Jackie Gleason

Show Count: 1
Series Count: 0
Role: Old Time Radio Star
Old Time Radio
Born: February 26, 1916 , Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York City,
Died: June 24, 1987, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA

John Herbert Gleason (February 26, 1916 – June 24, 1987) known professionally as Jackie Gleason was an American comedian, actor and musician. He was known for his brash visual and verbal comedy style, exemplified by his character Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners. Among his notable film roles were Minnesota Fats in the 1961 drama The Hustler (starring Paul Newman) and Buford T. Justice in the Smokey and the Bandit series.

Early life

Gleason was born at 364 Chauncey Street in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. He grew up nearby, at 328 Chauncey (an address he later used for Ralph and Alice Kramden onThe Honeymooners). Originally named Herbert Walton Gleason Jr., he was baptized John Herbert Gleason. His parents were Mae "Maisie" (née Kelly), a subway change-booth attendant and Herbert Walton "Herb" Gleason, an insurance auditor. His mother was from Farranree, Cork, Ireland, and his father was Irish-American. Gleason was one of their two children—his brother Clemence died of spinal meningitis at age 14, and his father abandoned the family.

He remembered his father as having "beautiful handwriting", as Herbert Gleason often worked at the family's kitchen table writing policies in the evenings. The night before his disappearance, Gleason's father disposed of any family photos he was pictured in; just after noon on December 15, 1925 he collected his hat, coat and paycheck, leaving the insurance company and his family permanently. When it was evident he was not coming back, Mae went to work for the Brooklyn–Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT).

After his father left, young Gleason began hanging around on the streets with a local gang and hustling pool. He attended elementary school at P.S. 73 in Brooklyn and attended (but did not graduate from) John Adams High School in Queens and Bushwick High School in Brooklyn. Gleason became interested in performing after being part of a class play; when he left school, he got a job as master of ceremonies at a theater which paid $4 per night. Other jobs he held included working in a pool hall, as a stunt diver and a carnival barker. Gleason and his friends made the rounds of the local theaters; he put an act together with one of his friends, and the pair performed on amateur night at the Halsey Theater (where Gleason replaced his friend, Sammy Birch, as master of ceremonies). He was also offered the same work two nights a week at the Folly Theater.

After his father's disappearance, Gleason was raised by his mother. When she died in 1935, Gleason was 19, had nowhere to go and less than 40 cents to his name. The family of his first girlfriend, Julie Dennehy, offered to take him in; Gleason, however, was headstrong and insisted he was going into the heart of the city. His friend, Sammy Birch, made room for him in the hotel room he shared with another comedian. Birch also told him of a one-week job in Reading, Pennsylvania that would pay $19, more money than Gleason could imagine. The booking agent advanced him bus fare for the trip against his salary. This was Gleason's first job as a professional comedian, and he had regular work in a number of small clubs after that.


Gleason worked his way up to a job at New York's Club 18, where insulting its patrons was the order of the day. Skater Sonja Henie was greeted by Gleason, who handed her an ice cube and said, "Okay, now do something." It was here that Jack Warner first saw Gleason, signing him to a film contract for $250 per week. By age 24 Gleason was appearing in movies: first for Warner Brothers (as Jackie C. Gleason) in such films as Navy Blues (1941) with Ann Sheridan and Martha Raye and All Through the Night (1941) withHumphrey Bogart, for Columbia Pictures for the B military comedy Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1942) and finally for Twentieth Century-Fox, where Gleason played Glenn Miller Orchestra bassist Ben Beck in Orchestra Wives (1942). He also had a small part as a soda shop clerk in Larceny, Inc. (1942) with Edward G. Robinson, and a modest part as acommissioner in the 1942 Betty Grable-Harry James musical Springtime in the Rockies.

