Jackie Gleason biography
Herbert John “Jackie” Gleason (b. February 26, 1916, Brooklyn, New York; d. June 24, 1987, Inverrary, Florida), an American comedian and actor, was one of the most popular and respected stars of television’s coming-of-age years. Though Jackie Gleason earned tandem respect for his periodic dramatic work in film and television, his major legacy has been his brash visual and verbal comedy—especially as delivered in The Honeymooners, which began as a segment of his popular variety show but took on a life of its own beginning a decade after he tried it as a separate half-hour television series.
Jackie Gleason’s early years
One of two sons of a father who abandoned the family (a brother died when Jackie was a boy), Gleason was raised by a loving but troubled, overworked mother who died when he was 19. (Gleason sometimes pushed the date of death back three years; biographer William A. Henry III (a longtime media critic) has written of Gleason’s tendency to both exaggerate and obscure his hardscrabble childhood.) His first recognition as an entertainer came on Broadway, when he appeared in Follow the Girls. By the 1940s, Gleason was seen in films such as two featuring swing legend Glenn Miller and His Orchestra; Gleason played the band’s bassist in Springtime in the Rockies and Orchestra Wives. He also appeared in Navy Blues (credited as Jackie C. Gleason), which starred Ann Sheridan and Martha Raye.
But Gleason—whom Orson Welles in due course tagged “The Great One“—didn’t make a strong impression in Hollywood at first. At the same time, he developed a well-enough liked nightclub act which included both comedy and music. He also became somewhat known for hosting all-night parties—swapping stories, flanked by attractive women—at his hotel suite. “Anyone who knew Jackie Gleason in the 1940s,” wrote CBS historian Robert Metz, “would tell you The Fat Man would never make it. His pals at Lindy’s watched him spend money as fast as he soaked up the booze.” Metz also noted the legend that held Gleason one night hiring a full orchestra just to keep him company. Henry has written that Jackie Gleason had a reputation as a paradox even then: a man who could be excessively generous one moment and excessively cruel the next.
Jackie Gleason Enters Television
Jackie Gleason’s first big break arrived in 1949, when he landed the role of blunt but softhearted aircraft worker Chester A. Riley for the first television version of radio hit The Life of Riley. (William Bendix originated the role on radio, but was unable to take the television role, at first, due to film commitments.) The show received modest ratings but positive reviews, but Gleason—according to Metz—left the show thinking he could do better things. (The Life of Riley finally became a television hit in the early 1950s—with William Bendix in the role he popularized on radio.) By now, Jackie Gleason’s nightclub act had attention from New York City’s inner circle and the small DuMont Television Network.
And awa-aa-ay we go!
Jackie Gleason was hired to host DuMont’s Cavalcade of Stars variety hour in 1950, balancing glitzy entertainment and his comic versatility. He framed the show with splashy dance numbers, developed sketch characters he would refine over the next decade, and became enough of a presence—his show was one of DuMont’s only major hits—that CBS wooed and won him over to their network in 1952.
Renaming the program The Jackie Gleason Show, Gleason soon had the country’s second highest-rated television show. He amplified the show with even splashier opening dance numbers, inspired by the Busby Berkley screen dance routines and featuring the precision-choreographed June Taylor Dancers. Following these, he performed an opening monologue. Then, he would shuffle comically toward the wing (“A little travelin’ music”, he’d call to bandleader, before clapping his hands inversely and thrusting one toward the wing, hollering, “And awa-a-aay we go!” The phrase became one of his trademarks and a national catchphrase.
Jackie Gleason, in real life, was a hard drinker (“Some drink to forget, some drink to remember—me, I drink to get bagged,” he told one interviewer many years later), but he once told of a six-hour talk session with Richard Nixon where both drank Scotch. At the end of the evening, Jackie Gleason said he could barely stagger from the room, while Nixon walked out “as straight as a soldier”.
