Born Mendel Berlinger in Harlem on July 12, 1908, Milton Berle became the first great star of the television age. Forced into show business by an overbearing mother, Berle was appearing in silent films by the time he was six years old. In fact he appeared in the first ever feature-length comedy movie, Tillie’s Punctured Romance, which also starred a young Charlie Chaplin. In the 1920s Berle moved on to vaudeville, where he established himself as a brash, wisecracking comedian. He quickly became a headliner, doing shows on Broadway and in Hollywood throughout the World War II years. Already a giant on stage, he was only able to achieve moderate success in radio and movies. Then came his big break: television.
Milton Berle was into television from the very beginning. He became the first person ever to appear on TV in an experimental broadcast from New York in 1928. In 1948 he became the host of “Texaco Star Theatre” on NBC, one of the first variety/musical shows in the nascent medium. This show proved to become the killer app for the new technology of TV, people would buy a television for the sole purpose of watching “Uncle Milty” every Tuesday night. The show quickly became known for it’s high-energy comedy acts and outlandish characterizations, especially those featuring Berle appearing in drag. The show ran for eight years and earned him the first Emmy award.
NBC thought that Berle was so valuable that they signed him to an exclusive thirty-year contact in 1951. The network paid him $100,000 every year whether he performed or not. NBC released him from the contract in 1965, but still continued to pay him $60,000 a year. In 1960, he hosted "Jackpot Bowling Starring Milton Berle," sandwiching comedy bits between play-by-play of a bowling match. The show lasted six months. He continued to do movie roles and made guest appearances on television throughout the rest of his career, although he was never able to duplicate the success he achieved in the early years. He did receive an Emmy nomination in 1995 for a guest appearance on “Beverly Hills 90210” playing a veteran actor struggling with Alzheimer’s disease.
One of the longest standing rumors in show business was the humongous size of Milton Berle’s penis. The famous story goes that whenever anyone challenged Milton to compare sizes, he would have the other man go first, and then only pull out enough of his own to beat the other guy. Berle never denied the rumors because, hey, what guy would.
Through his life Milton Berle was married four times and eventually adopted three children. In his later years he became a devout Christian Scientist, and is the stepfather-in-law of “Night Court” actor Richard Moll.
Milton Berle died of colon cancer on March 27, 2002 at the age of 93.