Rediscovering ‘Uncle Miltie’

Guest Blog: A look back at "Mr. Television" himself, Milton Berle, given to making his point with a kiss

Old Jewish comedians underscored a point by kissing you. You had better reciprocate. Male, female — it didn’t matter.

I don’t know when I first met Milton Berle, which is unusual for me. Sure, in my first Manhattan job, he was a visitor to the Madison Avenue building where I worked for Rogers & Cowan, and he entertained everyone as he rode the elevator. But it was in California that he came into my life.

I had read his autobiography and wanted to know who his mystery son was. I actually asked him, and he shook his head and made an old Jewish man’s tsk-ing sound, shaking his finger.

The tabloids later revealed that at least one son did exist, not in show business, and was the progeny of a brief affair with a ’40s starlet named Junior Standish. But later still, Berle said that was mystery son #2, and #1 was an older man, a known Hollywood producer who did not know that Milton was his dad. It will be revealed one day. Everything is.

A legendary womanizer, he grabbed the face of my attractive 25-year-old assistant and asked, “Do you find me remotely attractive, or am I just an old man to you?” No dummy, she said, “I find you adorable.”

He grabbed a stack of inter-office memo pads from her desk and held them in the air. “See what is printed at the bottom of each inter-office memo? ‘Put It in Writing.’ I’m responsible! I told Abe Lastfogel 40 years ago to print that on the bottom of each inter-office memo ’cause agents forget and buyers lie.”

Berle had another reason to visit. He had a favorite novel he believed should become a TV movie. He wanted me to help him put it together. He gave me the book “To Sit on a Horse” and said he wanted to star in and produce it. I read it. Written by former TV writer-producer Al Morgan, who had written one of my favorite movies, “The Great Man” (based on the life of Arthur Godfrey, also the inspiration for “Face in the Crowd”), Morgan was retired and living in Vermont. In a pre-internet era I somehow tracked him down and we spoke over the phone.

“Milton’s a fine actor, he’d be perfect,” Morgan said. We structured an option agreement. The novel had a simple plot: Father and son had a fractured relationship. Father had been a vaudevillian, a failed actor, a Hollywood extra who never got the break. Not a great provider. Son was a major industry force, a producer who made extravaganzas. Son was making his next, which had a massive army of mounted cavalry. All Father wanted was a chance to be in the film, just to “sit on a horse” in a major scene. Son resisted. I no longer have any idea of how the story ends.

I decided that Stu Samuels at ABC would like this premise. While I believed the premise “thin,” two other theatrical films ultimately were produced with similar themes — Gary Marshall’s “Nothing in Common” and Henry Winkler’s “Memories of Me,” so at least two filmmakers thought it not so thin (although “Memories” is so close to the Morgan book without credit that one wonders about plagiarism).

I set the date and told Milton to come by the office, as I would escort him to ABC in Century City. It was July, in the high 80s when Milton arrived wearing a cashmere overcoat with a hat, gloves and scarves. He said immediately, “One of the greatest gifts I learned from my beloved mother was to dress properly to avoid colds. Colds shorten your life.” I would learn that Milton always wore a coat — even to the beach.

Stu Samuels loved Milton’s stories and even seemed to react positively to his pitch of the Al Morgan novel. Milton told Samuels that he wanted to rename the story “Next to Closing,” which is what the lesser vaudeville acts aspired to but never achieved. It was the headliners spot. Stu mentioned that his parents played in vaudeville sharing a bill with a very young Berle. “They were next to closing.”

In the car back to the office Milton said, “I wonder if his mother was Rae Samuels? Or Al and Rae Samuels? Sharing a bill? Next to closing? In their dreams!”

I called Stu and told him that Milton remembered his parents fondly. I told Milton and he was horrified, believing I had quoted him accurately. So when Stu passed on developing a script based on Morgan’s book, Milton said, “You killed it. You told him what I said and that killed it.” I asked him, “Milton, do you think I have a brain?  I told him you adored his mother … He just thought the premise too thin for two hours. We can visit CBS and NBC. OK?”

(Editor’s note: In an email in February 2021, Samuels said that his mother was not the actress Rae Samuels but Mildred Samuels, who performed with her sister Ruth as the Collette Sisters. “I myself have no memory at all of this meeting,” Samuels wrote, adding, “Berle just was not a name anymore in the ’80s, so that even if I did meet with him it would only have been as a favor to Axelman.”)

But Milton got an acting gig and never brought up the novel again.

An “Abbott” of the Friars, he was shocked that I was not a member, and he filled out an application for me to join the Beverly Hills branch. The late Tony Ford also signed. I never went ahead with it and still have the signed application as a memento I treasure.

I next saw Milton at the New York Friars’ roast of Buddy Hackett. He walked over to me as Buddy was kissing me on the cheek. Hackett was moved to see me at the event. Milton was surprised as well.

“The office sent you out for this?” he said, feigning outrage. You never showed up at my roast!” “Milton, I didn’t know you then … I promise to be there when they roast you again.”

“I’ll hold you to it.” He then hugged and kissed me. “We’re good?” I asked.

“Of course. You’re my new favorite agent.”

“Put it in writing!” I yelled.

For the record: This piece was updated to include Stu Samuels’ response to the author’s account of the meeting.