GLEASON, JACKIE

U.S. Comedian/Actor

Jackie Gleason must be counted among Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, and Red Skelton in the small group of creative comedy-variety stars who dominated, and to some degree invented, early television. Perhaps more than any of the others he explored the limits of broad physical gesture and loud verbal bombast in the contextual frame of the small screen. His highly stylized and adroitly choreographed blustering, prancing, smirking and double-taking led Gilbert Seldes to describe Gleason as "...a heavy man with the traditional belief of heavy men in their own lightness and grace." Whether burning a finger, stubbing a toe or getting caught in a lie, Gleason's work in the 1950s constitutes a vital contribution to the invention of television comedy.

Born in a poor section of Brooklyn and abandoned by an alcoholic father, he dropped out of school at an early age and supported himself as a pool hustler, professional boxer and carnival barker before establishing himself as "Jumpin' Jack" Gleason, a nightclub comic and vaudeville emcee known for his spirited exchanges with hecklers. Following a brief, unsuccessful stint in Hollywood as a Warner Brothers contract player, Gleason's career reached an apparent plateau. He worked as a stand-up comic and a master of ceremonies in venues ranging from middle-level nightspots to seamy dives in the New York area.

In 1949, at age 33, he was handed the title role in a TV adaptation of The Life of Riley, a popular radio series about a culturally displaced Brooklyn factory worker who follows his job to a new life in a Southern California suburb. The plodding, moralistic narrative structure of the sitcom, however, obscured Gleason's verbal rancor and physical comedy. The series was not renewed, though it was successfully revived several years later when its radio star, William Bendix, was freed from a movie contract that had enjoined him from appearing on television.

Gleason was once again called on as a substitute when Jerry Lester, the host of DuMont's Cavalcade of Stars, suddenly quit the show in 1950. This time it turned out be the break of his career. The live-from-New York, comedy-variety format played directly to Gleason's strengths, allowing him to wisecrack as emcee, to engage in off-the-cuff chats with guests and to move in and out of short sketch material that emphasized physical humor rather than narrative resolution. The show became DuMont's biggest success.

It was on Cavalcade that Gleason originated most of the sketch characters he would play for the rest of his career: the absurdly ostentatious millionaire Reginald Van Gleason, III; The Poor Soul, a pathetic street character played in pantomime; the hapless, bumbling Bachelor; and, his greatest creation, Ralph Kramden, a bus driver tortured by a life that will not support his ego. All were to some degree autobiographical fantasies, personal visions of despair and grandeur culled from his poverty-stricken Brooklyn childhood, meditations on who the comedian could, would or might have been. It was on the DuMont show that Gleason created his persona of The Great One; he also began his life-long association with Art Carney, a Cavalcade regular.

Impressed by Gleason's performance on the screen and in the ratings, William Paley personally wooed the star away, offering him five times his DuMont salary and the far greater market coverage of CBS. The Jackie Gleason Show debuted in 1952, quickly propelling the comedian into national stardom. By 1954, Gleason was second only to Lucille Ball in the ratings. Taking advantage of this success, he secured rights that allowed him to thoroughly dominate every aspect of production, from casting to set design to script approval.

Glitz was Gleason's watchword. The June Taylor Dancers opened each show with a high-stepping chorus-line dance number that always included at least one overhead kaleidoscope shot of the Busby Berkely variety. A troupe of personally-auditioned beauties, known as The Glea Girls, escorted the star around the stage and brought him "coffee" (he always sipped it as if were something stronger) and lit his cigarettes on camera. Unable to read music, Gleason composed his own musical theme, "Melancholy Serenade," which he hummed out for a professional songwriter. (Gleason also produced several gold albums of romantic music this way in an LP series titled "For Lovers Only.") The show ended each week with an unprecedented but justifiable personal credit: "Entire Production Supervised by Jackie Gleason."

Riding high, the comedian paid little attention to the relationship between his sudden rise in fortune and the medium that had facilitated it. The Gleason style was utterly suited to 1950s comedy-variety: the vaudeville trappings, including a live audience; the emphasis on slapstick, constant close-ups, blackout segues, splintered segments and so on. But ever the arriviste, the star remained extremely defensive about his talents and status, yearning to prove himself in "higher" forms, especially the movies.

Attempting to make time for new ventures, he came up with a radical format for retaining his CBS Saturday night hour in the 1955-56 season. Gleason repackaged the most popular feature of his show, The Honeymooners, into a 30-minute sitcom, while the second half of the hour was contracted to the Dorsey Brothers for a big-band musical program. The best of the old Ralph Kramden sketch material was reworked into the thirty-nine Honeymooners episodes that have run in continuous syndication ever since.

