By New Times
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By Ray Stern
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Bob says his mother would acknowledge her friendship with Berle during those years, whenever he popped up on TV, and would freely reminisce with her kids about some of her adventures with Berle in the New York social whirl. Known to Bob as "Uncle Milton," Berle never visited, and no photos of him were kept around the house. "Maybe my mother didn't want that piece of the puzzle around," says Bob.
But at Berle's request, Bob Williams would occasionally travel to see his "uncle" perform (at venues around the New York area first, and later in Las Vegas) and meet with him backstage after shows. "My first image of my father was literally going to see his live show on Long Island, at the Westbury Music Fair," says Bob. "He was a friend of the family. It was entertainment. I was getting to meet Milton Berle, that's all.
"My first reflections are of somebody who found me interesting. He used to want to know my interests, what I was doing. He'd always bring me close, like he's looking me over. There'd be times when he'd look and stop and look back in the mirror. 'Are you listening to me? Uncle Milton's telling you the truth.'" Bob recalls the later trips to Vegas as great, coming-of-age adventures. "He'd try jokes on me he knew I didn't understand," he says. "He let me smoke my first cigar, and there were always pretty women around. I could do half of my father's act by the time I was out of high school. "I remember his coming by my room. I said, 'Aren't you a little early?' And he said, 'C'mon, c'mon, c'mon.' We went right to the casino and he started dealing. Then people would shout, 'Uncle Miltie's at the table.' Every once in a while, he let me have a taste of this other world."
Away from his father-to-be, Bob's world was high school sports, horseback riding, competitive judo, music (he's always maintained an interest in big-band jazz, fostered by Gene Williams) and part-time jobs. Interested in broadcasting as a career, Bob began to stick his foot in doors when he got out of school. He also did some sportswriting for the Scottsdale Progress. Eventually, his broadcasting aspirations would take him to on-air jobs for big-band/easy-listening KXIV-FM, big-band KLFF-FM and both the AM and FM sides of oldies outlet KOOL (his work for KOOL-AM was carried via satellite to some 50 markets). There would also be a stint in the Air Force and off-and-on employment for over ten years with the Bobby McGee's restaurant chain, for which he worked as a manager and a club deejay.
Bob saw little of his Uncle Milton during those years. Berle had married his second wife, Ruth Cosgrove, in the early 1950s, and the couple later adopted a son. Berle had earlier adopted a daughter, and Bob figures Berle was devoting most of his parental energy to them during the years that Berle and Bob drifted apart. (Says Berle: "I was with them all the time, but I've never forgotten Robert, and never will.") Bob says he began to seriously consider the possibility that Berle was more than an uncle after catching a glimpse of him on a late-night talk show in the late 1970s. "I was paying more attention to detail then," he says.
When Berle visited in the early 80s for a stand at a local dinner theatre, Bob got a chance to absorb such details. Bob helped Berle backstage during that engagement, and would walk him around the building before every show, so Berle could make a big entrance from a side door. Berle, then 72, would hold on to Bob as they slowly made their way around the structure in the darkness. "I'd catch these things, like, 'Dammit, son, I can't walk that fast,'" says Bob. Then, in 1984, came the wedding-day confession, which did not drastically change Bob's life. He continued to pursue a career in the restaurant business, moving with his new wife (the marriage lasted about a year and a half) to chase jobs with the Bobby McGee's chain in Colorado and Texas. Finally burned out on the dinner-house trade, and minus a marriage, Bob relocated back to Phoenix and got serious about his acting, broadcasting and modeling career. Since then he's handled public-address duties for the Phoenix Suns for one season (one of Bob's dreams is to do play-by-play for a Major League Baseball team; he's been the spring-training PA voice of the San Francisco Giants for several years), and he was the longtime commercial voice of America West Airlines, as well as a featured performer on an in-flight video magazine produced by the airline. He's also done featured spots in industrial films and national television commercials. Bob's r‚sum‚, which describes him as "actor, emcee, broadcaster," also lists bit parts in several movies made locally.
Bob, who now pays the rent by working at Ford & Haig, a premium-tobacco store in Scottsdale, says he has never tried standup comedy. "I'm not a good joke teller," he says. "I'm a lousy joke teller, but I can handle a one-liner here and there." The relationship between famous father and not-yet-famous son has strengthened in recent years, Bob says. The two speak on the phone regularly, and Bob travels to visit Berle in Beverly Hills several times per year. Bob, who lived half his life without knowing that his daddy was a living legend, could feel some justifiable bitterness about his situation. But he doesn't. Bob manages to retain a sense of wonder about Berle, feels fortunate to know the truth and is pleased that he's regularly invited into his father's life. In 1991, Bob helped Berle work a brief string of one-nighters around the country, on a bill with classic comics Red Buttons and Henny Youngman. Working as his dad's personal assistant, Bob says he was amazed by his father's strength on stage, and witnessed the amazing transformation Berle would make in the seconds before stepping into the spotlight. "One minute, dad was sitting down on a stool, wheezing like an old man," Bob says. "Then he became a 20-year-old kid again. It's like the energy came out of nowhere. My dad's energy is unbelievable. People sometimes forget he's 85."