, The Defenders, starring E. G. Marshall. To Berle's chagrin, NBC said no.
At this point, "I went to Sarnoff, head of NBC," Berle later recalled. "I said, look I'll give you the money. Know what the money was? $1500, that's tops on The Defenders. I wanted to play the part so much I would have given them the whole contract back for $1500."
NBC ultimately consented to let Berle do The Defenders, and a couple of years later the network agreed to renegotiate the deal, allowing Berle to accept guest-shots on other networks in exchange for 40% of his annual salary ($40,000).
Berle also kept busy during these years as a headliner in Las Vegas -- and in such motion pictures as Stanley Kramer's "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."
But television was his first love, and his friend Lucy understood this. She had returned to weekly television herself with The Lucy Show in 1962, and once Berle's deal with NBC had been amended, the redhead invited him to appear on her programs whenever possible. In December, 1965, he guest starred in an episode in which he played himself, doing research for a movie role set on Skid Row (see photo, right). Lucy Carmichael, volunteering with her friend Mary Jane at a soup kitchen, thinks he is a real derelict -- and attempts to rehabilitate him.
In the fall of 1966, Berle received an offer he could not refuse: return to weekly television as the star of his own variety hour. The network this time was ABC, the night would be Friday, and he would be surrounded by a whole new generation of performers -- but he decided to give it a shot. Lucy was the first person he booked for the show's premiere on September 9. Sadly, the series was a flop -- gunned down in the ratings by NBC's much-more-current Man from U.N.C.L.E.
The following year, Berle and his wife Ruth guest-starred in Lucy's season-opener, an episode in which Lucy Carmichael, moonlighting from her regular job in at the bank, gets hired to serve as Milton's secretary. She overhears him rehearsing a movie role with actress Ruta Lee -- and mistakenly thinks he is two-timing his wife. She decides to cool his ardor -- by dumping a huge bowl of Caesar salad over his head.
In real life, Milton and Ruth had become close friends with Lucy and her new husband, Gary Morton -- whom Berle always called "Mortie." Berle had known Gary since the early 1950s, when the latter was a struggling young comic on New York's nightclub circuit. In those days, Gary was still using his real name, Morton Goldapper.
Berle also made guest appearances on such programs as Get Smart, F Troop, The Big Valley, I Dream of Jeannie, Batman, and Ironside.
In 1969, ABC launched a new series of 90-minute made-for-television films that aired under the title Movie of the Week. Berle starred in the first one, "Seven in Darkness," as one of a group of blind travelers who survive a plane crash in the wilderness, and must grope their way back to civilization. Also in the cast were Sean Garrison and Arthur O'Connell (see photo, right), plus Dina Merrill, Barry Nelson, Alejandro Rey, Tippy Walker and Lesley Ann Warren. The film aired on -- what else? -- a Tuesday night.
Lucy had by then launched her third comedy series, Here's Lucy, co-starring her real-life children, Lucie Arnaz and Desi Jr. In one 1969 episode, Milton guest-starred as Cheerful Charlie, a fast-talking, just-left-of-honest used car dealer who pawns a lemon off on Lucy's kids. (The specially-rigged vehicle was an old Packard, painted in psychedelic colors, that started by stomping on the floorboard!) Lucy and Uncle Harry (Gale Gordon) decide to teach the Cheerful one a lesson.
Berle returned to the show in 1974 to play himself -- whose services as an entertainer Lucy wins in a charity auction. He reluctantly agrees to appear at one of her notoriously dull parties -- and turns the redhead into the neighborhood's most popular hostess (see photo, bottom).
Berle and Ball moved into television's "cable era" together in 1981 with one of HBO's first specials, The Magic of the Stars. Berle produced the show under his new Milton Berle Productions banner, and served as on-camera host. Lucy headed an all-star cast that included Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Dick Van Patten, Dick Shawn and Ruth Buzzi. The "gimmick" of the show: the celebrities each performed a magic act. Lucy, for example, executed feats of levitation.
In 1984, Milton and Lucy were among the first seven inductees into the new Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame. (Also on the list that year: Paddy Chayefsky, Norman Lear, Edward R. Murrow, William S. Paley and David Sarnoff.)
The Berles and the Mortons remained close... As one of life's little ironies, Ruth Berle was hospitalized in April, 1989, and underwent surgery for cancer. The lady went into a coma, and the prognosis was not good. Lucy was devastated... A few days later Lucy herself was rushed to the same hospital with a life-threatening heart condition. She had immediate surgery to repair a tear in her aorta, and awoke to discover Mrs. Berle had passed away. "We've lost Ruthie," she told Gary when he arrived to visit. Lucy herself died a few days later.
In 1991 Berle married fashion designer Lorna Adams (photo, left), whom family and friends now credit with keeping him "young and vital" the last decade of his life. Indeed, on his 88th birthday he reported that he never felt better. He suffered a mild stroke in December, 1998, and was diagnosed with colon cancer last April.
Berle is survived by Lorna, by two adopted children -- daughter Vicki Walton and son William -- and by a nation of grateful fans who still call him "uncle."
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