“If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.”
~a.k.a.: UNCLE MILTIE
Milton Berlinger was born into a Jewish family in a five-story walkup at 68 W. 118th Street in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan. He chose Milton Berle as his professional name when he was 16. His father, Moses Berlinger (1873–1938), was a paint and varnish salesman. His mother, Sarah (Sadie) Glantz Berlinger (1877–1954), eventually became stagestruck and changed her name to Sandra Berle when Milton became famous.
Berle entered show business at the age of five when he won an amateur talent contest. He appeared as a child actor in silent films, beginning with The Perils of Pauline, filmed in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The director told Berle that he would portray a little boy who would be thrown from a moving train. In Milton Berle: An Autobiography, he explained, "I was scared shitless, even when he went on to tell me that Pauline would save my life. Which is exactly what happened, except that at the crucial moment they threw a bundle of rags instead of me from the train. I bet there are a lot of comedians around today who are sorry about that."
By Berle's account, he continued to play child roles in other films: Bunny's Little Brother, Tess of the Storm Country, Birthright, Love's Penalty, Divorce Coupons and Ruth of the Range. Berle recalled, "There were even trips out to Hollywood—the studios paid—where I got parts in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, with Mary Pickford; The Mark of Zorro, with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Tillie's Punctured Romance, with Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand and Marie Dressler."
However, Berle's claims to have appeared in many of these films, particularly the 1914 Chaplin Keystone comedy Tillie's Punctured Romance, are hotly disputed by some, who cite the lack of supporting evidence that Berle even visited the West Coast until much later. The newsboy role often claimed by Berle in Tillie was unquestionably played by resident Keystone child actor Gordon Griffith.
In 1916, Berle enrolled in the Professional Children's School, and at age 12 he made his stage debut in Florodora. After four weeks in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the show moved to Broadway. It catapulted him into a comedic career that spanned eight decades in nightclubs, Broadway shows, vaudeville, Las Vegas, films, television, and radio.
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