Gleason’s comic characters included the understated Poor Soul, played silently and capable of coming to grief or to surprised pleasure in the most otherwise mundane scenarios; loquacious Joe the Bartender (these routines—later including singer-comedian Frank Fontaine as off-centered Crazy Guggenheim—may have been inspired by the radio hit Duffy’s Tavern, which featured a Guggenheim prototype named Finnegan); another silent character, a straw-hatted drunk known as Rum Dum (Gleason’s body and eye movements when doing this character had to be seen to be appreciated); loud, obnoxious, and barely competent Rudy the Repairman; and, the character biographer William A. Henry III once cited as Gleason’s personal favorite: Reginald Van Gleason III, a top-hatted millionaire with an exaggerated brush mustache, perpetual self-satisfied look, zest for the good life, and permanent access to liquid refreshment. (“Mmmmmmmmmmmm-boy, that’s good booze!”)
A Regular Riot: The Honeymoon Begins
By far his most popular character was blustery bus driver Ralph Kramden, who lived with his tart but tenderhearted wife, Alice Kramden, in a two-room Brooklyn walkup, one apartment beneath his best friend, sense-challenged sewer worker Ed Norton (“The first time I took the test for the sewer I flunked—I couldn’t even float!”) and his likewise tart wife, Trixie. Norton was portrayed from the start by Art Carney.
Possibly inspired by another radio hit, The Bickersons, and largely drawn from Gleason’s harsh Brooklyn childhood (“Every neighborhood in Brooklyn had its Ralph Kramdens,” he said years later), these sketches became known as The Honeymooners, and customarily centered around Ralph’s incessant get-rich-quick schemes, the tensions between his ambitiousness and Norton’s scatter-brained aid and comfort, and the inevitable clash (“Bang! Zoooooom!”; “One of these days . . . one of these days . . . pow! right in the kisser!; I’ll give you the world of tomorrow, Alice—you’re goin’ to the moon!”) when sensible Alice tried pulling her husbandâs head back down from the clouds.
The Honeymooners first turned up on Cavalcade of Stars on October 5th, 1951, with Carney as Norton (although Carney played a cop in the first sketch) and spirited character actress Pert Kelton as Alice. Darker and sometimes a little more fierce than they later became with Audrey Meadows as Alice, the sketches proved popular with critics and viewers. In these, Gleason as Kramden played a frustrated, near-middle-aged workingman with a same-aged, battle-axe wife in realistic arguments on camera; when the more attractive Meadows took the role, the sketches became brighter if no less blustery.
When Jackie Gleason moved to CBS, Kelton wasn’t part of the move: her name turned up in Red Channels, the book that listed and described reputed Communists and/or Communist sympathisers in television and radio. Gleason reluctantly let her leave the cast, with a cover story for the media that she had ‘heart trouble.’ He also turned down Audrey Meadows as her replacement—at first. Meadows has long since written, in her own memoir, that she slipped back to audition again and frumped herself up to convince Gleason that she could handle the role of a frustrated but loving working class wife. Rounding out the cast with an understated but effective role, Joyce Randolph played Trixie Norton. (Elaine Stritch had first played the role as a tall, attractive blonde, in the first sketch, but she yielded to Randolph, who made Trixie as much her own as Meadows did Alice.)
The Honeymooners sketches proved popular enough that Gleason gambled on making it a separate series entirely in 1955. These are the so-called Classic 39 episodes—but they became classic only years after they aired: the show didn’t draw strongly in the ratings. But they were filmed with a new DuMont process, Electronicam, allowing live television to be preserved on high-quality film. That turned out to be the most prescient move the show made: beginning a decade after they first aired, the half-hour Honeymooners in syndicated reruns built a loyal and growing audience that made what was once a rating bust into a television icons. So much so that, today, a life-sized statue of Jackie Gleason in full uniform as bus driver Ralph Kramden stands outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City.
