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Herbert Walton Gleason, Jr. , baptized John Herbert "Jackie" Gleason (February 26, 1916 – June 24, 1987) was an American comedian, actor, and musician.
One of the most popular stars of early television, Gleason was respected for both comedic and dramatic roles. However, his major legacy was his brash visual and verbal comedy styling, especially as delivered by the character Ralph Kramden on the pioneering sitcom The Honeymooners.
Gleason was born while his parents lived at 364 Chauncey Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York, the son of Mae, a subway change-booth attendant, and Herb Gleason, an insurance auditor. One of two sons of a father from Ireland who abandoned the family (his brother died when Jackie was a boy), Gleason was raised by a loving, but troubled, overworked Irish mother who died when he was 19. (Gleason sometimes pushed the date of death up three years to 16; biographer William A. Henry III wrote of Gleason's tendency to both exaggerate and obscure his hardscrabble childhood.) He attended but did not graduate from Bushwick High School. His first recognition as an entertainer came on Broadway, when he appeared in Follow the Girls. In his 1985 appearance on the Tonight Show, Gleason told Johnny Carson that he had played pool frequently, since childhood; he later utilized his experiences when he appeared in the film The Hustler as Minnesota Fats. Read Full Bio >>
By the 1940s, Gleason was in the movies, first at Warner Brothers as "Jackie C. Gleason" in such films as Navy Blues with Ann Sheridan and Martha Raye and All Through the Night with Humphrey Bogart; then at Columbia Pictures for the B military comedy Tramp, Tramp, Tramp; and finally, at Twentieth Century-Fox (Gleason played the Glenn Miller band's bassist in Orchestra Wives).
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-received nightclub act that included both comedy and music. He also became somewhat known for hosting all-night parties—swapping stories while 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 Gleason one night hired a full orchestra just to keep him company. Henry has written that Gleason had a reputation as a paradox even then: a man who could be excessively generous one moment and excessively cruel the next.
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 the radio hit The Life of Riley. (William Bendix originated the role on radio, but was unable to take the television role at first because of film commitments.) The show received modest ratings but positive reviews; however, 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; this version has been widely rebroadcast. A film-originated program, the original Gleason version survives, but episodes have rarely been aired on cable television. By that time, however, Gleason's nightclub act began receiving attention from New York City's inner circle and the small DuMont Television Network.
Gleason was hired to host DuMont's Cavalcade of Stars variety hour in 1950, balancing glitzy entertainment with 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 that CBS wooed and won him over to their network in 1952 (his show was one of DuMont's few major hits).
Renamed The Jackie Gleason Show, it soon became the country's second-highest-rated television show. Gleason amplified the show with even splashier opening dance numbers, inspired by Busby Berkeley screen dance routines and featuring the precision-choreographed June Taylor Dancers. Following the dance performance, he did an opening monologue. Then, accompanied by "a little travelin' music" ("That's A-Plenty," a Dixieland chestnut from 1914), he would shuffle toward the wing, clapping his hands inversely and hollering, "And awaaay we go!" The phrase became one of his trademarks and a national catchphrase. Ray Bloch was Gleason's first music director, followed by Sammy Spear, who stayed with Gleason through the 1960s; Gleason often kidded both men during his opening monologues.
Gleason continued developing comic characters, including Reginald Van Gleason III, the top-hatted millionaire with a taste for both the good life ("Ummmmmmm-boy! That's good booze!") and the wild invention or fantasy; boisterous, boorish Rudy the Repairman; gregarious Joe the Bartender, with friendly words for the never-seen Mr. Dennehy, who always entered his bar first; and, especially, the Poor Soul, a silent character who could and often did come to grief in the least expected places or show sweet gratitude at things no more complicated than being allowed to share a newspaper on a subway. He also used pantomime in portraying the bumbling Rum Dum, a character with a brush-like mustache who often stumbled around as if he were drunk and confused.
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 floor below his best friend, sense-challenged New York City 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 on Ralph's incessant get-rich-quick schemes, the tensions between his ambitiousness and Norton's scatterbrained 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 husband's head back down from the clouds. However, in the later episodes, it was always clear that Kramden's threats were the bluffs of a blowhard; Alice never backed down, and invariably he would hug her at the end of the show, proclaiming, "Baby, you're the greatest!"
