THERE WAS SOMETHING FUNNY ABPIT "UNCLE MILTIE"AFTER 42 YEARS, MILTON BERLE AND HIS SECRET LOVE CHILD-SCOTTSDALE'S BOB WILLIAMS-TELL THEIR STORY
Junior Standish met Milton Berle in 1947 at the Riviera nightclub in New York City, where she was a showgirl. Berle, headlining at the Roxy theatre, was on the verge of becoming a huge celebrity, the first television star. Standish was a beautiful dancer, "the toast of Broadway," in Berle's words.
"I wasn't married; neither was she," says Berle, interviewed via telephone from his Beverly Hills home. "Who was to say what's to do and who to keep company with? I courted her . . . we went together. We spoke about marriage . . . it never worked out.
"We had a romance, et cetera, et cetera."
Meet Bob Williams, one of those et ceteras.
Williams--a local broadcaster, actor and the manager of a Scottsdale tobacco store--is Milton Berle's love child by Junior Standish, a fact Williams didn't learn until age 33 and a fact the world didn't learn until late July, when Berle spilled the beans to a supermarket tabloid.
Williams, now 42, had been keeping a lid on his celebrity lineage to protect the privacy of his mother, who now lives in Scottsdale under a different name. But Berle's story in the Star tabloid has changed all of that, and Williams has, for the first time, agreed to tell his story. Most of it, at least.
The most telling evidence of Williams' tale is his face. When Bob Williams smiles, Milton Berle inhabits the laugh lines around his eyes, and the son's kisser becomes the father's.
For much of his life, Williams believed that his father was Gene Williams, a big-band singer and bandleader whom Standish married shortly after her romance with Berle ended. Berle was known to Bob Williams for most of his life as "a friend of the family" who would send for the boy from Las Vegas a couple of times every year.
Bob began to wonder about his parentage while in his late 20s, when he first held a photo of Berle next to his own image in a mirror. But his notions weren't validated until the morning of his own wedding in 1984, when Berle, invited to town for the function, asked Bob to join him for a wedding-day breakfast in the actor's suite at the Registry resort.
When Bob arrived at the hotel, Berle was already finished with his cereal with bananas, and had started on the first cigar of the day. Bob recalls that Berle was still wearing his nightclothes. "He said, 'I've got to tell you something.'
"I said, 'What?' I knew right then what he was going to say.
"He looked at me and says, 'I'm your father.'
"My answer was, 'I know.' "He said, 'I've been wanting to tell you for a long, long time. I wanted you to know, and I'm very proud of you.'
"He was very quiet, almost tearful, heartfelt. I was very choked up. He smiled. 'How'd you know? Did your mother tell you?' "I said, 'No. I'd been thinking about it. I just had a feeling.'
"Then, bam, it's another day. He's completely off the subject, onto something else completely. 'So, are you excited about the wedding?'"
A few hours later, Berle punctuated the completion of the wedding ceremony with a brisk "Mazel!", then retreated to a Scottsdale jazz bar for the reception. Bob remembers his dad holding court there, saying, "I love this place. It was never new."
Also in attendance, naturally, was Junior Standish, Bob's mother. After the bride and groom cut their wedding cake, she approached her son, crying. "I just wanted to tell you that Milton's your father," she said.
Now doubly informed, Bob was still left with the task of informing his wife that any children produced by their union would be Milton Berle's grandchildren. He waited to pass on this news until the couple arrived at its honeymoon destination, Sedona. "It was kind of stunning for both of us," says Bob.
Equally stunning, to Bob, at least, was his father's revelation to the Star tabloid a few weeks ago. "SECRET MILTON BERLE HEARTACHE," the headline screamed. "I CAN'T TELL MY LOVE CHILD I'M HIS FATHER."
An ironic touch: The "love child" referred to in the headline is not Bob Williams. Milton Berle has two love children. According to Berle, the Star approached him to be interviewed about his 80 years in show business. But the reporter got the legendary comic sidetracked into a discussion about his other love child, this one a 55-year-old, entertainment-industry figure whose identity Berle has never revealed.
The story of love child No. 1 is well-known in Hollywood. In fact, Berle built his 1974 autobiography around the tale. Known to the public only as "Larry," this love child is the product of a late-1930s coupling of Berle and a "starlet who wanted to get ahead," in the Star's words. To this day, "Larry" (now a "Hollywood power broker," according to the Star) doesn't know that Berle is his dad, and Berle has vowed to take the secret to his grave.
The love child No. 2 bombshell--namely, Bob Williams--was introduced midway through the Star piece cataloguing Berle's grief about the "Larry" situation, which Berle described as "the saddest thing in my life." "It's different with Bob," Berle told the Star. "We see each other and have a good relationship. He's handsome and bright, and I'm very proud of him." Says Berle of the story: "I didn't intend to talk about it, but I was in the mood that day. I spilt out everything."
Until July, Bob Williams and Milton Berle had always agreed that mum would be the word, to protect the privacy of Bob's mom. Some of her privacy remains intact. Bob would cooperate with New Times only if the newspaper agreed not to print her new name or attempt to interview her. Few of Standish's Arizona friends know the details of her background, and, at age 68, she apparently doesn't like to be asked about that part of her past. "She's become real shy," says her son.
"Shy" would not seem to describe Junior Standish in her dancing days. According to her son, she was quite the social butterfly when she was not dancing in clubs or on the legit stage. As such a star--columnist Walter Winchell labeled her "the Most Beautiful Girl on Broadway"--Standish had her share of suitors, Joe DiMaggio among them. "Today, she would be on the level of Sharon Stone, Michelle Pfeiffer," says Berle. In addition to Standish's dancing, Bob says, his mother's image appeared on standup advertising placards. Later, she went on to dance on Jackie Gleason's television show and to perform in TV commercials for Westinghouse, Schick, Nescafe and Sominex. "I have a feeling that if I hadn't come along, my mother would've gone a lot further in her dancing career," says Bob.