The Mood Musician
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Jackie Gleason enjoyed a secondary music career, lending his name to a series of best-selling ‘mood music’ albums with jazz overtones for Capitol Records. Gleason could not read or write music in a conventional sense; he was said to have conceived melodies in his head and described them vocally to staff help. He did likewise with the well-remembered themes of both The Jackie Gleason Show (“Melancholy Serenade”) and The Honeymooners (“You’re My Greatest Love”). There has been some controversy over the years as to how much credit Gleason should have received for the finished products; Henry has written that beyond the possible conceptualizing of many of the songs, Gleason had no direct involvement such as conducting in the making of these recordings.
Some of that music turns up once in awhile today. “It’s Such a Happy Day,” which often turned up as a theme behind numerous Gleason television sketches, turned up as the music for a jaunty scene involving heart transplant recipient Minnie Driver bicycling around her Chicago neighborhood in the 2000 romantic comedy Return to Me.
The American Scene Magazine
Gleason restored his original variety hour–including The Honeymooners–in 1956, but abandoned the show in 1957, leaving weekly television for a year. He returned in 1958 with a half-hour show that featured Buddy Hackett (Carney and Meadows were not part of this program). But this version of the Gleason show did not catch on.
His next foray into television was with a game show, You’re in the Picture, which survived its disastrous premiere episode only because of Jackie Gleason’s now-legendary on-the-air apology in the following weekâs time slot. (“It laid . . . the biggest . . . bomb!”) For the rest of the scheduled run, the program became a talk show (again named The Jackie Gleason Show).
In 1962, he resurrected his variety show with a little more splashiness (the June Taylor Dancers’ routines became more elaborately choreographed and costumed than before) and a new hook–a fictitious general-interest magazine through whose format Gleason trotted out his old characters in new scenarios. He also added another catchphrase, (“How Sweet It Is!“), which which he first uttered in a 1962 film, Papa’s Delicate Condition, to the American vernacular.
The Jackie Gleason Show: The American Scene Magazine was a hit and endured in the format for four seasons. Staple sketches included revived Joe the Bartender routines, speaking to the unseen Mr. Dunahy about an article he read in the fictitious magazine, holding a copy across the bar, before the barkeep would bring out Fontaine as Crazy Guggenheim yet again, for cracked banter and, inevitably, a sentimental ballad sung in a lilting tenor. (Fontaine had played the same sort of goofy Brooklynite character, then called “John L. C. Simony,” on radio’s The Jack Benny Program; his wider exposure on Gleason’s show resulted in the release of his recordings of “old standards” on the ABC/Paramount record label.) Comedian Alice Ghostley was another regular cast member.
He also restored The Honeymooners, first with Sue Ane Langdon and then with Sheila MacRae as Alice and with Jane Kean as Trixie. By 1964, Gleason had moved the production from New York to Miami Beach, reputedly because he liked the year-round access to the golf course at nearby Inverrary, where he built his final home. (His closing line became, almost invariably, “As always, the Miami Beach audience is the greatest audience in the world!”) In 1966, he finally abandoned the American Scene Magazine format and converted the show into hour-long musical episodes of The Honeymooners alternating with standard variety hours. This was the format of the show until its cancellation in 1970, except for the 1968-1969 season, which had no hour-long Honeymooners episodes. In that season, The Honeymooners – as in the beginning – were only presented in short sketches.
At first the musicals pushed Gleason back into the top five ratings—but it wasn’t long before the audience began declining. The reasons varied, from McRae and Kean being seen as less than equal to Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph (a comparison easily makeable with the Classic 39 building its own syndicated audience) to increasing recycling of old Honeymooners plots into new musical settings. In the last original Honeymooners episode aired on CBS, “Operation Protest,” Ralph encounters the youth-protest movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
According to Metz, Jackie Gleason—who had signed a deal in the 1950s that included a guaranteed $100,000 annual payment for twenty years even if he never went on the air—wanted The Honeymooners to be just a portion of his format, but CBS wanted another season of nothing but The Honeymooners. The network had just cancelled mainstay variety shows hosted by Red Skelton and Ed Sullivan because they had become too expensive to produce. Gleason simply stopped doing the show by 1970 and finally left CBS when his contract expired, “anxious,” as Metz noted, “to get a deal more to his liking than another year of The Honeymooners.”
