Would there be television, if it weren’t for Milton Berle? It’s a legitimate question because, in its heyday, Berle’s Texaco Star Theater was so popular that it doubled the number of TVs in American homes. It also brought Berle to superstardom and all of its traps: Divorces, womanizing, and just throwing his rather large ego around. And, speaking of large, there are certainly enough rumors about that as well. Well then, hang on tight for some enormous facts about Milton Berle: television’s very big deal.
Milton Berle Facts
1. He Knew At An Early Age
Mendel Berlinger was born in 1908 and grew up on W. 118th Street in Harlem. His parents were as far from show business as they could be: His father sold paint and his mother was a store detective. Berlinger didn’t like the sound of his name so, at the tender age of 16, he changed it to a more show biz-friendly moniker: Milton Berle. Like a fortune-teller, he somehow knew that fame was in his future.
2. He Made An Impression
Berle’s first foray into show business occurred when he was just five years old. Young Berle entered the kid’s division of a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest and took home the trophy—a tin cup. This minor success led Berle to be a child model for Buster Brown shoes and, with the help of his pushy stage mother Sarah, he then struck gold: a role in a silent picture.
3. He Had A Terrifying First Gig
It wasn’t much of a stretch for young Berle to play the role of “little boy” in his first motion picture. However, he almost went ballistic when he found out what he had to do in the film. The movie, The Perils of Pauline, had big plans for the five-year-old Berle. The director told little Miltie that Pauline would save him—but only after he fell from a moving train.
4. He Had A Double
Berle was more than terrified about his crash landing from a moving locomotive, but he was about to learn a valuable lesson about movie-making—all is not what it seems. Of course, Berle would have a double who would fall from the train for him. When Berle asked to meet the person who would play him in this dangerous stunt, the director just pointed to a bag of rags on the floor.
5. He Became A Master
With his mother’s insistence, Berle bounced around from silent film to silent film and then ended up enrolled in the Professional Children’s School: a kind of prep school for entertainers. From what he learned at this school, Berle found a new home: Vaudeville. He started at the tender age of 12 and by 16 he was already appearing as a master of ceremonies.
Milton Berle was just a kid, but he was headed for the top. How long before you think it started going to his head?
6. He Was A Ticket
Berle’s father hadn’t been much of a provider, so his mother saw something in young Milton that maybe others didn’t see: a meal ticket for her family. Sarah Berle—she actually took his fake name—left her husband back at home with the other kids, and took young Milton on the road from Vaudeville show to Vaudeville show. Sarah, however, didn’t stop at just promoting her son—she had some tricks up her sleeve that would make him a star.
7. He Didn’t Keep Time
Berle soon found himself on Broadway in Florodora. In the show, he was performing a dance number in a line with a group of boys and keeping perfect timing with the other members. But Berle’s mother had an outrageous idea. She told Berle to purposefully keep one of his feet out of step with the other kids on stage. The audience went crazy with laughter and the producers, instead of blowing their top, asked him to do it every night.
Milton Berle made people laugh, and they rewarded him for it. He’d never stop from that day on.
8. He Was Shoved Into Fame
We’ll forgive you if you don’t know that much about Al Jolson, but when Berle was a kid, no one was more famous. That made one of little Milton’s talents extremely valuable; he mastered a great (and probably super cute) impression of him. Sarah Berle wanted the world to see it, so she came up with a scheme. The mother and son attended a Jolson performance, but not to just sit in the audience.
In the middle of the show, she tossed 12-year-old Berle on stage right next to Jolson and made him perform. Lucky for them, Jolson was a good sport, and the crowd adored him!
9. He Grew Up Fast
Being a preteen amongst Vaudeville performers was a highly irregular upbringing. Sure his mom was there to protect him, but those Vaudevillians were a pretty rough bunch. Berle’s rites of passage weren’t like other kids. They were a whole lot more scandalous. In fact, he claims to have lost his virginity at the tender age of 12—and with a chorus girl no less.
10. He Stood Up
Vaudeville, and his insistent mother, led Berle to his true calling: stand-up comedy. In this milieu, Berle certainly shined. He played nightclubs and bars and seemed to be willing to do anything for laughter and applause. But while audiences knew him for his hilarious antics, his fellow comedians knew him for something much more sinister.
