It came about when I called Burns' manager, Irving Fein, to see if Burns would be willing to do an interview for the Fields film, as he co-starred in a couple of Fields pictures and knew him socially. Fein told me Burns would be unable to participate because he was getting ready for an upcoming TV special of his own. However, Fein took an interest in my background as a producer of comedy documentaries and asked if I'd be interested in compiling material for Burns' special. I was thrilled to accept the job because I knew it meant getting to spend time with Burns.
I did get to log a few hours with Burns over the next few weeks and it was a genuine kick. But what I most remember was the first time Irving Fein brought me in to meet with George in his office on the Hollywood General Studios lot. After waiting for a few moments in the lobby, Fein entered and escorted me into Burns' suite. There he was, the little guy with squinty eyes behind the round glasses, immaculately dressed and smoking one of those seemingly ever-present cigars.
"George," said Fein, "This is Bob Weide. He's going to be putting together the clips for our show. He's also producing a documentary on W.C. Fields."
Burns and I said hello and shook hands. Taking off from Fein's introduction, Burns opened by saying, "You know, I did a couple of pictures with Fields."
"I know," I said. "Big Broadcast of 1938 and International House. We have clips from both films in the picture. They're classics."
"He was a brilliant comedian" Burns offerred.
"A genius," I agreed, then added, "You know George, we've been interviewing a number of people for the Fields film and just last week we interviewed Madge Kennedy. She co-starred with Fields in the Broadway version of Poppy. She's also ninety years old. She says she was on the same vaudeville circuit as you and Gracie, and she said to say 'hello.' Do you remember her?"
"What's her name again?" he asked.
"Madge Kennedy," I said. His eyes squinted even more than usual as he filed through the yellowing cards of his mental Rolodex. "Madge Kennedy... Madge Kennedy..." he murmered; then offered up his summation:
"The name sounds familiar, but I never fucked her."
That comment, I should add, set the general level for the hour long conversation that followed, and a few subsequent ones. Ninety years old... what a guy!
When the special finally did air on January 17, 1986, it was reviewed in the L.A. Times by TV critic Lee Margulies. The very first line of the review stated, "The film clips are the best part of (the special.)" It winds up that Margulies didn't think a whole lot of the show other than the clips.
The same day that the review appeared in the Times, they also wrote up a feature story about the 26 year old producer who specialized in vintage clips of classic comedians.
The last time I saw Burns was when he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the "Just For Laughs" Comedy Festival in Montreal, probably around 1993. He said something that day that just struck my funny-bone in a way that I still chuckle whenever I recall the moment. During a brief press conference which followed the award presentation, someone asked the 97-year-old entertainer if there was anything he hadn't done yet that he'd still like to do.
Burns answered quickly as though he had already given this question a lot of thought.
"I'd like to kick the back of my head."