Berle's Pals Rise To The Occasion

Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard (12) dunks against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first quarter of Game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference basketball finals Saturday, May 30, 2009, in Orlando, Fla.
AP Photo/John Raoux
Hollywood said farewell to comedian Milton Berle on Monday in a zany funeral service that mixed solemn eulogies with the kind of one-liners and borrowed jokes he was famous for in a 60-year career that went from vaudeville to the living room TV set.

It was his last "roast" as old friends stood in front of his coffin, draped in his trademark trench coat and hat, and cracked jokes about a man they loved.

Among the 300 attendees at the private service for Berle at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary in the Los Angeles suburb of Culver City were stars from television's golden age, including Red Buttons, Sid Caesar, Don Rickles and Jayne Meadows.

Berle's coffin was surrounded by flowers and photographs of the comedian in his heyday as "Uncle Miltie" and "Mr Television." It was draped in a trench coat and a hat because Berle hated drafts and always feared he would catch a cold and never went anywhere without the hat and coat, even the sun-drenched, desert city of Las Vegas.

Rickles set the tone for the eulogies, declaring to Berle's grieving fourth wife, Lorna Adams, "I would like to be paid for this." Red Buttons followed, describing Rickles as "the greatest argument against human cloning." Addressing Adams, Buttons said: "Lorna, Milton would have been alive today if it wasn't for you. All that sex, all that love."

Comedy writer Larry Gelbart apologized to Berle because the man who ushered in the golden age of television died in the same week as two other Hollywood luminaries, actor Dudley Moore and filmmaker Billy Wilder. "I hear you Milton, sorry," Gelbart said. "I know you work alone."

Gelbart, referring to Berle's liberal use of the jokes of other comedians - a habit that earned him the nickname "Thief of Bad Gags" - described it another way. "He had a propensity for giving other people's material a new home," Gelbart said.

Comedian Jan Murray said Berle was "up in heaven now telling St. Peter what to do and roasting Moses: 'The man took his flock out to sea and if he had made a right instead of a left, we'd have had the oil and they'd have had the desert.' "

There were also many sad and serious moments during the two-hour-long memorial as well. Gelbart said he wondered why the public was sold on the idea that Western stars like John Wayne and Ronald Reagan were the American ideal. "To me, Milton with his Eastern (European) cheekiness, his unflappability was as American as mom and apple pie."

A solemn Sid Caesar, walking with a cane and speaking to reporters before the ceremony, praised Berle, who hosted the ground-breaking "The Texaco Star Theater" (1948-53) for single-handedly convincing television executives that a weekly, hour-long comedy show would capture audiences. "That opened the door for all of us," Caesar said. "We all owe something to him."

"This was a new thing," Caesar said. "People don't realize. He showed them you didn't have to go out and park the car to see a show."

Outside the ceremony, mortuary officials placed rows of chairs where friends, fans and others who hadn't been invited, gathered to pay their respects.

Among them were several former actors and comics who tearfully explained why they had come to say goodbye.

Story upon story tumbled out about how Berle would spontaneously write funny lines for their acts without taking any credit, and how, if he was part of a show that for some reason didn't go quite right, he felt such responsibility for an audience that he would shoot out from behind the curtain after the final curtain call to give an extra half-hour stand-up routine so people would leave happy.

He also seemed to have a knack for making people who were less successful feel good about themselves.

One night in Newport, Kentucky, former comic Bill Beckett was playing a strip joint with 15 drunks in the audience. "I sank fast," Beckett said. Berle, who had been performing at a much larger theater nearby, caught Beckett's dreadful show. "His table was surrounded with people and I wanted to die. I was so embarrassed, I didn't go over," he said.

"He tapped me on the shoulder and invited me to join him. I told him I was too embarrassed. He used the 'F' word and said not to worry and then invited me to his dressing room and sat with me for an hour with his team of writers, helping me improve my routine."

"I ran a balloon service on the side and I saw him a decade later when I was setting up for a bar mitzvah at the Friar's club and he walked over and looked at me and he remembered my name. He was a wonderful man."

By Sarah Tippit