For pure economy of style and setting, The Honeymooners has never quite been equaled. Often using only a single set, rarely employing more than four regular characters, each episode is completely dependent upon the bravura performances of the show's stars: Gleason, as Ralph Kramden, the incorrigible egoist who, when not being teased about his weight, is repeatedly humiliated by his failed get-rich-quick schemes; Art Carney, as Ed Norton, a best friend and sidekick whose physical and mental slownesses play foil to Gleason's mania in a kind of TV variation on Laurel and Hardy; and Audrey Meadows as Alice, the stoic, sensible wife who is forced to function as parent as much as spouse. Signature lines and gestures, such as Ralph's threats to send Alice "to the moon," or Ralph's throwing Norton out of his apartment, are ritually repeated to extraordinary comic effect.

Unfortunately that season marked the end of Gleason's most creative period. He would continue to hold down a prime-time slot (with some gaps) until 1970, but he never created any new noteworthy characters or elaborated further on the style he had developed. Casting about for a fresh format in which he could demonstrate versatility, he hosted a game show (You're in the Picture, 1961), conducted a one-on-one talk show (The Jackie Gleason Show, 1961) and returned to comedy-variety, promising (but not delivering) an innovative social satire approach (Jackie Gleason's American Scene Magazine, 1962-66). The results were all critically disappointing, though the last of the three did prove that he could still deliver a Top Twenty audience with a comedy-variety format.

In 1964 all pretense was dropped and the Saturday night hour with relaunched as The Jackie Gleason Show, a reprise of the familiar comedy-variety form of a dozen years earlier. Gleason spent much of the rest of his TV career doing increasingly tiresome replays of The Honeymooners and his other 1950s creations. Perhaps the only notable feature of the final series is that it was the only show in prime time not made in Los Angeles or New York. Gleason had moved his home and his show to Miami Beach.

Jackie Gleason's career illustrates much about the lot of television comedians. A small-timer with an erratic career, Gleason found a medium perfectly suited to his talents. He refused, however, to respect either the medium or the genre that had made him. Rather than pursue further depth as a TV sketch artist, he tried to prove that his talents transcended medium and genre. Others who would make this mistake include Dan Aykroyd, Katherine O'Hara, Chevy Chase and Joe Piscopo. Gleason finally did achieve some popular success in the movies playing a Southern sheriff in the three Smokey and the Bandit films made between 1977 and 1983. He died in 1987.

-David Marc


Jackie Gleason

JACKIE GLEASON (Herbert John Gleason). Born in Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A., on 26 February 1916. Married 1) Genevieve Halford, 1936 (divorced, 1971); children: Geraldine and Linda; 2) Beverly McKittrick, 1971 (divorced, 1974); 3) Marilyn Taylor Horwich, 1975. Began career by winning stand-up comedy contest at age 15, 1931; master of ceremonies, Halsey Theater, Brooklyn, 1931; worked and toured in variety of entertainment jobs, including carnival barker, master of ceremonies, bouncer, amateur boxer, and disc jockey, 1935-38; signed to Warner Brothers, 1940; prominent television career beginning with Cavalcade of Stars, 1950; The Honeymooners debuted as segment on Cavalcade of Stars, 1951; wrote and recorded six albums of mood music, Music for Lovers Only. Recipient: "Best Commedian of the Year," TV Guide, 1952; Television Hall of Fame, 1985; Antoinette Perry Awards (TONY) "Best Actor," 1960. Died 24 June 1987, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

TELEVISION SERIES

1949-50 Life of Riley
1950-52
1952-55 The Jackie Gleason Show
1953     The Laugh Maker
1955-56 The Honeymooners
1957-59 The Jackie Gleason Show
1959     Time of Your Life
1961     The Jackie Gleason Show
1961     The Million Dollar Incident
1962-66 Jackie Gleason and his American Scene             Magazine
1964-70 The Jackie Gleason Show

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIE

1985 Izzy and Moe

FILMS

Navy Blue, 1941; Springtime in the Rockies, 1942; The Desert Hawk, 1950; The Hustler, 1961; Gigot, 1962 (wrote, starred in, and composed music); Requiem for a Heavyweight, 1962; Soldier in the Rain, 1963; The Time of Your Life, 1963; Papa's Delicate Condition, 1966; Skidoo, 1968; How to Commit a 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; Sting II, 1983; Smokey and the Bandit III, 1983; Fools Die, 1985; Nothing in Common, 1986.

STAGE

Hellzapoppin', 1938; Keep Off the Grass, 1940; Follow the Girls, 1944; Artists and Models, 1943; Along Fifth Avenue, 1949; Take Me Along, 1959-60; Sly Fox, 1978.

FURTHER READING

Bacon, James. How Sweet It Is: The Jackie Gleason Story. New York: St. Martin's, 1985.

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

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

McCrohan, Donna. Honeymooner's Companion. New York: Workman, 1978.

Weatherby, William J. Jackie Gleason: An Intimate Portrait of the Great One. New York: Pharos, 1992.

 

See also Carney, Art; Honeymooners; Variety Programs