A Revered Comic Into His 90s

Until just a few months ago, Milton Berle appeared at the Friars Club in Beverly Hills every weekday at noon, his custom for decades.

Positioned at one of the place's most prominent tables, he would busy himself schmoozing with fellow practitioners of the performing arts, pausing to toss out a joke or a slanderous remark at every passer-by. Each one was accepted with good humor and usually the comment, "That's our Miltie."

Such rituals were an essential part of Berle's well-being. The entertainer, who died Wednesday at 93, had been in show business since he was 5, and he loved every aspect of it, even the fleabag hotels he slept in while crossing the country as a child performer in vaudeville.

One early afternoon in spring 2000, I sat with him at the Friars Club for an interview about his storied career. His voice was crisp, but he seemed frail and acknowledged he walked with a cane and struggled with vision dimmed by a stroke.

As we chatted, club members approached Berle, one after another, offering words of commendation, like worshippers kissing the ring of the pope.

On the wall were portraits of famed Friars: Al Jolson, Ronald Reagan, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, George Jessel, Dean Martin, Jack Benny, George Burns. They seemed to underscore that Milton was one of the last of the greats.

The comic offered some jokes at the expense of his wife, Lorna, who was the joy of his later years.

"My wife has lots of money — mine," he cracked. "I'm going to be 92 in July — if she lets me."

In a serious mood, he reminisced about his mother, Sandra. Without her, he admitted, there would never have been a Milton Berle. Sandra had been frustrated in her own acting ambitions because her family considered women on the stage to be sinful.

"So she brought all her energies into me," Berle said.

She accompanied her son throughout his vaudeville travels, sitting through every show, embarrassing him by laughing loudly at every joke. She was even known to pound seatmates with an umbrella if they didn't respond to her son's antics.

Afterward, she would critique his performance, suggesting which jokes could be improved or deleted.

"My mother held on to me with a tight grip; she didn't want to lose me," Berle remarked. "I thought she had the feeling of owning me, and not wanting to be my mother but my wife. It's the old telltale story about the mother's power over her son."

Sandra did not interfere in her son's dalliances, however, and he became legendary in Hollywood for his sexual prowess. But if he appeared to grow serious about a girl, she found a way to end the infatuation. Significantly, he did not marry until he was 44.

I asked him if he still dreamed about his mother.

"All the time, all the time," he answered. "Reprimanding me, loving me, cuddling me, bawling me out, different moods."

With his mother's prodding, Berle became a star in vaudeville, Broadway musicals, radio variety shows and movies.

He might have become a colorful but half-remembered show business figure except for television. Ever ambitious, he perceived the new entertainment medium as the ideal place for all he had learned, and for several years he reigned as its most popular figure.

Toward the end of the Friars Club interview, Berle admitted the stroke had ended his long career as an entertainer. He claimed he didn't miss it: "I believe I have paid my dues. Instead of making people laugh, I want to make myself laugh."