Dramatic Jackie Gleason
Jackie Gleason had a dramatic side that the comic pathos of the Poor Soul hinted at often enough. He earned acclaim for live television drama performances in The Laugh Maker on CBS’ Studio One (where he played a semi-autobiographical role as fictional TV comedian Jerry Giles), and in William Saroyanâs The Time of Your Life, also for CBS, as an episode of the legendary anthology Playhouse 90.
But he won acclaim plus a hardware nomination for his portrayal of Minnesota Fats in the 1961 Paul Newman movie The Hustler, in which Gleason (who had hustled pool growing up in Brooklyn) made his own pool shots. He earned an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor for the role. He was also well-received as a beleaguered boxing manager in the movie version of Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), which also featured Anthony Quinn, Mickey Rooney, and (under his birth name, Cassius Clay) Muhammad Ali. Jackie Gleason also played a world-weary Army sergeant, with Steve McQueen supporting him as a Gomer Pyle-like private and Tuesday Weld as a love interest, in Soldier in the Rain (1962).
More than a decade passed before Jackie Gleason had another hit film. Then, he turned up as vulgar sheriff Buford T. Justice in the popular Smokey and the Bandit series. (After Burt Reynolds declined to do a third film in the series, Gleason was signed up for a dual role as Smokey and the Bandit, but preview audiences are said to have been confused and Jerry Reed’s role from the first two movies was promptly beefed up to replace Gleason’s footage as the Bandit and make up for Reynolds’ absence. The film was a failure, anyway.)
In the 1980s, Gleason earned positive reviews playing opposite Sir Laurence Olivier in the HBO dramatic two-man special, Mr. Halperin and Mr. Johnson. He also played an infirm, somewhat Archie Bunker-like character in the Tom Hanks comedy-drama Nothing in Common.
The Honeymoon Wasn’t Over Yet
Gleason did two Jackie Gleason Show specials for CBS after giving up his regular show in the 1970s, including ‘Honeymooners segments’ and a Reginald Van Gleason III sketch in which the gregarious millionaire was shown a clinical alcoholic. When the CBS deal expired, Gleason signed with NBC, but ideas reportedly came and went before he ended up doing a round of Honeymooners specials for ABC. This time, he reunited the Classic 39 cast, after reuniting with Audrey Meadows on a televised Dean Martin roast. The foursome did four such ABC specials in the late 1970s. Gleason and Art Carney also made a television movie, Izzy and Moe.
In 1985, three decades after the Classic 39 began filming, Jackie Gleason revealed he had carefully preserved kinescopes of his live 1950s CBS programs in a vault for future use—including Honeymooners sketches. These “Lost Episodes,” as they came to be called, first aired on the Showtime cable network in 1985 and were later syndicated to local TV stations. Some of them include what amount to rough drafts of what became better-developed Classic 39 themes, but they proved an invaluable addition to the show’s legacy. One of them, a Christmas holiday episode, delivered every one of Gleason’s best-known characters—Ralph Kramden, the Poor Soul, Reginald Van Gleason, Joe the Bartender—in and out of the Kramden apartment, the storyline hooking around a wild Christmas party being thrown up the block from the Kramdens’ building by Reginald Van Gleason at Joe the Bartender’s place.
Death of Jackie Gleason
Nothing in Common proved to be Gleason’s final film role; he was fighting colon cancer and liver cancer even while he worked on the film. He was hospitalized at one point in 1986-87 but checked himself out and died quietly at age 71 at his Inverrary home. In the same year, Miami Beach honored his contributions to the city and its tourism by renaming the Miami Beach Auditorium—where he had done his television show once moving to Florida—as the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts.
Jackie Gleason Quotes
Does God have a sense of humor? He must have if He created us.
