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Phil Berle, Milton's brother, dies

Phil Berle, the brother of Milton Berle and a television pioneer in his own right, died Saturday at St. Joseph's Hospital. He was 97.

The cause was heart failure, said his son, Marshall Berle.

While his famous brother skyrocketed to fame as the immensely popular, madcap host of the Texaco Star Theater, Phil Berle labored behind the scenes, serving as a television producer, writer and director.

For Mr. Berle, television in the 1940s was a new frontier that begged to be conquered. "It was to him then what the Internet is now," Marshall Berle said.

Mr. Berle helped create and direct a variety of programs during television's infancy, including cooking shows, children's programs and local news broadcasts for NBC.

What may have been his most famous work from the period, though, never aired on television.

Rejected by ABC when a buyer couldn't be found, the project languished in a closet for four decades gathering dust until the mid-1980s. In casual conversation with his son, Mr. Berle mentioned that he had written, produced and directed the Three Stooges' first television pilot, The Jerks of All Trades.

The pair rummaged it out of the closet last year and a short time later entered into a joint venture with the heirs of the Three Stooges to produce the television pilot on video. It is expected to be available in about two weeks, Marshall Berle said.

News of the pilot spread, and Mr. Berle found himself the darling of cult followers of the Three Stooges at an August conference for the comic trio in Los Angeles.

Mr. Berle was born in New York City and grew up in Harlem, the eldest of five children. After graduating from high school, he followed his younger brother's lead into Vaudeville.

While Milton became a star on the circuit, Phil Berle worked out of the limelight, as a booking agent.

With the outbreak of World War II, Mr. Berle joined the Coast Guard.

After the war, Mr. Berle again followed his brother's lead, this time into television. He wrote, produced and directed television shows for the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles and later served as the station manager of a Las Vegas television station.

After retiring from television in the early '60s, Mr. Berle embarked on a new career, acting as an extra in scores of movies, including Raging Bull. Mr. Berle was thrilled to be in front of the camera and worked until 1990. He moved to Tampa two years ago with his health failing to live with his son, a manager of rock groups.

Mr. Berle is survived by his brother, Milt, his son, Marshall, and three grandchildren.