George Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum in New York City on January 20, 1896. One of 12 children in a Romanian-Jewish family, Burns made money by singing in saloons as a child. He began teaching dance while still very young, performing regularly in New York and New Jersey in his 20s.
It was during a performance in Newark that Burns met a fellow performer, Gracie Allen, who would become his lifelong partner. They developed an act together in which Burns played the straight man to Allen’s flighty, silly character. The pair was well known on the vaudeville circuit by the time they married in 1926. Their colleagues on the circuit included Al Jolson, Milton Berle and Fanny Brice. Many of these performers—including Burns and Allen—made a transition to radio and film during the 1920s and 1930s. Burns and Allen debuted on radio in 1929, landing a regular show that ran from 1932 to 1950. The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show drew 40 million listeners or more in the late 1930s. Their star power vaulted them onto the screen as well as the airwaves. The couple played themselves in a number of films, including International House (1933), Many Happy Returns (1934), A Damsel in Distress (1937) and College Swing (1938).
In 1950, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show debuted on CBS television, immediately becoming one of the top-rated shows of the decade. Burns and Allen remained popular and prominent until Allen’s retirement in 1959. She died of a heart attack in 1964. Burns had his wife buried with Episcopal rites, although she was a Catholic, so that he could eventually be buried beside her. Burns experienced heart trouble in the 1970s, undergoing major surgery in 1975.
After recovering from his heart troubles, Burns returned to the film industry. He won am Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the film adaptation of Neil Simon’s play The Sunshine Boys (1975). He played God in the film Oh God! (1977) and its sequels, Oh God! Book II (1980) and Oh God! You Devil (1984)—in which he appeared as both God and the Devil.
Burns won a lifetime achievement award from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1988. He wrote two best-selling autobiographical books: Gracie: A Love Story (1988) and All My Best Friends (1989), along with eight other works chronicling and reflecting on his experiences in the entertainment industry.
George Burns died in Beverly Hills, California on March 9, 1996. He was 100 years old. Burns and Allen had two children, a son and a daughter, both of whom died between 2007 and 2010.