Gleason did not make a strong impression on Hollywood at first; at that time, however, he developed a nightclub act which included comedy and music. At the end of 1942, Gleason and Lew Parker led a large cast of entertainers in the road-show production of Olsen and Johnson's New 1943 Hellzapoppin. He also became known for hosting all-night parties in his hotel suite; the hotel soundproofed his suite out of consideration for its other guests. "Anyone who knew Jackie Gleason in the 1940s," wrote CBShistorian 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." Gleason's first significant recognition as an entertainer finally came on Broadway when he appeared in the hit musical Follow the Girls (1944). While working in films in California, Gleason also worked at former boxer Maxie Rosenbloom's nightclub (Slapsy Maxie's, on Wilshire Boulevard).

Early television

Gleason and Rosemary DeCampas Chester and Peg Riley.
Gleason and June Taylor dancer Margaret Jeanne get ready for St. Patrick's Day 1955

Gleason's big break occurred in 1949, when he landed the role of blunt (but softhearted) aircraft worker Chester A. Riley for the first television version of the radio comedy The Life of Riley (William Bendix originated the role on radio, but was unable to accept the television role at first because of film commitments). The show received modest ratings (despite positive reviews) but was cancelled after one year, with Bendix reprising the role in 1953 for a five-year series. The Life of Riley became a television hit for Bendix during the mid to late 1950s. But long before this, Gleason's nightclub act had received attention from New York City's inner circle and the fledgling DuMont Television Network. He was working at Slapsy Maxie's when he was hired  to host DuMont's Cavalcade of Stars variety hour in 1950. The program initially had rotating hosts; the offer first made to Gleason was for two weeks at $750 per week. When he said he did not consider that worth the train trip to New York, the offer was extended to four weeks. Gleason then returned to New York. 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 its network in 1952.

Renamed The Jackie Gleason Show, it became the country's second-highest-rated television show during the 1954–1955 season. 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 would do an opening monologue. Then, accompanied by "a little travelin' music" ("That's a Plenty", a Dixieland classic from 1914), he would shuffle toward the wings, clapping his hands inversely and shouting, "And awaaay we go!" The phrase became one of his trademarks, along with "How sweet it is!" (which was used in reaction to almost anything). Theona Bryant, a former Powers Girl, became Gleason's "And awaaay we go," girl. 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. He continued developing comic characters, including:

Gleason as the Poor Soul on Toast of the Town in 1954
  • Reginald Van Gleason III, a top-hatted millionaire with a taste for both the good life and fantasy
  • Boisterous, boorish Rudy the Repairman
  • Gregarious Joe the Bartender, with friendly words for the never-seen Mr. Dennehy (always first at the bar)
  • The Poor Soul, a silent character who could (and often did) come to grief in the least-expected places (or demonstrate sweet gratitude at things no more complicated than being allowed to share a newspaper on a subway)
  • Rum Dum, a character with a brush-like mustache who often stumbled around (as though drunk and confused)
  • Fenwick Babbitt, a friendly, addle-headed young man usually depicted working (and invariably failing) at various jobs
  • Charlie Bratton, a loudmouth who frequently picked on the mild-mannered Clem Finch (portrayed by future Honeymooners co-star Art Carney)
  • The Bachelor, a silent character (accompanied by the song "Somebody Loves Me") doing everyday things in an unusually lazy (or makeshift) way

In a 1985 interview, Gleason related the connection of some of his characters to his youth in Brooklyn. The Mr. Dennehy whom Joe the Bartender greets is a tribute to Gleason's first love, Julie Dennehy. The character of The Poor Soul was drawn from an assistant manager of an outdoor theater he frequented.

The Honeymooners

Gleason as Ralph Kramden with Audrey Meadows as Alice, circa 1955

By far, Gleason's most popular character was blustery bus driver Ralph Kramden. Largely drawn from Gleason's harsh Brooklyn childhood, these sketches became known as The Honeymooners and customarily centered on Ralph's many get-rich-quick schemes, his ambition, his scatterbrained sewer-worker neighbor and friend, Ed Norton, and the clashes when sensible wife Alice tried pulling her husband's head down from the clouds. The show also became the birthplace of catchphrases invented by Gleason like his toothless threat, "one of these days Alice, pow! Right in the kisser". The Honeymooners originated when Gleason was collaborating on a sketch with his show's writers. He told them he had an idea he had always wanted to work out: a skit with a smart, quiet wife and her very vocal husband. He went on to describe that while the couple had their fights, underneath it all they loved each other. Titles for the sketch were tossed around until someone came up with The Honeymooners.

