Irving Fein, a producer and publicist who managed the careers of legendary comedians Jack Benny and George Burns for a half-century, died Aug. 10 at his home in West Hollywood. He was 101.
Fein began a 28-year association with Benny in 1947 when he was hired as the radio star’s publicity and advertising director. He then served as executive producer of TV’s The Jack Benny Program, which ran from 1952 to 1965 and was a huge hit for CBS.
Fein also worked for 22 years with Burns, helping turn around his flagging career after the death of Gracie Allen, Burns’ wife and comic partner.
Earlier, Fein was a publicist at Warner Bros., Columbia Pictures, Samuel Goldwyn and MGM. At Warners, he gave sultry actress Lana Turner the nickname “the Sweater Girl” and pinup star Ann Sheridan the moniker “the Oomph Girl.”
After writing several short stories (he was encouraged by his camp counselor, future novelist and playwright Irwin Shaw), Fein was hired to work in the publicity and advertising department at Warners in New York. The Brooklyn native turned down an offer to join the legal department and instead came to Hollywood for a job in the studio’s mailroom. A shift to the publicity ranks netted him $35 a week; less than a year later, he shifted to Columbia and got $150 a week.
Benny was the king of radio in the late 1930s, but programs from Bob Hope, Edgar Bergen and The Lux Radio Theatre ate into his popularity. But after Fein joined Benny, his radio show was back on top, and Fein would serve as Benny’s manager and producer and handle his PR work for the next nine years.
In 1956, CBS chief William S. Paley wooed Fein back to New York for a network vp job, but less than a year later, the publicist had returned to Hollywood as president of Benny’s newly formed J&M Productions.
In addition to the weekly Benny show, J&M in the 1950s and ’60s produced such TV series as the crime drama Checkmate, with Doug McClure and Sebastian Cabot; The Gisele MacKenzie Show, starring the popular Your Hit Parade singer; and The Marge and Gower Champion Show, toplined by the famed movie dance team. MCA acquired J&M in 1962.
Fein also executive produced Benny’s yearly NBC specials until the comic’s death in 1974.
After Allen died in 1964, Burns struggled as a solo act, but Fein came on board to revitalize Burns’ career. He was instrumental in getting the cigar-smoking comic a star turn opposite Walter Matthau in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys (1975), and the performance earned Burns a supporting actor Oscar at age 76. Fein produced several Burns’ films, including 1988’s 18 Again!
Burns died in 1996 at age 100.
Fein captured an Emmy for serving as a producer on a Burns 1977 TV special and authored several books, including the 1977 best-seller Jack Benny: An Intimate Biography.
Survivors include Marion, his wife of 43 years; two children from a previous marriage, Michael Fein and Tisha Fein, a veteran TV music producer who has worked several Grammy Awards; stepson Dan Schechter; granddaughters Tasha, Noelle and Nicole; and four great-granddaughters.
Fein was put to rest on Aug. 12 at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary in Los Angeles. A celebration of his life is being planned.