Gleason, Jackie (1916-1987)

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Gleason, Jackie (1916-1987)

As his sobriquet, The Great One, implies, Jackie Gleason was a comedian of superlative talents, but one whose persona housed enormous contradictions. A literally larger-than-life performer who became a star on the small screen when he failed to achieve headline status on stage and in the movies during the 1940s, Gleason became "Mr. Saturday Night" during the next two decades, and helped to define the comic possibilities of television. Although he hosted a variety series for over 20 years, the corpulent comedian is best remembered for a situation comedy that lasted only one season: The Honeymooners. A high-living bon viveur, Gleason achieved success by never forgetting the lowly "Ralph Kramdens" who populated his boyhood.

In a medium where understatement is the cool virtue, broad physicality and verbal bombast were the red-hot core of Jackie Gleason's game. Even as the medium became more refined, extravagance was Gleason's badge of distinction. His programs were always lavish spectacles, highlighted by gaudy dance numbers and glamorous starlets. On stage and off, Gleason presided like a monarch.

But poverty and abandonment defined Gleason's childhood and his later conception of himself. Even in his glitziest productions, there was always a reminder somewhere of the tough mean-streets of his youth. He was born in an impoverished section of Brooklyn on February 26, 1916. His brother died when Jackie was three and his father, an insurance clerk, deserted the family when he was eight. Gleason's mother supported her son by working in a subway token booth and living with rented furniture.

Jackie quit school at an early age and worked as a pool hustler, comic high diver, and carnival barker to pay the rent. He found his calling as a master of ceremonies at Brooklyn's Folly Theater, and across the Hudson River at Newark's Miami Club. His quick wit with hecklers and his energetic charm landed him steady employment at Club 18, a cabaret in Manhattan. Movie executive Jack Warner caught his act and signed him to a Hollywood contract. Beginning in 1941, he played minor parts in a series of movies, including the musical Navy Blues (1941) with his idol, Jack Oakie, and All Through the Night (1942), a gangster yarn with Humphrey Bogart. Unrecognized by the movie crowd, he returned to New York in 1944 and began to attract notice on Broadway. His appearance in Artists and Models led to a larger role in the musical comedy Follow the Girls, for which Time lauded him as a "likably Loony comic." Gleason stole the show by impersonating a female naval officer, proving to himself that he could "get away with more as a fat man." Offers began to pour in: he replaced Bob Crosby on a Sunday night radio show and emceed at Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe. In 1949 he was featured in the Broadway revue Along Fifth Avenue with comedienne Nancy Walker. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times recognized Gleason's ability to move on stage as "a priceless accomplishment in a man who wants to be funny."

Later in 1949, Gleason returned to Los Angeles to star in a blue-collar situation comedy, Life of Riley, a television adaptation of a popular radio series about a bumbling aircraft worker. Producer Irving Brecher was unable to sign the lead of the original radio program, William Bendix, because of movie commitments. Gleason was recruited to play the goodhearted but incompetent Chester A. Riley in one of television's first comedies recorded on 35mm film. Chester's catchphrase, "What a revoltin' development this is!" caught on, but Gleason's edginess and joie de vivre were missing without an audience. Although the series received an Emmy Award for "Best Film Made For and Viewed on Television" (there wasn't much competition), Life of Riley was canceled after 26 weeks. Bendix revived the role for television in 1953, and that incarnation ran for five years.

Several months after the cancellation, Gleason landed a television role that was totally suited to his strengths. He was hired as host of the live variety series, Cavalcade of Stars, on the DuMont television network. DuMont was a struggling fourth network with little money for programming, but proved an excellent training ground for future stars on the established networks. Both previous hosts of Cavalcade, Jack Carter and Jerry Lester, were stolen by NBC for big-time variety shows. In the two years that Gleason hosted the low-budget DuMont show, he laid the groundwork for his impending future success.

On Cavalcade the comedian developed the variety format, and his repertory of characters that would serve him well for the next 20 years. Unlike other variety hosts, such as Milton Berle or Sid Caesar, who relied mostly on new sketches each week, Gleason based his comedy on recurring characterizations, many of which were comic extensions of people he grew up with in Brooklyn. There was the ever complaining Charles Bratton, known as The Loudmouth; the sweetly meek Fenwick Babbitt, who would sometimes explode; the hapless Bachelor, a silent figure struggling to cope alone; and garrulous Joe the Bartender, caught in an endless monologue about the idiosyncratic patrons of his establishment. Two creations revealed the polar sides of Gleason's sensibility: the innocent savant, The Poor Soul, a silent homage to the vulnerable, saintly Little Tramp of Charlie Chaplin, and the ostentatious playboy, Reginald Van Gleason III, a baroque vision of wealth and grandeur.

Jackie's most famous character, Ralph Kramden, debuted later than the others, but was probably Gleason's best understood creation. There were, as he explained, "hundreds of them in my neighborhood." Gleason was so close to the yearning and unquiet desperation of his bus driver that he gave him the same address as his boyhood residence, 358 Chauncey Street. The Honeymooners began modestly enough as a six-minute sketch portraying a long-married working-class couple who stayed together despite life's blows and disappointments. Unlike the foolishness of Life of Riley, Gleason wanted this pair based on realism; he instructed his writers "to make it the way people really live." Pert Kelton first played Alice, the wife, and gave her a battle-scarred feistiness. To everyone's surprise, the audience identified with the Kramden's struggles and The Honeymooners sketches became longer and richer in comic incident.

