Sunday, February 26, 2012

Jackie Gleason

 Opening Remarks

When his mother died in 1935, a 19 year old Jackie Gleason had nowhere to go and 36 cents to his name. The family of his first girlfriend offered to take him in but Gleason was headstrong and insisted he was going into the heart of the city to make it on his own. And he did just that.
In many ways, many of Gleasons greatest characters were just extensions and reflections of himself. Gleason was brash, loud, headstrong and noticeable. He was also lovable and related to the everyday, common man. Certainly his greatest character, Ralph Kramden, was just that. That is the way for most writer/performers. Woody Allen would certainly be another whose personality reflects the characters in his movies and he derives them from his own personality and life experience.
Jackie Gleason seemed like the guy from your neighborhood that you knew. He wasn't overly good looking or attractive or slim. He wasn't slick. He wasn't really charming. He was in many ways the opposite of most of the big time stars of the day. He wasn't Cary Grant nor was he Ozzie Nelson or Pat Boone. 

On The Honeymooners Gleason commented:
"This was nudge comedy. When you see Ralph or Ed, or any of the others, you nudge the guy next to you and say 'Jeez, that's just like Uncle Charlie,' or some guy down the block."

Gleason was just a guy. Or so he seemed. He seemed like he could be just you or me. He didn't seem like one of those gifted people who you could not relate to. That was his draw. He knew how to make you feel that way.
The truth was that he was super talented and gifted and that his greatest gift was making you feel like he wasn't.

"Thin people are beautiful, but fat people are adorable."
-Jackie Gleason

Jackie Gleason (February 26, 1916 – June 24, 1987) was an American comedian, actor and musician.

 Originally named Herbert Walton Gleason, Jr., he was baptized as John Herbert Gleason. His parents, both from Cork, Ireland, were Mae Murphy, a subway change-booth attendant, and Herb Gleason, an insurance auditor. Gleason was one of their two children. Gleason's brother, Clemence, died of spinal meningitis at age 14, and his father abandoned the family when Jackie Gleason was 7.

"there has to be pathos. It is difficult for people to appreciate their own laughter unless you show them some pathos along the way. Because without that it's a one dimensional effort you make."
-Jackie Gleason in the 20/20 interview.

Young Jackie with his father.

 Gleason was raised by his mother, who died when he was 19. He became interested in performing after being part of a class play; when he left school he got a job as an MC of a theater. The job paid $4 per night. Other jobs of his included working in a pool hall, stunt diver, and carnival barker.

"there was never enough to eat. As a matter of fact I had to go a shop where they gave you food...I was so embarrassed by it. So naturally when I could afford to get food I got a lot of it. So it certainly started that I didn't have things as a child and I was determined to get them."
-Jackie Gleason

He was known for his brash visual and verbal comedy style, especially by his character Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners, a situation-comedy television series.

His most noted film roles were as Minnesota Fats in the drama film The Hustler (1961)

and as Buford T. Justice in the Smokey and the Bandit movie series.
Gleason was born at 364 Chauncey Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York. He grew up nearby at 358 Chauncey Street, an address that he later used as the address for Ralph and Alice Kramden on his show The Honeymooners.

  The night before his disappearance, Gleason's father disposed of any family photos he was pictured in; just after noon on December 15, 1925, Herbert Gleason collected his hat, coat and paycheck, leaving the insurance company and his family for good. When it was evident he was not coming back, Mae went to work taking change for the Brooklyn–Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT).

"Gleason as a comedian has one quality that most, even the most successful comedians don't have. The ability to make you feel actively,  emotionally sorry for him,  sympathetic for him."
-Steve Allen

Gleason's comic genius and acting ability are why Orson Welles nicknamed him "The Great One."

After his father left, young Gleason started hanging around on the streets with a local gang and hustling pool. 

Gleason and Newman in The Hustler

Young Jackie had known since he was six, when his father brought him to a matinee of silent films and Vaudeville at the Halsey, that he wanted to face an audience for the rest of his life.

“A great feeling of friendship came from the audience,” he said.

School was simply an obstacle to overcome.

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's handing her an ice cube and saying, "Okay, now do something." 

"I only made $200 a week and I had to buy my own bullets."

