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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Life of Riley
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
1985 Izzy and Moe
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
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.
Bacon, James. How Sweet It Is: The Jackie Gleason Story.
New York: St. Martin's, 1985.
Jim. The Golden Ham: A Candid Biography of Jackie Gleason.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.
William A. The Great One: The Life and Legend of Jackie Gleason.
New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Donna. Honeymooner's Companion. New York: Workman, 1978.
William J. Jackie Gleason: An Intimate Portrait of the Great
One. New York: Pharos, 1992.