First to come along, of course, was Milton Berle. By the late 1940s, Berle was among the most famous entertainers of his day, thanks to television. As host of the first popular live variety show on the new medium--Texaco Star Theater, broadcast on Tuesday nights by NBC--Berle worked his vaudeville-honed shtick to great acclaim. Sometimes he wore a dress, but historians credit Berle (Uncle Miltie," "Mr. Television," "The Thief of Bad Gags") with popularizing television for blue-collar audiences. In this context, he has lots of illegitimate offspring, up to and including Beavis and Butt-head.
When he entered Junior Standish's life, Berle had divorced his first wife, Joyce Matthews. The Standish-Berle romance was interrupted, briefly, when Berle remarried Matthews for several months in 1949. (Somebody asked me why I married her again," Berle tells New Times. "I said, 'Because she looked like my first wife.' Thought you might like to put a humorous line in there.") As a bachelor, Berle rode a wave of celebrity unimagined to that point, cutting "a wide swath through show-biz womanhood," wrote the authors of The Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People, published in 1981, "dallying with Betty Hutton, Dorothy Kilgallen, Wendy Barrie and Marilyn Monroe." According to the book, Berle also "dated" evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, the Tammy Faye Bakker of her day. Like Berle's relationships with other famous women, his romance with Standish was high-profile fodder for New York's gossip columnists. Yet the arrival of their baby, in 1951, somehow escaped the headline writers. "We kept it closed, and no one knew it," says Berle. "When Bobby was born, there was never any notoriety on it. It wasn't in the papers."
These days, when marriage seems to be one of the lesser requirements for entertainers starting families, it may be hard to imagine the potential disgrace that would have accompanied an illegitimate celebrity baby in those days. Frank Leiberman, longtime Hollywood publicist for Bob Hope, Phyllis Diller and others, says observers of current rich-and-famous lifestyles should consider that the moral climate of the early 1950s was vastly more conservative than today's. "When I was at Warner Bros., we used to retouch cleavage in publicity stills!" he says. "In the movies, husbands and wives couldn't sleep in the same bed!" Leiberman adds that Berle, as an agent of a strange, new medium being projected into America's living rooms, would likely have been held to a higher moral standard than other stars. Leiberman cites the case of film star Errol Flynn, who regularly seemed to get caught deflowering teenagers, and whose reputation seemed to be enhanced by such escapades. Leiberman believes that Berle, though gleefully playing the playboy in his private life, would have found his career a wreck had word gotten out about either of his two illegitimate babies. Berle agrees. "In those days, it would've been, compared to this era, very scandalous. It wouldn't have been very good notoriety for the mother or for myself. Today, it's like nothing."
Berle says he and Standish discussed marriage, but it's unclear why they didn't follow through. Berle won't discuss it, other than to say, "It never worked out." Bob, who says he's never asked his mother about the resolution of her affair with Berle, spent his early years with her in New York, hanging around her show-people friends, as well as the music-business pals brought around by Gene Williams, the bandleader Standish married, post-Berle.
In 1956, after Gene Williams had departed the scene, Standish met and married an advertising executive. The couple had two children, and the executive moved the family, Bob Williams included, to the wild West: Scottsdale, Arizona. The ad man's hopes of establishing himself on the local advertising scene were not quickly fulfilled, and he left to resume his career in New York.
Standish supported her three children (Berle says he paid her child support for Bob) by working in the retail clothing business, and operated her own stores in Scottsdale's Fifth Avenue shopping district and out near Sun City. She specialized in "an upscale, New York look for the working woman," says Bob. Later, she went into real estate. "Mom would go to all the Little League games and all the Boy Scout meetings," says Bob. "She did a helluva job."
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 rsum, 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."
Aside from such brief, valet-type gigs, Berle has never offered to open doors for his son in the entertainment business. He has offered lots of advice. "He's taught me a lot of things about being in front of a crowd," says Bob, adding that he's never asked his dad to pull strings for him in Hollywood or anywhere else.
Until July, when the Star pulled the string on the family secret, Bob had never entertained the notion of capitalizing on his genetic good fortune. Bob doubts that much will change between him and Berle, who recently married for the fourth time and who continues, at age 85, to build a career. Berle is currently hawking tapes of his early broadcasting performances via home-shopping outlets, and he has signed to guest on TV's Matlock this fall.
"We do grow gradually closer and closer," says Bob. "Instead of talking to each other every couple of weeks, we're now talking weekly. He keeps me in touch with what he's doing and is very interested in what I'm doing. We share a love of sports, the entertainment business and a good cigar. But I don't see any of the notoriety changing our relationship at all."
But will it change the life of Bob Williams, who has struggled to make a name for himself as "actor, emcee, broadcaster"? Could Bob somehow parlay his Berle connection into career advancement? "My dream, personally, is to make it to the Show [baseball slang for "major leagues"], either as a sports commentator, game-show host or actor. I think my time will come, and I'm gonna make it happen, whether I'm known as Milton Berle's kid or Bob Williams."
Bob also hopes to help preserve his father's contributions to popular culture for future generations, and has discussed such possibilities with his dad. "I'd like to help his legacy continue, whether it means setting up a museum of comedy or whatever," says Bob. "There are lots of things he might want to do." One such possibility even dovetails with Bob's current job. "My father," says Bob, "has always wanted a cigar named after him.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.