The Honeymooners first appeared on Cavalcade of Stars on October 5, 1951, with Carney in a guest appearance as a cop (Norton did not appear until a few episodes later) and character actress Pert Kelton as Alice. Darker and fiercer than they later were with Audrey Meadows as Alice, the sketches proved popular with critics and viewers. As Kramden, Gleason played a frustrated bus driver with a battleaxe of a wife in harrowingly realistic arguments; when Meadows (who was 15 years younger than Kelton) took over the role after Kelton was blacklisted, the tone softened considerably. Early sketches come as something of a shock to modern critics accustomed to Meadows' Alice.

When Gleason moved to CBS Kelton was left behind; her name had turned up in Red Channels, a book which listed and described reputed Communists (and 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 Meadows as Kelton's replacement 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. Rounding out the cast, Joyce Randolph played Ed Norton's wife Trixie. Elaine Stritch had played the role as a tall and attractive blonde in the first sketch, but was quickly replaced by Randolph.

Comedy writer, Leonard Stern, always felt The Honeymooners were more than sketch material and convinced Gleason to make it into a full hour long episode. Gleason gambled on making it a separate series entirely in 1955. These are the "Classic 39" episodes, which finished 19th in the ratings for their only season. They were filmed with a new DuMont process, Electronicam; like kinescopes, it preserved a live performance on film but with higher quality (comparable to a motion picture). That turned out to be the most prescient move Gleason made, because, a decade afterwards, they aired the half-hour Honeymooners in syndicated reruns which began to build a loyal and growing audience that made the show a television icon. Its popularity was such that a life-size statue of Jackie Gleason, in uniform as bus driver Ralph Kramden, stands outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City.

Musical work

Brendan Behan with Jackie Gleason in Gleason's dressing room after a performance of Take Me Along (1960)

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s 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. His goal was to make "musical wallpaper that should never be intrusive, but conducive". He recalled seeing Clark Gable play love scenes in movies; 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's first album, Music for Lovers Only, still holds the record for the album longest in the Billboard Top Ten Charts (153 weeks), and his first ten albums all sold over one million copies.

Gleason could not read or write music; 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 controversy over the years as to how much credit Gleason should have received for the finished products; biographer William A. Henry III wrote in his 1992 book The Great One: The Life and Legend of Jackie Gleason 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 on hard times and led one of the group's recordings, did not even get session-leader pay from Gleason. Cornetist and trumpeter Bobby Hackett, who soloed on the albums and was leader for seven of them, when asked by musician-journalist Harry Currie in Toronto weeks before Hackett's death what Gleason really did at the recording sessions, Hackett replied "He brought the cheques."

However, this alleged statement is at odds with others made by Hackett, who said to writer James Bacon: "Jackie knows a lot more about music than people give him credit for. I have seen him conduct a sixty-piece orchestra and detect one discordant note in the brass section. He would immediately stop the music and locate the wrong note. It always amazed the professional musicians how a guy who technically did not know one note from another could do that. And he was never wrong."  Nearly all of Gleason's albums are still available, and have been re-released on compact disc.

He had a lead role in the musical Take Me Along, which ran from 1959 to 1960 and for which he won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical.

Return to television

Gleason and Edward R. Murrow when Gleason was the subject of the interview program Person to Person in 1956

Gleason restored his original variety hour (including The Honeymooners) in 1956, winning a Peabody Award. He abandoned the show in 1957 when his ratings for the season came in at #29 and the network "suggested" he needed a break. He returned in 1958 with a half-hour show featuring Buddy Hackett, which did not catch on. One of the perks Gleason received from CBS was the network's picking up the tab for his Peekskill, New York "Round Rock Hill" mansion. Set atop a hill on six acres, the site for the circular dream home included a guest house and a round storage building. Gleason planned the home for two years; it was completed in 1959, but Gleason sold the home when he relocated to Miami.