11. He Quite Literally Stole The Show
While Berle was raking in the laughs—and presumably the bucks—his fellow comedians started to notice something odd about his act. Some of his gags seemed a little familiar. In fact, what they noticed was that Berle was blatantly taking jokes and comic gags from other comedians. This resulted in a not-so-kind nickname for Berle.
12. He Got Called Out
Berle was quite up front about borrowing jokes from other comedians. However, this didn’t stop newspaper columnist Walter Winchell from penning Berle’s nickname: the “Thief of Bad Gags.” Berle didn’t dispute it. In fact, he once said, after watching a rival comedian’s act: “I laughed so hard I nearly dropped my pencil.” Well, Berle wouldn’t be laughing for long.
13. He Messed With The Wrong Fella
One night, Berle’s act brought on a rather serious situation. He was doing standup and began teasing a man in the audience—something often done by comedians. Berle, however, didn’t know that the recipient of his insults was the last person he should’ve been making fun of: a known gangster. Later that night, Berle received something more serious than an insult—he got eight stitches. The gangster had stuck a fork in Berle: twice.
14. He Was An Inspiration
Even though Berle was unscrupulously borrowing others’ material, he did manage to inspire a rising star. Allen Konigsberg was only 14 when he met his hero at a magic shop in New York City. Konigsburg failed to amuse Berle with his clumsy card trick, but he did go on to become Woody Allen and have a not-so-bad career of his own—although not without his own scandals.
15. He Got A Shock
While Berle wasn’t busy stealing jokes or getting forked, he still had plenty of other seedy pastimes. He claims to have had an affair with an aspiring actress whom he only mentioned by the pseudonym Linda Smith. Apparently, a while after their liaison, Berle was looking at a newspaper and he had a start—Smith was in the newspaper holding a baby. Berle assumed the child was his, but never bothered to meet him. Maybe this was what inspired Berle to do what he did next.
16. He Did Double Time
Berle finally decided to settle down, and the 1940s saw him getting married…twice. In 1941 he married Joyce Matthews, a showgirl. I know what you’re thinking: A marriage between a shady comic and a showgirl, what could go wrong? Apparently, a lot. The two divorced in 1947, but don’t worry: Two years later, Berle was walking down the aisle again—with the same woman!
They evidently wanted to give it one more chance. Looks like it wasn’t worth it, though. They “re-divorced” in 1950.
17. He Got Forgotten
Berle alleges that between his two marriages to Matthews, he was a busy man. One star he says that kept him very busy was Marilyn Monroe. A few years later, Berle co-starred with Monroe in 1960’s Let’s Make Love. Berle tried to start things up again, but Monroe said she had literally no memory of being with Berle. Yikes.
18. He Defrocked A Saint
As you’ll see, Berle claims to have slept with many women. Some were more shocking than others. Aimee Semple McPherson, AKA Sister Aimee, was a Canadian Pentecostal Evangelist who had a soft spot for Hollywood. After allegedly faking her own kidnapping, all kinds of accusations against her came out—including an affair with Berle.
Of course, the source of the rumor was Berle himself, but what did Sister Aimee have to say about it? She adamantly denied it.
19. It Wasn’t Just The Secret That Was Big
There was one secret about Berle that explained why he was so lucky with the ladies: The countless stories about how well endowed he was. In fact, when a stranger challenged him to a bet of whose was larger, a friend of Berle’s famously said: “Go on, Milton, just take out enough to win.” Apparently, you had to see it to believe it—but that was true about Berle too.
20. He Had A Face For Radio
Berle tried all his might to be a success on radio—but he couldn’t make it work. It’s not that Berle was too handsome for radio—hardly. It turned out that it was his slapstick gestures and the way he contorted his face—all invisible on radio—that made him stand out as a stand-up. Audiences needed to see Berle, and not just hear him. If only there was a way to make that happen…
21. He Influenced An Industry
Back in the late 1940s, television was still in its infancy and many Americans didn’t even own a set. But when Berle started hosting the Texaco Star Theater variety show in 1948, suddenly Americans wanted to own a TV. It was, in fact, this same year when American TV ownership reached a milestone: one million homes had them—the figure had literally doubled. Was this because of Berle? Evidence would suggest so.
