In 1977, the King of Comedy Was an 81-Year-Old Playing God

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In 1977, the King of Comedy Was an 81-Year-Old Playing God

Photo: Warner Bros

Hollywood is youth-obsessed, a cruel reality that explains why certain actresses stop getting cast “at a certain age.” But the ageism is even more severe when you consider how few senior citizens are bona fide movie stars. Even an icon like Clint Eastwood may no longer be able to enjoy the comfortable launchpad for his films that longtime home Warner Bros. has given him for decades. Like it or not, aging is a reality — except apparently on the big screen, where they want no proof that everyone gets older.

Some comedy legends have managed to be celebrated in their golden years. Bob Newhart is still an institution, and the late Don Rickles and Betty White were as enmeshed in pop culture as their much-younger cohorts. But none of them were major movie stars in their 70s and 80s — they weren’t the main reason audiences went to see certain movies. None of them accomplished what George Burns did.

Friday is the 45th anniversary of Oh, God!, the Oscar-nominated laugher that was well-reviewed and a huge hit. In fact, the film — about a regular guy who is contacted by God — was, outside of Smokey and the Bandit, that year’s biggest comedy smash. And it cemented Burns’ late-in-life ascension to movie stardom. He’d conquered every other medium, so why not films, too?

Not that he hadn’t been in movies before: Throughout the 1930s, Burns appeared in several, alongside his wife and creative partner Gracie Allen. The duo was billed as Burns and Allen, but he always knew who the true talent in the relationship was. “Gracie did it all,” he once said. “All I had to do was smoke a cigar and ask, ‘Gracie, how’s your brother?’” Together, they ruled vaudeville, radio and television, and after 1939’s Honolulu, he didn’t bother with film for decades. 

When Allen died in 1964 at the age of 69, Burns was 68, and no one would have blamed him if he’d decided to call it a career. Instead, he kept performing on stage and producing television series. Then, in the mid-1970s, he was approached to be in the big-screen adaptation of Neil Simon’s play The Sunshine Boys, in which he appeared alongside Walter Matthau as part of a once-titanic comedy duo who broke up years ago and must now reunite for a TV special, even though they hate each other’s guts. Burns hadn’t been in a movie in 36 years, but he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He’d recently turned 80 when he accepted the prize. “Being honored tonight by getting this award proves one thing — that if you stay in the business long enough and if you can get to be old enough, you get to be new again,” he quipped.

Ironically, The Sunshine Boys actually wasn’t that much of a hit — the blockbuster would come two years later when he signed up to play God. Written by Larry Gelbart, the man behind the TV version of M*A*S*H, Oh, God! paired Burns with country superstar John Denver, who portrayed Jerry, a husband and father living in the Valley who’s an assistant manager at a grocery store. He’s a sweet, sorta square guy who gets an invitation from the Lord to have a chat. Soon after, Burns’ God explains to Jerry that He needs him to tell people to treat each other better. The only problem is that no one believes an assistant manager at a grocery store when he insists he’s been having private conversations with the Almighty.

When God shows up in comedies, he tends to be either a cool dude (Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty) or a bit of cheeky stunt casting (Alanis Morissette in Dogma). No matter the approach, though, the idea is often to disrupt our saintly image of that magisterial man in the clouds with the long white beard — to make him more relatable, funny even. But Oh, God! (based on the book by Avery Corman) envisioned the divine being in a way we hadn’t seen before: as a wisecracking vaudevillian who’s kinda grumpy. This God doesn’t oversee everything or intervene in individuals’ lives. “Free will. All the choices are yours,” He explains to Jerry, a nonbeliever who figures he might as well get some straight answers out of the Lord. “You can love each other, cherish and nurture each other, or you can kill each other.” 

The way Burns’ Almighty sees it, He did all the hard work already — although, as He admits, He did most of creation on the last of the six days (“I’m really best under pressure”) — and now it’s up to us to be good and kind. 

With modern eyes, it’s easy to see why Oh, God! struck a chord with audiences. Coming out at a time when televangelism was on the rise — and with it, a suspicion that some religious leaders were more concerned with the almighty dollar and their own stardom than the Lord’s word — Oh, God! took aim at the hucksters, portrayed in the movie by Paul Sorvino’s hammy blowhard Reverend Willie Williams. But in the midst of an increase in secular humanism during the self-absorbed Me Decade, Oh, God! was also an appeal to viewers to think beyond themselves and embrace the possibility of a higher power. (In the movie, God complains that people are more willing to believe in the devil thanks to the recent sensation The Exorcist than believe in Him.) 

But it also helped that director Carl Reiner found in Burns and Denver an appealingly mismatched duo. Denver’s aw-shucks persona, which made him beloved in the heartland but mocked by those allergic to his corniness, was perfectly suited for Jerry’s nice-guy demeanor. Then there was Burns, who was an ideal contrast to Denver’s wimp, delivering his withering quips while proving to be infinitely hipper than his much younger costar. Although Burns didn’t look anything like the usual portraits of God, he embodied an otherworldly essence that felt kinda divine. On stage, Burns was always the straight man, the comic with pitch-perfect timing. Who says God couldn’t be sharp as a tack with a gift for a good one-liner? 

To be sure, Oh, God! is a rickety comedy. The premise is stretched thin over feature length and, inexplicably, the movie eventually turns into a dull feel-good courtroom drama. Plus, Denver doesn’t have nearly the screen presence that Burns does. But Burns’ casting was so inspired — his gravelly voice and sparky eyes instantly crafting a new way of thinking about the Lord as a jokester — that the movie’s limitations didn’t much matter. Siskel and Ebert both gave it a thumbs-up — Siskel even put it in his Top 10 of 1977 — and Gelbart earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. And in a year in which Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind cemented Hollywood’s new age of spectacle-driven event movies, Oh, God! nonetheless ended up one of the highest-grossing comedies of the period. 

This also created a strange disconnect: At a time when the young punks on Saturday Night Live like John Belushi and Bill Murray were rewriting the rules of comedy, Burns was simultaneously enjoying an unlikely victory lap as a Hollywood A-lister. Suddenly, he was a popular movie attraction, landing star vehicles such as Just You and Me, Kid and Going in Style. And he made two more God movies: 1980’s Oh, God! Book II (1980) and 1984’s Oh, God! You Devil, in which he had the dual role of God and the Devil. It sounds like he wasn’t a fan of the sequels, though: In a 1988 interview, he admitted, “The first Oh, God! movie was good. Because God would come down for John Denver. In the second movie, with the little girl, I don’t think God would bother with her.”

None of those other films was as big a commercial success as Oh, God!, but they elevated Burns’ already-prominent role in the culture, turning him into something of a sex symbol of the late 1970s and 1980s. He took this new image in stride. Speaking to Playboy, Burns defended going out with younger women, saying, “Look, I’d go out with women my age, but there are no women my age.” And in The Washington Post, he laughed at the very idea of being a ladies’ man. “Whydoya think I have my legs crossed?” he asked. “I don’t want anybody to know what I got there.” 

How many other octogenarians in the public eye were vaunted for both their jokes and their sex appeal?

Burns’ golden-years movie stardom, however, wasn’t built to last. Eventually, he returned to performing in clubs and writing the occasional memoir. He died in the spring of 1996, shortly after celebrating his 100th birthday. Who knows if there’s an afterlife, but if he lucked out and made it to the Pearly Gates, it would be pretty funny if God ended up looking (and sounding) a lot like George Burns. 

Hey, stranger things have happened — including the idea that Hollywood would actually allow a comic legend of a certain age to briefly be one of its biggest stars.

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