His next foray into television was the game show You're in the Picture, which survived its disastrous premiere episode only because of Gleason's humorous on-the-air apology the following week. For the rest of its scheduled run, the program was a talk show once again named The Jackie Gleason Show.

In 1962, Gleason resurrected his variety show with more splashiness and a new hook: a fictitious general-interest magazine called The American Scene Magazine, through which Gleason trotted out his old characters in new scenarios. He also added another catchphrase to the American vernacular, first uttered in the 1963 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 band leader 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). During the sketch, Joe 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 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 show Joe his current Top Cat comic book. Joe usually asked Crazy to sing—almost always a sentimental ballad in his fine, lilting baritone.

Miami Beach Auditorium, where Gleason taped his shows after his Florida move

Gleason revived The Honeymooners—first with Sue Ane Langdon as Alice and Patricia Wilson as Trixie for two episodes of The American Scene Magazine, and then with Sheila MacRae as Alice and Jane Kean as Trixie for the 1966 series.  By 1964 Gleason had moved the production from New York to Miami Beach, Florida, reportedly because he liked year-round access to the golf course at the nearby Inverrary Country Club in Lauderhill (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 abandoned the American Scene Magazine format and converted the show into a standard variety hour with guest performers.

Gleason kicked off the 1966–1967 season with new, color episodes of The Honeymooners. Carney returned as Ed Norton, with MacRae as Alice and 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 such as college comedy or political satire, with the stars abandoning their Honeymooners roles for different character roles. This was the show's format until its cancellation in 1970 (except for the 1968–1969 season, which had no hour-long Honeymooners episodes; that season, The Honeymooners was presented only in short sketches).

The musicals pushed Gleason back into the top five in TV ratings, but audiences soon began to decline. By its final season, Gleason's show was no longer in the top 25. In the last original Honeymooners episode aired on CBS ("Operation Protest"), Ralph encounters the youth-protest movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s (a sign of changing times in television as well as in society).

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 a mainstay variety show hosted by Red Skelton and would cancel The Ed Sullivan Show in 1971 because they had become too expensive to produce and attracted, in the executives' opinion, too old an audience. Gleason simply stopped doing the show in 1970, and left CBS when his contract expired.

Honeymooners revival

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 portrayed as an 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. Gleason hosted four ABC specials during the mid-1970s. Gleason and Carney also made a television movie, Izzy and Moe, which aired on CBS in 1985.

In April 1974, Gleason revived several classic characters (including Ralph Kramden, Joe the Bartender and Reginald Van Gleason III) in a television special with Julie Andrews. In a song-and-dance routine, 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 (includingHoneymooners 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, aired on the Showtime cable network in 1985 and later added to the Honeymooners syndication package with the classic 39 episodes for broadcast on local TV stations. They were also released on home video.

Some of these include earlier versions of plot lines later used in the classic 39 episodes. One (a Christmas episode duplicated several years later with Meadows as Alice) had all Gleason's best-known characters (Ralph Kramden, the Poor Soul, Rudy the Repairman, Reginald Van Gleason, Fenwick Babbitt and Joe the Bartender) in and out of the Kramden apartment. The storyline involved a wild Christmas party hosted up the block from the Kramdens' building by Reginald Van Gleason at Joe the Bartender's place.

Dramatic roles

Gleason's acting was not restricted to comedic roles. He had also earned acclaim for live television drama performances in The Laugh Maker (1953) on CBS's Studio One andWilliam Saroyan's The Time of Your Life (1958), which appeared as an episode of Playhouse 90 (a television anthology series).

He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor award for his portrayal of Minnesota Fats in The Hustler (1961). (In his 1985 appearance on The Tonight Show, Gleason told Johnny Carson that he had played pool frequently since childhood, utilizing those experiences in The Hustler.) He was also well-received as a beleaguered boxing manager in the movie version of Rod Serling's Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962). Gleason also played a world-weary army sergeant in Soldier in the Rain (1963), in which he received top billing overSteve McQueen.

He wrote, produced and starred in Gigot (1962), a box-office flop in which he plays a poor, mute janitor who befriends and rescues a prostitute and her small daughter. The film's script formed the basis for the television film The Wool Cap (2004), starring William H. Macy in the role of the mute janitor; the television film received modestly good reviews.