Portrait of Allen Eager, Art Mardigan, and Curley Russell, Club 18, New York,. Nov. 1947

 It was here where Jack Warner first saw Gleason, signing him to a film contract for $250 per week. By age 24, Gleason was appearing in movies, first at 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) with Humphrey Bogart

 Gleason played the Glenn Miller band's bassist in Orchestra Wives (1942).

Gleason also had a small part as the soda shop clerk in Larceny, Inc. (1942) with Edward G. Robinson

and a modest part as "Commissioner" in the 1942 Betty Grable/Harry James musical, Springtime in the Rockies.

Gleason, however, did not make a strong impression in Hollywood at first. At the same time, he developed a nightclub act that included both comedy and music. He also became somewhat known for hosting all-night parties at his hotel suite; the hotel soundproofed his suite out of consideration for its other guests.

 "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."

Gleason's first recognition as a significant entertainer finally came on Broadway, when he appeared in the hit musical Follow the Girls (1944).

While working in films in California, Gleason also spent some time working at former boxer Maxie Rosenbloom's nightclub called Slapsy Maxie's on Wilshire.

Gleason's 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.
 The show received modest ratings but positive reviews; however, Gleason left the show after the first year. The Life of Riley became a television hit in the early 1950s.

By that time, however, Gleason was long gone from the show, and his nightclub act had begun receiving attention from New York City's inner circle and the small DuMont Television Network.
Gleason was working at Slapsy Maxie's when the offer was made.

Gleason 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 Gleason said he did not consider that worth traveling to New York by train for, the offer was extended to four weeks. Gleason then boarded the train back 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 wing, clapping his hands inversely and hollering, "And awaaay we go!" The phrase became one of his trademarks along with "How Sweet It Is!", used in reaction to almost anything at all.

 Theona Bryant, a former Powers Model, became Gleason's "And awaaay we go," girl logo. 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 the following:
  • Reginald Van Gleason III, the top-hatted millionaire with a taste for both the good life 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.

  • 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.

  • Rum Dum, a character with a brush-like mustache who often stumbled around as if he were drunk and confused.

  • Fenwick Babbitt, a friendly but 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 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 that 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.

    Gleason as Ralph Kramden with Audrey Meadows as Alice Kramden,

    By far, Gleason's most popular character was the 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 incessant get-rich-quick schemes, the tensions between his ambitiousness and his friend Norton's scatterbrained aid and comfort, and the inevitable clash when his sensible wife Alice tried pulling her husband's head back down from the clouds.

    The show also became the birthplace of notable comments invented by Gleason such as "one of these days Alice, pow, right in the kisser".

    The Honeymooners came about when Gleason was trying to write a sketch with his show's writers. Gleason 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 the couple did have their fights but underneath it all, they both 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 as Norton and the 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 15 years younger than Kelton) took over the role after Kelton was blacklisted, the tone softened considerably.

    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 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. 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 Randolph.

    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, which finished 19th in the ratings for their only season. 

    However, they were filmed with a new DuMont process, Electronicam; like kinescopes, it preserved the live performance on film, but in an improvement on kinescopes, it resulted in first-generation quality comparable to a motion picture. 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. 

    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".

    Gleason's first album, Music for Lovers Only, still holds the record for the album staying the 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 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; Gleason 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.

     Gleason restored his original variety hour, including The Honeymooners, in 1956, winning a Peabody Award for the show in that year. 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 that featured Buddy Hackett. 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. 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 more splashiness and a new hook— a fictitious general-interest magazine called The American Scene 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 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!"

    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 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.

     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, Florida. 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. 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 (a college comedy, a political satire, etc.), with the stars abandoning their Honeymooners roles for different 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 was presented only in short sketches.

     The musicals pushed Gleason back into the Top Five in the 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.  Gleason simply stopped doing the show by 1970 and finally left CBS when his contract expired.

     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. Gleason helmed four of these ABC specials during the mid-1970s.

     Gleason and Carney also made a television movie, Izzy and Moe, which aired on CBS in 1985. Izzy & Moe is a 1985 made for TV crime/comedy film, starred Gleason and  Carney as two Prohibition-era policemen, Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith, and their adventures in tracking down illegal bars and gangsters.

     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 one song-and-dance routine, the two performed "Take Me Along" from Gleason's Broadway musical.