The Honeymooners first appeared on Cavalcade of Stars on October 5, 1951, with Carney as Norton (a cop in the first sketch) and spirited character actress Pert Kelton as Alice. Darker and fiercer than they later became with Audrey Meadows as Alice, the sketches proved popular with critics and viewers. As Kramden, Gleason played a frustrated bus driver with a battle-ax wife in harrowingly realistic arguments; when Meadows (who was 19 years younger than Kelton) took over the role after Kelton was blacklisted, the tone softened considerably. In fact, early sketches come as something of a shock to some modern critics.
When Gleason moved to CBS, Kelton was not part of the move, since her name had turned up in Red Channels, the book that listed and described reputed Communists and/or Communist sympathizers 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 Kelton's replacement, at least at first. Meadows wrote in her 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 (although this story has been disputed repeatedly). Rounding out the cast with an understated but effective role, Joyce Randolph played Trixie Norton. Elaine Stritch had played the role as a tall and attractive blonde in the first sketch, but she was quickly replaced by the plainer-looking Randolph (some critics have speculated that Gleason didn't want Carney's character to have a more attractive wife). Randolph went on to make the character her own, just as Meadows did with 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, although they only became "classic" years after they aired, since the show didn't draw strongly in the ratings at the time. But they were filmed with a new DuMont process, Electronicam, which allowed live television to be preserved on high-quality film. That turned out to be the most prescient move the show made, since—a decade after they first aired—the half-hour Honeymooners in syndicated reruns started to build a loyal and growing audience that made the show a television icon. Its popularity was such that even today, a life-size statue of Jackie Gleason, in full uniform as bus driver Ralph Kramden, stands outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City.
Throughout the 1950s and '60s, 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 felt there was a ready market for romantic instrumentals. He recalled seeing Clark Gable play love scenes in movies, and the romance was, in his words, "magnified a thousand percent" by background music. Gleason reasoned, "If Gable needs music, a guy in Brooklyn must be desperate!"
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 assistants. These included 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. Red Nichols, a jazz great who had fallen into hard times and led one of the groups recorded, did not even get session-leader pay from Gleason.
Some of that music turns up once in a while today. "It's Such a Happy Day," which often turned up as a theme behind numerous Gleason television sketches, was used as background music for a jaunty scene involving heart transplant recipient Minnie Driver bicycling around her Chicago neighborhood in the 2000 romantic comedy Return to Me. "Melancholy Serenade" is used as the closing theme for the "Camelot" episode of The Sopranos (Episode 59, Season 5).
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). However, 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 Gleason's now-legendary humorous on-the-air apology in the following week's time slot. ("It laid... the biggest... bomb!") For the rest of the scheduled run, the program became a talk show that was once 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 to the American vernacular, first uttered in the 1962 film Papa's Delicate Condition: "How sweet it is!"
The Jackie Gleason Show: The American Scene Magazine was a hit and continued in this format for four seasons. Each show began with Gleason delivering a monologue and commenting on the loud outfits of bandleader Sammy Spear. Then the "magazine" features would be trotted out, from Hollywood gossip (reported by comedienne Barbara Heller) to news flashes (played for laughs with a stock company of second bananas, chorus girls, and midgets). Comedienne Alice Ghostley occasionally appeared as a downtrodden tenement resident, sitting on her front step and listening to boorish boyfriend Gleason for several minutes. After the boyfriend took his leave, the smitten Ghostley would exclaim, "I'm the luckiest girl in the world!" Veteran comics Johnny Morgan, Sid Fields, and Hank Ladd were occasionally seen opposite Gleason in comedy sketches.
The final sketch was always set in Joe the Bartender's saloon, with Joe singing "My Gal Sal" and greeting his regular customer, the unseen Mr. Dennehy (actually the TV audience, with Gleason speaking to the camera), who was named after a neighbor who took Gleason in after he was orphaned. During the sketch, Joe the Bartender would tell Dennehy about an article he read in the fictitious "American Scene" magazine, holding a copy across the bar. It had two covers: one featured the New York skyline and the other palm trees (after the show was moved to Florida in 1964). Then, Joe would bring out Frank Fontaine as Crazy Guggenheim, who would regale Joe with the latest adventures of his neighborhood pals and sometimes showed Joe his current Top Cat comic book. Joe usually asked Crazy to sing, almost always a sentimental ballad sung in a lilting baritone. (Fontaine had played the same sort of goofy Brooklynite character, then called "John L.C. Sivoney," 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.)
Gleason also revived 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, reportedly 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 a standard variety hour with guest performers.
