April 4, 2002
Fade to Black
Comedian Milton Berle and director Billy Wilder gave generations of Americans something to smile about.
Two Jewish pioneers of the popular culture, comedian Milton Berle and director Billy Wilder, died last week in Los Angeles.
Wilder, who fled the Nazis to become one of Hollywood's greatest (and most caustic) filmmakers, died of pneumonia March 27. He was 95.
Berle, the stogie-smoking vaudevillian who became America's first TV star, died March 27 after battling colon cancer. He was 93.
Six-time Oscar winner Wilder, whose protagonists were often alcoholics or gigolos, grew up in his family's Galacian hotel, where, he said, he "learned many things about human nature, none of them favorable." As a cocky journalist-turned-screenwriter in Berlin in 1933, he sold his belongings for a few hundred dollars and was on a train to Paris the day after the Nazis burned the Reichstag. Arriving penniless in Hollywood a year later, he taught himself English by listening to the radio, but had less success convincing his relatives to leave Europe. When he returned to Germany to help de-Nazify the theater in 1945, he discovered that his stepfather, mother and grandmother had died in Auschwitz. When a director asked if a Nazi could play Jesus in a passion play, he replied, "Permission granted, but the nails have to be real."
Wilder went on to write and direct movies that exposed the darkest recesses of human nature, dissecting the underbelly of American life in classics such as "Double Indemnity" and "Sunset Boulevard." The versatile filmmaker also triumphed in the genre of farce ("Some Like It Hot") and sophisticated romantic comedies such as "Sabrina" and "The Seven Year Itch."
Wilder is survived by his wife, the former Audrey Young; and daughter, Victoria.
Berle, dubbed "Uncle Miltie" and "Mr. Television" for addicting Americans to the tube, was born Mendel Berlinger, the son of Moses and Sarah (aka Sadie), in a five-story Harlem walk-up in 1908. One of his earliest memories was of his Jewish mother bouncing him on her knee and telling him, "Make me laugh." By the age of 5, young Berle -- spurred by stage mother Sadie -- had won a children's Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest. By 13, he'd changed his Jewish last name and was performing vaudeville on Broadway.
After decades of working as a top theater and nightclub performer, Berle was hired to bring his irreverent brand of humor to NBC's variety show, "Texaco Star Theater" in 1948. He promptly drew fans for gags such as prancing in drag, grinning to reveal blackened teeth and dubbing himself "The Thief of Bad Gags."
After his television reign ended in the 1960s, Berle went on to make movies such as 1963's "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," play himself in Woody Allen's 1984 comedy "Broadway Danny Rose" and make numerous guest appearances on TV shows like "The Love Boat" and "Beverly Hills, 90210."
In later years, he appeared as a master of ceremonies at celebrity roasts and was a fixture at the Friars Club, where he served as president and laid on the Jewish shtick. "You're probably wondering why we're roasting Mickey Rooney," he said during one affair. "It's because we ran out of Jews!"
Berle was buried at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary in Los Angeles and is survived by his wife, the former Lorna Adams; son, William; daughter, Victoria (Mike) Walton; stepdaughters, Susan (Richard) Moll and Leslie (Ron) Sweet; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.