22. He Owned Tuesday Evenings
Not only did Berle’s Texas Star Theater increase the number of TVs in America, it also made making plans for a Tuesday night near impossible. Of course, this was well before VCRs, DVR, and streaming services: If you weren’t home on Tuesday at 8 pm to watch Milton Berle, you didn’t get to see it, period. So yeah, Milton Berle was kind of a big deal—but his popularity was even more insane than you realize.
23. He Canceled A Day
Eventually, Americans became so addicted to Tuesday nights with Milton Berle that he boasted an incredible 97% Nielsen rating. This huge proportion of audiences sitting in front of their TV sets caused theaters, restaurants, and other businesses to do something drastic: They closed their doors during Berle’s show. Audiences’ loyalty to Berle’s show even solved a mystery at the Detroit Water Commission.
24. He Solved a Mystery
The Detroit Water Commission had a puzzle: Why were water levels dropping drastically on Tuesdays between 9:00 and 9:05 pm? What was happening during this five-minute span? It turned out that Americans were putting off that visit to the washroom until Uncle Miltie had finished his show—and then all went at the same time. When you’re affecting Detroit’s water supply, you know you’ve hit the big time.
But even as Berle became one of the most famous men in the nation, he never stopped pushing boundaries.
25. He Was A Drag
When Berle donned women’s clothes for a gag, it became obvious why he didn’t belong on radio—the audience loved it. But doing drag back then wasn’t like what you see today. No, it usually involved a not so handsome man, dressed up to look like an even less attractive woman: the inevitable hilarity would ensue. But more than laughs, there was something actually dangerous about Berle’s drag performances.
26. He Broke The Law
A man dressing up as a woman was actually against the law in the 1950s. So, why was Berle allowed to do it? The reason is truly awful. As long as he made very clear he was not gay, he was allowed to do drag—as this was the subtext of the anti-drag law. As long as you were straight you could get away with dressing as a woman. It turns out that Berle had more outdated laws to contend with.
27. He Challenged A Policy
Berle had the intention of booking the tap-dancing troupe, The Four Step Brothers. The problem was, Texaco didn’t want the brothers on the show for yet another depressing reason: because they were black. However, this time, Berle stood up. He went ahead and booked the quartet, then waited to see what would happen. Sure, Berle had gained the moniker Mr. Television, but could he actually stand up to the oil giant Texaco?
28. He Made A Threat
The show was going to start in ten minutes, and Texaco still hadn’t approved the all-black dance troupe, The Four Step Brothers. Berle was adamant they would perform, but Texaco wasn’t budging. Moments before showtime, Berle made his now-famous threat: “If they don’t go on, I don’t go on.” What could Texaco do? Without Berle, there was no show. The Four Step Brothers performed and broke the color-line policy.
Turns out, there might have been a little more to Uncle Miltie than stealing jokes and claiming to have slept with women.
29. He Had A Plant
Berle had an underhanded method for making all his jokes bring the house down. In the live tapings of The Texas Star Theater, audience members started to notice a particular laugh: Some said it was piercing, others called it roof shaking. Whatever it was, it seemed to make the whole audience join in. The truth behind the laugh, however, was very close to home: The laugher was his mother Sarah.
But Sarah Berle didn’t just bring laughter to her son’s shows. She was starting to have a much darker influence on his life.
30. She Couldn’t Stop Him
Berle’s mother wasn’t only meddling in Berle’s on stage performance, she seemed to have a rather firm hold on his love life as well. Berle blamed her for his two divorces to Mathews, but somehow he got the courage to marry again. This time it was publicist and actor Ruth Cosgrove. It would only be a matter of time to see what Mrs. Berle would do with this one.
In the meantime, Berle had a special medicine to help him deal with his interfering mother.
31. He Pushed Drugs
Before the 1970s record consumption of Valium, there was a little something called Miltown. Miltown was a tranquilizer and Berle was a big user. Such a big user that he began to promote its use on his TV show. Due mostly to Berle’s popularity, in 1956, one in twenty Americans was using it. Berle’s promotion of the drug even earned yet another nickname: Uncle Miltown.