Gleason kicked off the 1966–67 season with new, color episodes of The Honeymooners. Art Carney returned as Ed Norton, with Sheila MacRae as Alice and Jane Kean as Trixie. The stories were remakes of the 1950s "world tour" episodes, in which Kramden and Norton win a slogan contest and take their wives to international destinations. Each of the nine episodes was a full-scale musical comedy, with Gleason and company performing original songs by Lyn Duddy and Jerry Bresler. Occasionally, the Gleason hour would be devoted to musicals with a single theme (a college comedy, a political satire, etc.), with the stars abandoning their Honeymooners roles for different (and sometimes seriocomic) character roles.
This was the format of the show until its cancellation in 1970, except for the 1968–69 season, which had no hour-long Honeymooners episodes. In that season, The Honeymooners—as in the beginning—was presented only in short sketches.
At first, the musicals pushed Gleason back into the top five ratings, but it wasn't long before audiences began declining. The reasons varied, from MacRae and Kean being seen as subpar in relation to Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph (with opportunities for comparison heightened by the expanding syndication of the Classic 39) 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, Gleason, who had signed a deal in the 1950s that included a guaranteed $100,000 annual payment for 20 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 canceled mainstay variety shows hosted by Red Skelton and Ed Sullivan because they had become too expensive to produce and attracted (in the executives' estimation) too old an audience. Gleason simply stopped doing the show by 1970 and finally left CBS when his contract expired. As Metz noted, Gleason was "anxious" to get a deal "more to his liking than another year of The Honeymooners."
Gleason had a dramatic side that the comic pathos of the Poor Soul often hinted at. He earned acclaim for live television drama performances in The Laugh Maker on CBS' Studio One (where he played a semiautobiographical role as fictional TV comedian Jerry Giles) and in William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life, also for CBS as an episode of the legendary anthology Playhouse 90.
But he won acclaim plus an award 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. Gleason also played a world-weary Army sergeant, with Steve McQueen supporting him as a Gomer Pyle-like private and Tuesday Weld as his love interest, in Soldier in the Rain (1962). He wrote, produced, and starred in his own film, Gigot, a notorious box office disaster in 1962, in which he plays a poor, mute janitor who befriends and rescues a prostitute and her small daughter (the film was directed by Gene Kelly). He played the lead in the Otto Preminger all-star flop Skidoo (1968), costarring Groucho Marx, in which Gleason's character and half the cast is imprisoned in Alcatraz and trips on LSD (including the guards, played by Slim Pickens, Harry Nilsson, and Fred Clark). Three years later, William Friedkin wanted to cast Gleason as "Popeye" Doyle in The French Connection (Friedkin's second choice after Paul Newman); but between Gigot and Skidoo, the studio refused to offer Gleason the lead in the film, even though he wanted to play it. Instead, that year Gleason wound up in How to Commit Marriage (1969) with Bob Hope and the movie version of Woody Allen's play Don't Drink the Water (1969), both flops.
More than a decade passed before 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 the 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.)
In the 1980s, Gleason earned positive reviews playing opposite Laurence Olivier in the HBO dramatic two-man special, Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson. He also delivered a critically acclaimed performance as an infirm but acerbic and somewhat Archie Bunker-like character in the Tom Hanks comedy-drama Nothing in Common (Gleason had turned down the All in the Family television series in the previous decade).
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 as a clinical alcoholic. When the CBS deal expired, Gleason signed with NBC, but ideas reportedly came and went before he ended up doing a series of Honeymooners specials for ABC. Art Carney and Audrey Meadows reprised their original roles, but for no clear reason, Jane Kean was cast as Trixie instead of Joyce Randolph. Gleason helmed four of these ABC specials during the mid-1970s. Gleason and Art Carney also made a television movie, Izzy and Moe, which aired on CBS in 1985.
In April 1974, Gleason recreated several of classic characters, including Ralph Kramden, Joe the Bartender, and Reginald Van Gleason III, in a television special with Julie Andrews. In one song-and-dance route, the two performed "Take Me Along" from Gleason's Broadway musical.
In 1985, three decades after the Classic 39 began filming, Gleason revealed he had carefully preserved kinescopes of his live 1950s programs in a vault for future use—including Honeymooners sketches with Pert Kelton as Alice. These "Lost Episodes," as they came to be called, were initially previewed at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City, then first aired on the Showtime cable network in 1985 and were later syndicated to local TV stations. They were also released on home video.
