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The Sunshine Boys was a defining moment for George Burns. Despite being a successful performer for decades, the film offered a new comedic challenge that lead to a career rejuvenation.
“It was the greatest experience of my life. I’ve never done a movie like that. I’ve never played a character before,” Burns said. “Imagine doing a script by Neil Simon and getting money to do it.”
Prior to the 1975 film, his last movie role was the narrator for The Solid Gold Cadillac in 1956.
When the part came up, Burns jokingly recalled praying to his late wife Gracie Allen for a little supernatural help.
“Gracie, maybe you can help, maybe you can put in a good word for me up there. But don't bother the head man, he's very busy. Talk to his son, and be sure to tell him I'm Jewish too.”
Burns’ co-stars were not only excited to work with the legendary comedian but also found him to be a complete professional.
Richard Benjamin (who Burns took out to lunch every day) said, “Everyone is intently studying their scripts, but not George – he’s drifting into space, which has me really worried until his first line, when he snaps to attention. He had memorized the entire script and never had to open it!’’
Walter Matthau also enjoyed his co-star and said, “I thought the whole experience was totally delightful. The man I was working with, of course, is a legend.”
For his performance, Burns received his first and only Academy Award nomination and win for Best Supporting Actor.
In his acceptance speech, he said, “This is a beautiful moment for me… And 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.”
Along with earning him an Oscar, his performance also led to another iconic role – that of God. Larry Gelbart, known for adapting M*A*S*H for television, saw Burns and knew he would be perfect to lead Oh, God! – perhaps Burns’ most memorable part.