32. He Got Critiqued
In the mid-1950s, Berle’s TV show started to lose its popularity. One critic, W. J. Weatherby, wrote that Berle’s jokes were no longer working. Weatherby went on to say that Berle was clearly trying too hard, and people didn’t eat it up like they used to. TV viewers were becoming more sophisticated and wanted a subtler comedy. Berle didn’t react well to this review—to say the least.
33. He Made A Call
Berle read the review about his show’s—and indeed his own—failure and did something few celebrities bothered to do: He called the writer. Berle was very up front with Weatherby and asked him why he was being so critical. The call from Berle obviously stunned Weatherby, but what also surprised him was just how vulnerable to criticism this huge star was.
There was clearly a crack in Mr. Television’s armor. Things only went downhill from here.
34. He Went Head To Head
By 1956, Berle’s variety show had had two name changes, a sponsor change, and was generally seen as coming to its natural end. But rival station CBS wanted to make that happen sooner. To do this, it scheduled a show featuring Berle’s buddy and regular co-performer, Phil Silvers. It was the nail in the coffin. The Milton Berle Show called it quits at the end of the 1955-56 season.
It should have been a chance for a fresh start—but Berle just kept spiraling to rock bottom.
35. He Went Live On Saturday Night
After a long stretch of so-so guest appearances, Berle got a huge invite: Saturday Night Live. Berle was 71 years old at the time, so this meant a bridge between Berle’s old school Vaudeville-inspired comedy and the new hip humor of the 1970s. So, how did it go? Let’s just say that the bridge, instead of spanning a gap, crashed and burned.
36. He Took Over
Berle didn’t get that his role on SNL was more guest and less dictator. He had tons of ideas and didn’t take too kindly to producer Lorne Michaels’ objections. He was downright condescending to Michaels, who probably already had a pretty firm handle on what worked on his hugely popular show. From there, things got really weird.
37. He Let It All Hang Out
Alan Zweibel, one of the writers on SNL, was a big fan of Berle’s and was thrilled to be working with him. The two were talking in a dressing room one day, and Zweibel mentioned the rumors of how well endowed Berle was. Berle shocked Zweibel by opening up his robe and proving that the rumors were true. It was at that inopportune moment that SNL regular Gilda Radner walked into the room. Oops.
38. He Went Back In Time
Saturday Night Live was introducing Americans to a new and hipper brand of humor. But when Berle got on stage for his opening monologue, he turned back the clock. His jokes came from a different era: He made fun of Puerto Ricans, homosexuals, and even Dolly Parton’s physique. This was bad enough, but what he did at the end of his monologue got him suspended for life.
39. He Planted An Audience
Berle ended his SNL monologue with a heartfelt speech about his career in show business. That was bad enough, but what Berle had done beforehand was to load the audience with supporters. When Berle finished his speech, his planted members stood up for a heartfelt standing ovation. The SNL audience members not in on the plant embarrassingly stayed in their seats.
To say Lorne Michaels wasn’t amused is a huge understatement.
40. He Made A Bad List
After Berle’s disastrous turn on SNL, producer Lorne Michaels banned him from ever hosting again. Michaels also refused to let NBC air Berle’s episode, as it wasn’t good for the show’s reputation. Throughout his career, Berle has earned plenty of accolades and made plenty of lists, but this is one he’d rather not be on: Michaels always remembered him as one of the worst hosts in SNL’s history. Still not as bad as Steven Seagal though.
41. He Pulled A Kanye
The worst thing you could do to Milton Berle is let someone else take his limelight. And that’s why he’s the last person you should ask to give out an award. At the 1982 Emmys, Berle had just handed trophies out to the writers of sketch comedy show SCTV. His job should have been over—but Berle had something to say about that. He couldn’t help but interrupt the acceptance speech given by SCTV writer and actor Joe Flaherty.
Eventually, Flaherty turned to Uncle Miltie and told him to go to sleep.
42. He Revitalized
In 1985, when he was 77 years old, Berle had quadruple bypass heart surgery. Instead of slowing him down, the surgery seemed to revitalize his career. He followed the operation with gigs in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, and a 1988 made-for-TV movie called Side By Side with comedy legend Sid Caesar. Maybe not surprisingly, the comedic movie was about old guys revitalizing their careers.