Some of these include earlier and arguably livelier and fresher versions of exactly the same plotlines later copied for the Classic 39 episodes. One of them, a Christmas holiday episode that was duplicated several years later with Audrey Meadows as Alice, delivered every one of Gleason's best-known characters—Ralph Kramden, the Poor Soul, Reginald Van Gleason, and 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. In one memorable Honeymooners segment (originally televised on CBS on December 26, 1953), Gleason as Kramden was forced to work on New Year's Eve, when he desperately wanted to accompany Alice to a show featuring Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey (who later hosted their own CBS program, Stage Show, produced by Gleason, from 1954 to 1956); typically, Kramden told his boss (portrayed by veteran character actor Robert Middleton) he was sick and went home, then took Alice to the show, only to be discovered by his boss.
Nothing in Common proved to be Gleason's final film role. He was fighting colon cancer (a heavy smoker, he consumed as much as six packs of cigarettes per day), liver cancer, and thrombosed hemorrhoids even while he worked on the film. He was hospitalized at one point in 1986–87, but checked himself out and died quietly 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 after moving to Florida—as the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts. Jackie Gleason is interred in an outdoor mausoleum at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Cemetery in Miami, Florida. Below the graceful Roman columns, at the base, is the inscription, "And Away We Go."
Sign welcoming drivers to Brooklyn.
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 fictitious 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 St. and 8th Ave., at the entrance of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey bus terminal. The inscription reads, "Ralph Kramden: New Yorker, Bus Driver, Dreamer," and it was featured briefly in the film World Trade Center. Another such statue stands at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame in North Hollywood, California, showing Gleason in his famous "And a-waay we go!" pose.
Local signs on the Brooklyn Bridge, which indicate to the driver that they are entering Brooklyn, have the Gleason phrase "How Sweet It Is!" as part of the sign.
A city park with racquetball and basketball courts (and a children's playground) near his home in an Inverrary neiborhood of Lauderhill, Florida was named "Jackie Gleason Park."
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. Garrett was effectively made up to resemble Gleason in his prime. His height (6′8″, about eight inches taller than Gleason) created some logistical problems on the sets, which had to be specially made so that Garrett did not tower over everyone else. Also, cast members wore platform shoes when standing next to Garrett; the shoes can be seen in one shot during a Honeymooners sequence on Alice.
In 2003, after an absence of more than thirty years, the color, musical versions of The Honeymooners from the 1960s Jackie Gleason Show in Miami Beach were returned to television over the Good Life TV (now AmericanLife 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 costar 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.
Gleason was a voracious reader of books on the paranormal, including parapsychology and ufology. He even had a house built in the shape of a UFO which he named "The Mothership". During the 1950s, he was a semi-regular guest on the paranormal-themed overnight radio show hosted by John Nebel, and wrote the introduction to Donald Bain's biography of Nebel. After his death, his large book collection was donated to the library of the University of Miami. << Less Bio
|2004||TV Land Awards||Favorite Cantankerous Couple||"The Honeymooners" (1955).||Nominated|
|2003||TV Land Awards||Working Stiff of the Year||"The Honeymooners" (1955).||Nominated|
|1964||Golden Globes, USA||Best TV Star - Male||"Jackie Gleason: American Scene Magazine" (1962).||Nominated|
|1963||Golden Globes, USA||Best Motion Picture Actor - Drama||Gigot (1962).||Nominated|
|1962||Academy Awards, USA||Best Actor in a Supporting Role||The Hustler (1961).||Nominated|
|1962||Golden Globes, USA||Best Supporting Actor||The Hustler (1961).||Nominated|
|1962||Laurel Awards||Top Male Supporting Performance||The Hustler (1961).||Won|
|1961||National Board of Review, USA||Best Supporting Actor||The Hustler (1961).||Won|
|1960||Walk of Fame||Recording||Won|
|1956||Peabody Awards||Shared with: Perry Como||Won|
|1956||Primetime Emmy Awards||Best Actor - Continuing Performance||"The Honeymooners" (1955).||Nominated|
|1955||Primetime Emmy Awards||Best Actor Starring in a Regular Series||"The Jackie Gleason Show" (1952).||Nominated|
|1954||Primetime Emmy Awards||Best Male Star of Regular Series||"The Jackie Gleason Show" (1952).||Nominated|
|1953||Primetime Emmy Awards||Best Comedian||Nominated|