Tributes to Jackie Gleason
On June 30, 1988, the Sunset Park Bus Depot in Brooklyn was renamed the Jackie Gleason Bus Depot in honor of the native Brooklynite. (Ralph Kramden worked for the fictional Gotham Bus Company.) A statue of Gleason as Ralph in his bus driver’s uniform was dedicated in August, 2000 in New York City, by the cable TV channel TV Land. The statue is located at 40th Street and 8th Avenue, at the entrance of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey bus terminal. Another such statue stands at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame in North Hollywood, California, showing Gleason in his famous “And awa-a-ay we go!” pose.
Local signs on the Brooklyn Bridge, which indicate to the driver that they are now entering Brooklyn, have the Gleason phrase “How Sweet It Is!” as part of the sign.
A city park with raquetball & basketball courts as well as a children’s playground was named “Jackie Gleason Park” near his home in Inverrary, Florida.
A television movie called Gleason was aired by CBS on October 13, 2002, taking a deeper look into Gleason’s life; it took liberties with some of the Gleason story but featured his troubled home life, a side of Gleason few really saw. He had two daughters by his first wife (Gleason’s daughter Linda is the mother of actor Jason Patric); they divorced, and Gleason endured a brief second marriage before finding a happy union with his third wife, June Taylor’s sister Marilyn. The film also showed backstage scenes from his best-known work. Brad Garrett, from Everybody Loves Raymond, portrayed Gleason (after Mark Addy had to drop out) and Garrett’s height (6’8″) created some logistical problems on the sets, which had to be specially made so that Garrett did not tower over everyone else.
In 2003, after an absence of more than thirty years, the color, musical versions of The Honeymooners from the ’60s Jackie Gleason Show in Miami Beach were returned to television over the Good Life TV cable network. In 2005, a movie version of The Honeymooners appeared in theatres, with a twist–a primarily African-American cast, headed by Cedric the Entertainer. (There had been reports a few years earlier that Roseanne co-star John Goodman would bring The Honeymooners to film, playing Ralph, but these plans never materialized). This version, however, bore only a passing resemblance to Gleason’s original series and was widely panned by critics.
TV work of Jackie Gleason
- Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson (1983)
- Izzy and Moe (1985)
Filmography of Jackie Gleason
- Navy Blues (1941)
- Steel Against the Sky (1941)
- All Through the Night (1942)
- Lady Gangster (1942)
- Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1942)
- Larceny, Inc. (1942)
- Escape from Crime (1942)
- Orchestra Wives (1942)
- Springtime in the Rockies (1942)
- The Desert Hawk (1950)
- The Hustler (1961)
- Gigot (1962) (also writer)
- Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)
- Papa’s Delicate Condition (1963)
- Soldier in the Rain (1963)
- Skidoo (1968)
- How to Commit Marriage (1969)
- Don’t Drink the Water (1969)
- How Do I Love Thee? (1970)
- Mr. Billion (1977)
- Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
- Smokey and the Bandit II (1980)
- The Toy (1982)
- The Sting II (1983)
- Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 (1983)
- Nothing in Common (1986)
Jackie Gleason Stage appearances
- Keep Off the Grass (1940)
- Artists and Models (1943)
- Follow the Girls (1944)
- Along Fifth Avenue (1949)
- Take Me Along (1959)
Record albums of Jackie Gleason
- Music for Lovers Only (1953)
- Music, Martinis and Memories (1954)
- Lover’s Rhapsody (1955)
- Music to Make You Misty (1955)
- Tawny (1955)
- And Awaaay We Go! (1955)
- Romantic Jazz (1955)
- Music to Remember Her (1955)
- Lonesome Echo (1955)
- Music to Change Her Mind (1956)
- Night Winds (1956)
- Merry Christmas (1956)
- Music for the Love Hours (1957)
- Velvet Brass (1957)
Jackie Gleason References
- William A. Henry III, The Great One: The Life and Legend of Jackie Gleason (New York: Doubleday, 1992).
- Robert Metz, CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye (New York, 1975).
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