     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

     William 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 played 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)

     He wrote, produced, and starred in Gigot (1962), a notorious box-office disaster, 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 flop, 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 in the film, even though he wanted to play it.

     Instead, 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. This role was as 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).

     Years later, when Burt Reynolds was interviewed by Larry King, Reynolds said that he agreed to do the movie only if they would hire Jackie Gleason to play the part of Sheriff Buford T. Justice, which is the name of a real Florida highway patrolman who knew Reynolds' father.

     That 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.

     For example, the scene at the "Choke and Puke" was Gleason's idea. Reynolds and Needham knew the comic brilliance of Gleason would help make the film a success, and Gleason's characterization of Sheriff Justice helped them connect the film with mostly blue-collar audiences.

     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)

     Gleason 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 (1986). The film proved to be Gleason's final film role, as he was suffering from colon cancer, liver cancer, and thrombosed hemorrhoids during production.

     Personal Life

    Gleason had been seeing a lot of Genevieve Halford, a dancer. They were both working in vaudeville when they met. Genevieve was very marriage-minded while Gleason was not really ready to settle down yet. She told him that they would either get married or she would begin seeing other men. It was no idle threat; when Gleason went onstage one evening at the Club Miami in Newark, New Jersey, Genevieve was seated in the front row with a handsome 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 Halford, Gleason's first wife
     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 and his wife were informally separated again in 1951. In early 1954, the comedian suffered a broken leg and ankle while on the air of his television show. His injuries were serious enough to sideline him for a few weeks; Gleason's friends filled in for him while he was on the mend. Gleason's injury dealt a permanent blow to his already troubled marriage to Genevieve; they were still separated at the time Gleason fell and was hospitalized for his injuries. Genevieve Gleason came to visit him in the hospital but found he already had a visitor: dancer Marilyn Taylor from his television show. The two women confronted each other with the result being Mrs. Gleason filed for a legal separation in April 1954. The couple was divorced in 1970.
    Marilyn Taylor, Gleasons third wife
     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.
    Gleason and his second wife Beverly McKittrick
      Marilyn Taylor and Gleason were re-united 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 and Gleason were married on December 16, 1975; the marriage lasted until his death in 1987.

    Gleason with his daughters Linda and Geraldine having dinner
     For many years, Gleason would only travel by train; his fear of flying came from an incident at the time where he had only minor movie roles. Gleason would fly to Los Angeles for movie work, then back to New York when his roles were completed. After finishing one of his movies, the comedian boarded a plane for New York. Two of the plane's engines quit and the flight made a forced landing in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
    While another plane was readied for the passengers to continue their journey, Gleason decided he had enough and made his way from the airport into the heart of the city. He walked into a hardware store and asked its owner to loan him $200 for his train trip back to New York. The amazed man asked Gleason why he thought anyone would lend a total stranger that amount of money. Gleason explained who he was and his situation; when the store owner learned of Gleason's movie work, he said he would loan him the money if the local theater had a photo of him on display in his latest film. Since Gleason was not yet a major motion picture star, the publicity shots the theater had were only of those with principal roles in the film. Gleason then proposed that he purchase two movie tickets and that they both see the film, as the hardware store owner would certainly be able to identify him from that. The two men sat in the dark theater for an hour before Gleason came on the screen. Gleason got his loan and boarded the next train back to New York. Returning home, he borrowed $200 to repay the Tulsa hardware store owner.

     Gleason was a voracious reader of books on the paranormal, including The Urantia Book, parapsychology and UFOs. 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.

    Gleason with Tiny Tim, who was also into the paranormal

     Jackie Gleason did not like to rehearse. He had a photographic memory, so he read the script over once, watched a rehearsal with his co-stars and his stand-in, then shot the show later that day. When Gleason would mess up, he often blamed the cue cards.

     Gleason was a heavy drinker, and smoked five packs of cigarettes a day. In 1986, he was diagnosed with diabetes and phlebitis, but he knew his condition was more serious. “I won’t be around much longer,” he told his daughter at dinner one evening after a day of filming Nothing in Common. The entertainer kept his medical problems private, though there had been rumors that he was seriously ill. A year later, on June 24, 1987 Gleason died at his Florida home.

    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 that few had previously known. 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 being worn by Alice during a Honeymooners sequence.

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