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Jackie Gleason (February 26, 1916 – June 24, 1987) was an American comedian, actor and musician. He was known for his brash visual and verbal comedy style, especially by his character Ralph Kramden on the The Honeymooners, a situation-comedy television series. His most noted film roles were as Minnesota Fats in the drama film The Hustler (1961) starring Paul Newman, and as Buford T. Justice in the Smokey and the Bandit movie series.

Life

Early years

Gleason was born at 364 Chauncey Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York Originally named Herbert Walton Gleason, Jr., he was baptized as John Herbert Gleason His parents, both from Faranree, County Cork, Ireland, were Mae (Maisie) Murphy, a subway change-booth attendant, and Herb Gleason, an insurance auditor. Gleason was one of their two children. Gleason's brother died when he was young, and his father abandoned the family. He attended elementary school at P.S. 73 in Brooklyn. He attended but did not graduate from John Adams High School in Queens and Bushwick High School in Brooklyn. Gleason was raised by his mother, who died when he was 19.

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; then at Columbia Pictures for the B military comedy Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1942); and finally, at Twentieth Century-Fox, where 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.

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. "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).

Entering television

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. (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 left the show, claiming he could do better things. 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.

DuMont career

Gleason was hired to host DuMont's Cavalcade of Stars variety hour in 1950. 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.

Loudmouth Charlie Bratton, a boor who frequently picked on the mild-mannered Clem Finch (portrayed by Art Carney).

The Bachelor

The Honeymooners

By far, Gleason's most popular character was the blustery bus driver Ralph Kramden. Possibly inspired by another radio hit, The Bickersons, and 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 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. 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 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, 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.

Musical work

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. 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'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. Red Nichols, a jazz great who had fallen on hard times and led one of the groups recorded, did not even get session-leader pay from Gleason. Nearly all of Gleason's albums are still available, and have been re-released by Capitol Records onto compact disc.

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

Return to television

Gleason restored his original variety hour, including The Honeymooners, in 1956, but 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!" 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.

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, reportedly because he liked the year-round access to the golf course at the nearby Inverrary Country Club in Lauderhill, Florida, 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. 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. 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' opinion, too old an audience. Gleason simply stopped doing the show by 1970 and finally left CBS when his contract expired.

Revival of The Honeymooners

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.

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 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 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 Meadows as Alice, delivered every one of 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 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.

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; and in 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 an Best Supporting Actor 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).

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 a very funny and cursing Texas sheriff Buford T. Justice in the films Smokey and the Bandit, Smokey and the Bandit II and Smokey and the Bandit, Part 3,(1977 and 1980, 1983). In these films, he co-starred with Burt Reynolds as the Bandit, Sally Field as Carrie, (Bandit's love interest), Jerry Reed as Cledus (Snowman) Snow, Bandit's truck-driving partner off to bring back beer, clam chowder (II), etc. Former NFL linebacker and actor Mike Henry played his not-so-bright son, Junior Justice. Gleason's gruff and frustrated demeanor, along with a few classic lines, such as "I'm gonna Bar-B-Que yo' ass in molasses!" after a trucker tore the driver's door off his parked sheriff's car, had audiences howling in the theaters, and truly made the first "Bandit" movie a major hit.

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 lot 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.

In 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 were praised.

Gleason's comic genius and acting abiliity are why he earned the nickname, "The Great One."

Death

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.

Gleason was hospitalized around 1986–1987, but checked himself out when told he had little chance of recovering. He returned to his Inverrary home and died peacefully on June 24, 1987, at age 71.

Gleason is interred in an outdoor mausoleum at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Cemetery in Miami, Florida. At the base is the inscription of one of his catchphrases, "And Away We Go."

Tributes

Miami Beach honored Gleason's contributions to the city and its tourism in 1987 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.

Bus driver related

On June 30, 1988, the Sunset Park Bus Depot in Brooklyn was renamed the Jackie Gleason Depot in honor of the native Brooklynite.

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 in Manhattan at 40th Street and Eighth Avenue at the entrance of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Its inscription reads "Ralph Kramden: New Yorker, Bus Driver, Dreamer" and it was featured briefly in the film World Trade Center (2006).

Another such statue stands at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame in North Hollywood, California, showing Gleason in his famous "And away we go!" pose.

Local signs on the Brooklyn Bridge, which indicate to drivers 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 neighborhood 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 that few had previously known of. He had two daughters by his first wife; 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 GoodLife TV (now ALN) 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. This version, however, bore only a passing resemblance to Gleason's original series and was widely panned by critics.

Actor/Playwright Jason Miller who was a former son-in-law of Gleason's was in the process of writing a screenplay based on his father-in law's life which was to star Paul Sorvino. Miller died before completing the project. Gleason's daughter, Linda Miller, (herself an actress) had been married to The Exorcist star Jason Miller. Their son is the actor Jason Patric.

Interest in the paranormal

Gleason was a voracious reader of books on the paranormal, including The Urantia Book, parapsychology and UFOs. 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. According to Gleason's second wife, Beverly McKittrick, he told her that U.S. President Richard Nixon took him on a secret visit to Homestead Air Force Base. There, Gleason allegedly saw an alien spaceship and dead extraterrestrials. After his death, his large book collection was donated to the library of the University of Miami.

In film

Gleason has been portrayed by Brad Garrett in the 2002 TV film Gleason.

Sean Cullen played a small role of Gleason in the 2002 made for TV movie Martin and Lewis.

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