Comedians, Colleagues Recall Berle

Milton Berle was a harsh boss, a clever comic and a hero to many comedians both old and older.

The 93-year-old entertainer, who died Wednesday, received praise from a litany of performers from the early days of television, who themselves later influenced many contemporary comics.

Bob Hope, who will turn 99 in May, often chided Berle about his longevity and recalled an old joke he once made at his friend's expense.

"Miltie's career spanned every area of show business," Hope said. "Television, film, radio, vaudeville ... the crusades."

When he made his debut as permanent host of NBC's The Texaco Star Theater in 1948, Berle quickly had an enormous impact on the new medium, one that would last for decades. Among other things, his show was credited with boosting the sale of television sets overnight.

"He was responsible for the television set in your home today," said his publicist, Warren Cowan. "He put television on the map. On Tuesday night when his show was on, movie theaters closed that night."

"He invented much of what we're now doing in television comedy," Laugh In producer George Schlatter told KFWB Radio of Los Angeles. "He was an encyclopedia of comedy."

Pianist Roger Williams, whose hits include renditions of "The Impossible Dream" and "Born Free," said his record sales would skyrocket whenever he appeared on Berle's program.

Working with Berle, however, was not easy.

"He was a taskmaster of the highest order," Williams said. "During rehearsals he would run around with a whistle in his mouth to save his voice. But you followed his orders because he knew what he was talking about."

Don Rickles said Berle was one of his earliest comedic heroes.

"He was always a great mentor. His style of comedy will never be replaced," he said.

"Milton Berle had a great influence on most of the comedians today, including me," said former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson. "He was a true original."

Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who often attended celebrity roasts with Berle, said fellow comics would tease their elder colleague for stealing their jokes. Indeed, one of Berle's nicknames was "The Thief of Bad Gags."

"They called him Mr. Television, but his running joke of course was not that he inspired as many comedians — as he did — but that he stole from everybody," Hefner said.