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THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD--AND GOT LAUGHS DOING IT


George Burns was 100 years old when he died in 1996, and I have a feeling he was smoking cigars and making people laugh right up to the very end. He certainly made me laugh when I interviewed him for The New York Times in 1977. --GUY FLATLEY

 

"To be perfectly honest, I don’t think acting is very hard. They say the most important thing is to be able to laugh and cry. Well, if I have to cry, I think of my sex life, and if I have to laugh, I think of my sex life.”

Nevertheless, in his next film, George Burns, who won an Oscar for his dramatic debut at the age of 80 in “The Sunshine Boys,” will be faced with a challenge which would reduce lesser actors to quakes of inadequacy. Starting next month, he will play the title role in “Oh, God!,” Larry Gelbart’s comedy-drama which will be produced by Jerry Weintraub, directed by Rob Reiner, and co-star a non-singing John Denver as the spiritually troubled supermarket manager who is given a comforting pat on the shoulder by the divine, down-to-earth Mr. Burns.

Playing it strictly human in his dressing room at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, the octogenarian showman volunteered some choice comments on his latest movie assignment. “I don’t think I’ll smoke a cigar in the movie,” he said, “because I don’t think God smokes. And I plan to play this role without makeup. There won’t be any love interest, either, because – as far as I know – God was never married. This is a bigger and tougher role than I had in ‘The Sunshine Boys,’ so I’ll have to do a little studying. I’ve done soft-shoe before, but this is the first time that I’ve ever played God, and there will be a lot of long speeches. But, as Spencer Tracy once said, ‘All you have to do is remember your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.’”

Although acting appears to be a snap for Mr. Burns, many viewers were astonished by the warmth and depth he brought to the role of the ex-vaudevillian in “The Sunshine Boys.” How did he go about picking a follow-up to his initial dramatic triumph?

“Well, how many jobs are there for a man of 80? The part in 'The Sunshine Boys' fitted my age, but the truth is I’m a little older than God. Let’s face it, I enjoy doing anything in show business. This business has been good to me. What other business is there where a man my age can walk out on a stage, smoke a cigar, sing a few songs, tell a few jokes, and wear lipstick? Also, I’m tickled to death to be working with John Denver. He’s a nice little actor. Besides, he sings in my key.”