Unfortunately, Berle was about to learn the hard way that show business wasn’t what it used to be…
43. He Returned To Radio
Not long after the surgery, Berle got back behind the microphone on Howard Stern’s radio show. Stern always wanted to shock both his audience and his guests, so he planned to relentlessly hit Berle with question after question about a certain part of his anatomy: The one often compared to a python. Stern didn’t seem to be able to let go of the topic.
When they started taking callers, Berle probably heaved a sigh of relief. Little did he know, Stern had a little “surprise” for him.
44. They Asked About His Member
A regular part of the Howard Stern Radio Show was the questions from callers—and it often got pretty heated. Stern had a secret plan to make the episode even more extreme. Stern told his producer to only air callers who had something to ask about Berle’s member. Berle took it in good fun, but there was nothing fun about what happened next.
45. He Faced A Tragedy
Sadly, Berle’s second wife Ruth Cosgrove passed in 1989. That same year, Berle opened up about his mother’s negative influence on his love life. He said that his mother never liked him dating a woman more than about three times. After that, she disapproved. Well, this fact didn’t stop Berle from wedding again. She was Lorna Adams and 30 years his junior.
46. RuPaul Destroyed Him
Just because Berle married someone young, didn’t mean he fit in with young people. During the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards, Berle appeared with drag queen extraordinaire RuPaul. Berle made a comment about how he used to wear dresses too and RuPaul dryly replied that sure Berle had worn dresses, but now he was in diapers. Berle wasn’t about to let this one go.
47. He Wasn’t Very PC
Berle followed up to RuPaul’s insult wasn’t pretty. He groped RuPaul’s breasts, and then went ahead and ran wild with his use of pronouns, calling RuPaul a she-he. When they were ready to leave the stage, Berle tried to grab RuPaul’s elbow in order to walk off together. RuPaul was having none of that and swiped her elbow away.
Honestly, that ended about as well as it could have.
48. He Was A Lousy Father
In 1999, Berle’s adopted son wrote a tell-all memoir about him called My Father, My Uncle. In it, William Berle seems intent on rattling off a rather long list of grievances—mostly that his father lacked involvement in his life. But he did go into specifics on one story—and it was pretty disturbing. William shared the story of his father paying for his first intimate experience with a woman—so I guess he showed a little interest in his son’s life.
49. He Went Mum
William aired his displeasure with his father in his memoir—but he was just getting started. He seemed to enjoy poking fun at his father as he aged, calling him “a pathetic has-been.” He even described the layers of makeup Berle hid behind as he got older. And what was Berle’s response to this memoir? He resolved to never speak to his son again as long as he lived—which wouldn’t be that long.
50. He Made An Announcement
In 2001, Berle made a sad announcement. He said that doctors had found a malignant tumor in his colon. Apparently, the tumor was growing so slowly that Berle refused to have surgery. His wife, who clearly wasn’t a doctor, said that the tumor wouldn’t impact Berle’s life for another 10 to 12 years. Boy, did she get that wrong.
51. He Didn’t Get His Wish
Almost one year to the day of Berle’s colon cancer announcement, Berle passed in Los Angeles. The doctors and his wife had somehow gotten it wrong. In what must’ve been an affront to his current wife, Berle had stated that he wanted his remains laid to rest alongside his second wife—Ruth Cosgrove. In fact, he’d put Cosgrove’s remains in a double crypt just for that purpose.
Sadly, that didn’t happen. Berle’s current wife, Adams, put her foot down: The burial would take place at Hillside Cemetery.
52. He Doesn’t Rest Easy
At the time of his demise, Berle was still not speaking to his son William because of the hurtful remarks in William’s memoir. So, it was a shock when it was William who contested the Hillside burial site. William Berle gave two reasons for his opposition: His father couldn’t possibly reside next to or even near his nemesis Al Jolson and, in what sounded a little like one of Berle’s typical one-liners: It was too close to the airport. What, the planes are going to keep him awake?
Milton Berle’s burial site is at Hillcrest Memorial Park, conveniently located just eight minutes from LAX.