Humor Mixed with Wisdom Marked His Life

In an affectionate and uncontrived way, Martin Gottfried's biography, ''George Burns and The Hundred Year Dash,'' pays tribute to the wily comedian who climbed from a humble beginning to become one of the world's best - and longest - loved entertainers.

It's a love story in three parts: Burns's love for show business; his love for Gracie Allen; and his love for good friends, such as Jack Benny.

The book is peppered with humorous, telltale anecdotes and inside stories that capture Burns - mischievous but sweet, witty but wise. Burns began to dance and sing for neighbors at age 6. He didn't really become successful until he teamed up with Gracie Allen in the 1920s. They sang together, danced, and joked their way from vaudeville to radio to television, until her retirement. She passed away in 1964.

Burns loved to entertain, not only on stage, but off. Gottfried relates the story of the couple's wedding night. Soon after they fell asleep, the phone rang. It was Jack Benny calling to congratulate them.

''Burns was never too sleepy to fool with Jack, and said, 'We would like breakfast at 10 o'clock. Up in the room. Scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and marmalade....' Then he hung up. A few moments later, the telephone rang again. 'I know it's late, Nat [Burns's real name was Nathan Birnbaum], but it's me. Jack. Why did you hang up? I wanted to congratulate you and ....' 'And don't forget the orange juice,' George said, hanging up again. Only after the third call did he let his pal finish congratulating him. By then, Jack almost couldn't get it out, for laughing so hard.''

Burns kept reinventing himself. Gottfried takes the reader through Burns's Las Vegas shows, movies, as well as the books he wrote. His favorite was Burns's seventh, ''Gracie: A Love Story,'' (Putnam) It opens ''For forty years my act consisted of one joke. And then she died.''

Gottfried pays homage, but he's also honest - he reveals, for example, that Burns was unfaithful to Gracie. But it's a fine tribute - to the gravelly voiced man who kept remaking himself.


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