(b. 8 February 1922 in Wuchang, China; d. 3 February 1996 in Los Angeles, California), singer and actress best known for her portrayal of Alice Kramden in the 1950s comedy series The Honeymooners.
Meadows was the youngest of four children of Francis James Meadows Cotter, an Episcopal minister, and his wife, Ida. Published sources vary on her birthdate, most giving 1925 or 1926; the year 1922 is suggested by her Social Security file. She spent her early years in China, where her parents were missionaries. At the age of five, Meadows and her family moved back to the United States when her father was appointed rector of St. John’s Protestant Episcopal Cathedral in Providence, Rhode Island.
Reared in New England, Audrey was educated at Miss Hill’s School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Aspiring to become an opera singer, she took an early interest in entertainment. At the age of sixteen she made her debut at Carnegie Hall in New York City as a coloratura soprano singer. At the urging of her older sister Jayne, a film actress later married to Steve Allen, Meadows decided to steer her career into acting. She performed in summer stock and some Broadway productions including High Button Shoes.
During World War II Meadows performed in Mike Todd’s production of Mexican Hayride, touring the South Pacific with the USO. In 1951 she joined radio celebrities Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding on their television show the Bob and Ray Show. The only woman in the cast, Meadows had to keep up with the comic duo while playing all of the female roles. In one episode, she sang an opera aria while standing on her head.
During her run on the Bob and Ray Show, Meadows also appeared on Broadway. She starred in the musical Top Banana, in which she played opposite Broadway great Phil Silvers. In 1952, while preparing to take the show on the road, Meadows was asked by her manager to suggest a replacement for blacklisted actress Pert Kelton on Jackie Gleason’s variety show. After suggesting many actresses, it dawned on Meadows that she should try out for the part.
When Jackie Gleason rejected the actress for being too young and too pretty to play Alice Kramden, a workingclass housewife from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a furious Meadows decided to take matters into her own hands. She called photographer Bill Mark to take pictures of her in her apartment wearing a frumpy housedress with her hair in rollers and her face without makeup. She then persuaded her manager to show Gleason the pictures. Upon seeing the photos, Gleason, unaware that he was looking at the same woman whom he had recently turned down for the role, declared that Alice Kramden had been found! Later, when Gleason learned that the attractive young woman he had met earlier and the dowdy housewife in the photos were indeed the same person, he offered Meadows the part without an audition.
With Meadows on board, the Jackie Gleason Show attracted a wide audience, and The Honeymooners became the most popular sketch of the show. In 1955 CBS ordered more episodes of The Honeymooners, and the skit became a series. For the next five seasons, the television audience came to know her as Alice Kramden. In 1954 her portrayal of this tough, sarcastic, no-nonsense Brooklyn housewife earned her an Emmy for best supporting actress in a comedy series. Her ability to memorize every character’s lines, to retain her composure, and to improvise whenever anything went awry on the live television show earned her the nickname “Rock Of” (as in Gibraltar), as Gleason lovingly referred to her. Unsatisfied with the scripts for the 1956–1957 season, Gleason decided to cancel the sitcom and return to his one-hour variety show, featuring The Honeymooners. However, this time, The Honeymooners was a musical.
When it came time to negotiate her contract, Meadows proved to be a woman with sharp business acumen. Along with her attorneys, Mortimer Becker and her brother Ed Cotter, Meadows negotiated a deal that gave her a significant salary increase as well as residuals—a percentage of future syndication profits—for her participation in The Honeymooners. This deal proved extremely lucrative; reruns of The Honeymooners have been broadcast since the show’s original run ended.
In her personal life, a 1956 marriage to wealthy Washington realtor Ralph Rouse ended in divorce after two years.
In 1961 she made another attempt at marriage when she married Continental Airlines CEO Robert F. Six. Meadows cut back on her acting career to accompany her husband on business trips around the world. Later, Meadows became a member of the airline’s board of directors. The couple had homes in New York City, Beverly Hills, and Denver. The marriage lasted for twenty-five years until Six died in 1986. Meadows had no children.
In addition to The Honeymooners, Meadows guest-starred on a variety of television shows, such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Kraft TV Theatre, Checkmate, Wagon Train, Sid Caesar’s television specials, and several Honeymooners reunions. In addition, she appeared on several Broadway shows and a few films, including That Touch of Mink (1962), where she played a supporting role opposite Cary Grant and Doris Day, and Take Her She’s Mine (1963). She also had a recurring role as Ted Knight’s mother-in-law on the television sitcom Too Close for Comfort.
During The Honeymooners run, Meadows developed a close friendship with Jackie Gleason. In 1994, as a response to biographies of Gleason that she felt misrepresented him, Meadows published her memoirs, Love, Alice: My Life as a Honeymooner. The book is a tribute to Gleason and describes him as she knew him: kind, loving, intelligent, and professional.
A heavy smoker, Meadows was diagnosed with cancer in 1996. She kept her condition a secret from her family, including her sister, Jayne, who learned about her illness a few days before her death. Meadows died in her sister’s arms five days before her seventieth birthday. She is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.
Throughout her career, Audrey Meadows showed the depths of her talent from the myriad characters she played. However, her fans will remember her as the sassy Alice Kramden. Meadows was a trailblazer who paved the way for women on television. A person of dignity and grace, she is remembered by those who knew her well as a loving sister, aunt, and friend. Fans, however, will always remember her as what Jackie Gleason called her on the show: “The Greatest.”
Meadows wrote a memoir with Joe Daley, Love Alice: My Life as a Honeymooner (1994), which is an autobiographical account of her time on the comedy show. For a tribute to her that details her life story, see “Diamond in the Rough,” People Weekly (16 Feb. 1996). Her life story and accomplishments can also be found in the 1958 yearbook and Apr. 1996 issue of Current Biography. Obituaries are in the New York Times and Daily News (both 5 Feb. 1996); Variety and U.S. News and World Report (both 19 Feb. 1996); and TV Guide (24 Feb. 1996).