Gleason played the lead in the Otto Preminger all-star failure, Skidoo (1968). In 1969 William Friedkin wanted to cast Gleason as "Popeye" Doyle in The French Connection (1971), but between Gigot and Skidoo the studio refused to offer Gleason the lead (although he wanted to play it). Instead, Gleason wound up in How to Commit Marriage (1969) with Bob Hope as well as the movie version of Woody Allen's play Don't Drink the Water (1969). Both were unsuccessful.

Eight years passed before Gleason had another hit film. This role was the comedic and cursing Texas sheriff Buford T. Justice in the films Smokey and the Bandit (1977), Smokey and the Bandit II (1980) and Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 (1983). He co-starred with Burt Reynolds as the Bandit, Sally Field as Carrie (the Bandit's love interest) and Jerry Reedas Cledus (Snowman) Snow, the Bandit's truck-driving partner. Former NFL linebacker Mike Henry played his not-so-bright son, Junior Justice. Gleason's gruff and frustrated demeanor and lines such as "I'm gonna barbecue yo' ass in molasses!" made the first Bandit movie a hit.

Years later, when interviewed by Larry King, Reynolds said he agreed to do the movie only if they would hire Jackie Gleason to play the part of Sheriff Buford T. Justice (the name of a real Florida highway patrolman, who knew Reynolds' father). The interview also revealed that director Hal Needham gave Gleason free rein to ad-lib a great deal of his dialog and make suggestions for the film; the scene at the "Choke and Puke" was Gleason's idea. Reynolds and Needham knew Gleason's comic talent would help make the film a success, and Gleason's characterization of Sheriff Justice helped the film's appeal to blue-collar audiences.

During the 1980s, Gleason earned positive reviews playing opposite Laurence Olivier in the HBO dramatic two-man special, Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson (1983). He also gave a memorable performance as wealthy businessman U.S. Bates in the comedy The Toy (1982) opposite Richard Pryor. Although the movie itself was critically panned, Gleason and Pryor's performances were praised.

Personal life

Marriages and family

Gleason had been seeing a lot of Genevieve Halford, a dancer; both were working in vaudeville when they met. Genevieve wanted marriage, while Gleason was not ready to settle down. She told him that they would either get married or she would begin seeing other men; when Gleason went onstage one evening at the Club Miami in Newark, New Jersey, Genevieve was seated in the front row with a date. At the end of his show, Gleason went to the table and proposed to Genevieve in front of her date. They were married on September 20, 1936.

Genevieve expected a normal husband who would be home when not at work; Gleason fell back into spending his nights out. Separated for the first time in 1941 and reconciled in 1948, the couple had two daughters (Geraldine and Linda). Gleason's daughter Linda was married to actor-playwright Jason Miller; their son (and Gleason's grandson) is actor Jason Patric. Gleason and his wife informally separated again in 1951. In early 1954, the comedian suffered a broken leg and ankle on-air during his television show. His injuries sidelined him for a few weeks, and Gleason's friends filled in for him while he recuperated. Gleason's injury dealt a permanent blow to his already-troubled marriage. While they were still separated when Gleason was hospitalized, Genevieve came to visit and found he already had a visitor: dancer Marilyn Taylor from his television show. The women confronted each other, and Genevieve filed for a legal separation in April 1954; they were divorced in 1970.

Gleason met his second wife, Beverly McKittrick (a secretary), at a country club in 1968. Ten days after his divorce from Genevieve was final, Gleason and McKittrick were married in a registry ceremony in Ashford, England on July 4, 1970. Marilyn Taylor (who left show business in 1956) was reunited with Gleason in 1974 when she moved to the Miami area to be near her sister June, whose dancers were part of Gleason's shows for many years. In September 1974 Gleason filed for divorce from McKittrick (who contested, asking for a reconciliation). The divorce was granted on November 19, 1975. Now a widow with a young son, Marilyn Taylor married Gleason on December 16, 1975; the marriage lasted until his death in 1987.

Source: Wikipedia