For an early Reggie van Gleason sketch, the show hired an agile player from The Morey Amsterdam Show, Art Carney. Gleason and Carney hit it off immediately and remained partners in one way or another until the end. Carney had a cameo in the first Honeymooners sketch as a policeman, but he was so adept at playing sidekicks that the role of Ralph's buddy, the sewer worker Ed Norton, was quickly created for him. This pairing eventually developed an archetypal resonance with Carney who would be a Sancho Panza to Gleason's Don Quixote.

The other networks quickly recognized Gleason's popularity on DuMont. He appeared as a special guest star on CBS' The Frank Sinatra Show and there was talk about making him a regular. He also hosted The Colgate Comedy Hour on NBC, and in 1952 William Paley, Chairman of CBS, lured Gleason and his staff to CBS by quintupling his salary. The bigger budget for The Jackie Gleason Show, which premiered on September 20, 1952, allowed for splashier production numbers, including an opening extravaganza with the June Taylor dancers which Busby Berkeley would have been proud to own. Gleason also employed beautiful chorines, known as the Glea Girls, to introduce segments of the show, while he himself became one of the show's grand inventions, sipping his "tea" as if it were laced with alcohol and uttering his trademark phrases "How sweet it is," "You are a dan-dan-dandy crowd," and "And Away we go!" Soon the Gleason show owned Saturday nights and was second in the overall ratings, behind I Love Lucy.

On top for the first time, Gleason pushed himself into other creative arenas. Although he could not read music, he composed the signature melody for his variety show, Melancholy Serenade. Deciding that the common man needed background music for his pleasures, he composed over 40 mood albums, beginning with Music for Lovers Only, whose collective sales reached 120 million. He scored an "original symphony in ballet," entitled Tawny, which The New York Times called "a poem for eye and ear, a simply superb example of inspired television artistry." In 1954 Gleason also produced a summer music show for the Dorsey brothers, Tommy and Jimmy, which became the regular series, Stage Show. The comedian took personal credit for giving Elvis Presley his first network exposure on the Dorsey program.

In 1953 Gleason made his dramatic acting debut, portraying a manipulative comic in a Studio One production. He starred in several live television dramas, which led to the resurrection of his movie career. He received an Academy Award nomination for his role as Minnesota Fats in The Hustler (1961) and critical acclaim for his sleazy boxing manager in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), but was less successful as a deaf mute in Gigot (1962), a sentimental tale that he also wrote. In 1959 he made a triumphant return to the stage as an irresponsible drunk in Take Me Along, a musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness!

Gleason strayed several times from his successful variety formula. In 1955 Buick offered him one of the largest contracts in television history to produce The Honeymooners on film, but Ralph and Alice (played by Audrey Meadows since the move to CBS) did not click with the audience. Eventually, however, these 39 episodes of The Honeymooners became a financial bonanza in syndication. In 1961 Gleason inexplicably tackled the quiz show format, and his You're in the Picture became one of television's most notorious debacles, lasting only one week. During the early 1960s he launched The American Scene Magazine, using his characters to comment on societal change. In 1964, when he relocated his television series to Miami Beach, "the Sun and Fun Capitol of the World," he reverted to his characteristic brand of splashy entertainment. Although the variety format was losing its luster, Gleason remained in the Nielsen Top Ten throughout the decade.

After his move to CBS, Gleason insisted on total control of his variety series. He participated in every aspect of production, from casting to set design to merchandising. With Orson Wellesian bravado, his end credit proclaimed, "Entire Production Supervised by Jackie Gleason." As he once explained, "I have no use for humility … In my work, I stand or fall by my own judgment."

Gleason emerged in an era of live television when comedians dominated the airwaves. Despite changes in American culture and television, he was able to produce and star in his type of variety program until 1970. After that, he revived The Honeymooners as holiday specials and starred as a Southern sheriff in several Smokey and the Bandit movies. When he died on June 24, 1987, the country was rediscovering the "lost" episodes of The Honeymooners from the 1950s. Gleason demonstrated that commercial television could be a medium for original comic expression, and his work has spoken to the American Everyman. As critic Tom Shales has noted, "Gleason was perhaps as much the auteur as Chaplin was or as Woody Allen is."

—Ron Simon

Further Reading:

Bacon, James. The Jackie Gleason Story. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Bishop, Jim. The Golden Ham: A Candid Biography of Jackie Gleason. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1956.

Cresenti, Peter, and Bob Columbe. The Official Honeymooners Treasury. New York, Perigee Books, 1985.

Henry, William. The Great One: The Life and Legend of Jackie Gleason. New York, Doubleday, 1992.

Meadows, Audrey. Love, Alice: My Life as a Honeymooner. New York, Crown Publishers, 1994.

McCrohan, Donna. The Honeymooners' Companion. New York, Workman Publishing, 1978.

The Museum of Broadcasting. Jackie Gleason: "The Great One." New York, 1988.

Weatherby, W. J. Jackie Gleason an Intimate Portrait of The Great One. New York, Pharos Books, 1992.