Famous Like Me > Actor > G > Jackie Gleason
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Profile of Jackie Gleason
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|Also Know As:
|Date of Birth:
||26th February 1916
|Place of Birth:
||Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York, USA
Herbert John "Jackie" Gleason (February 26, 1916 - June 24, 1987), nicknamed "The Great One", was a rotund, Brooklyn-born comedian famous for brash humor and fast ad-libs who immortalized his Chauncey Street neighborhood in The Honeymooners, playing bus driver Ralph Kramden alongside his pal and upstairs neighbor, sewer worker Ed Norton, and their wives Alice Kramden and Trixie Norton. The foursome were later transplanted into the Stone Age on the animated cartoon series The Flintstones, the entire show being a tribute to The Honeymooners, albeit with both couples eventually having children (Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm).
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Gleason grew up as an only child, abandoned by his father (probably the reason he never mentioned Ralph Kramden having a father on The Honeymooners) and raised by his loving, but work-worn and troubled mother, who died when he was around 16. Jackie Gleason first gained recognition in the Broadway play Follow the Girls. He simultaneously appeared in small parts in such films as Springtime in the Rockies and Navy Blues, but he did not make a mark in Hollywood in his early years.
In 1949, he played the role of Chester A. Riley on the short-lived TV comedy The Life of Riley. William Bendix had originated the role on radio, and Gleason's TV series was unsuccessful (Bendix himself would star in a later TV version). At the same time, Gleason's nightclub act was drawing attention from New York City's inner circle.
Gleason was hired as the host of Cavalcade of Stars, where he originated many of his famous characters and skits, from 1950 to 1952 on the small DuMont Television Network. The debut of The Honeymooners came on the "Cavalcade" show of October 5, 1951, with character actor Pert Kelton in the role of Alice Gibson Kramden, and Art Carney not as the now-familiar Norton, but playing a neighborhood cop in a brief sketch. Within a few years, Gleason moved to CBS, retitling his program The Jackie Gleason Show, which quickly became the number two television show in the nation behind I Love Lucy. Pert Kelton did not join Gleason at CBS, which at the time was attributed to health concerns, but was, in fact, a case of blacklisting during the anti-Communist McCarthy era. She was replaced in the role of Alice Kramden by Audrey Meadows, who was much younger and prettier, which initially caused Gleason to reject her for the role. Meadows then sent Gleason pictures of herself dressed as a frumpy housewife with no makeup, and they did not recognize her from her previous audition. Meadows got the part.
In 1955, Gleason abandoned his live variety hour for a filmed run of The Honeymooners, which lasted one season. These episodes have been re-run in syndication for years, and are often referred to as the Classic 39. These programs were filmed for CBS by DuMont, Gleason's old network, using a new process called Electronicam, which allowed the presentation of live television to be preserved on high-quality film.
Gleason returned to his variety show the following year, but by 1959, Art Carney had left the show and it had run out of steam. An abortive attempt at a game show, You're in the Picture, was a notorious flop, cancelled after the first episode, with Gleason spending the following week's half-hour delivering a rather funny apology for the earlier show. Finally, in 1962, Gleason returned to weekly television with a splashy variety hour entitled Jackie Gleason and His American Scene Magazine, which lasted four seasons. The show moved to Miami Beach starting in 1964 (reportedly so that Gleason could indulge in one of his favorite pastimes, golf, year-round) and was again called The Jackie Gleason Show for the last four years of its run, which were in color. Many of these latter shows were full-length hour-long musical versions of The Honeymooners, some with plots recycled from the earlier series, and the revamped program (with the added lure of color television) pushed Gleason's ratings back into the Top Five.
One of his trademark phrases was "How sweet it is!", uttered during the applause at the opening or closing of his show. Gleason first said these words during his starring role in the movie Papa's Delicate Condition, and brought them to television with the debut of his 1962 American Scene TV series. Another famous Gleason catch-phrase was "And awa-a-ay we go!", usually said as he ended his monologue and exited, stage left. In his later years, Gleason often closed the show by saying, "The Miami Beach audience is the greatest audience in the world!"
Gleason, employing the same talent and pathos as he did portraying Ralph Kramden, proved to be an excellent dramatic actor, and was acclaimed for his live television performances in The Laugh Maker on CBS' Studio One (where he played a semi-autobiographical role as fictional TV comedian Jerry Giles), and in William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life, also for CBS as an episode of the famed anthology series Playhouse 90. He later earned praise for his portrayal of Minnesota Fats in the 1961 Paul Newman movie The Hustler, in which he even made his own pool shots. The role earned Gleason an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In the 1970s, Gleason gained further fame for his portrayal of foul-mouthed Sheriff Buford T. Justice in the Smokey and the Bandit series of films. Reportedly, Gleason was also considered for the role of Archie Bunker in Norman Lear's groundbreaking comedy All in the Family, which occupied the Saturday-night time slot that Gleason's variety show once held.
Gleason's show was eventually cancelled due to declining ratings, an aging audience, and the ever-increasing costs of producing a weekly variety show live-on-tape. In the last original Honeymooners episode aired on CBS, "Operation Protest," Ralph Kramden encounters the youth-protest movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The times were changing, and Gleason's program was showing its age. CBS made sweeping changes in its programming that year, cancelling Ed Sullivan and Red Skelton in addition to Gleason.
After leaving CBS in 1970, Gleason and his cohort Carney appeared in several Honeymooners specials on ABC during the 1970s, and a made-for-television movie, Izzy and Moe. In 1985, three decades after the debut of the filmed Honeymooners, Gleason revealed that he had carefully preserved kinescopes of his live 1950s programs in a vault for future use. The "Lost Episodes," as they came to be called, first aired on the Showtime cable network and later were syndicated to local TV stations.
Throughout the 1950s and early '60s, Gleason enjoyed a secondary career in recorded music, lending his name to a series of best-selling "mood music" albums for the Capitol Records label. Although Gleason could not read or write music in a conventional sense, he was able to compose melodies "in his head" and transpose them with the help of an able staff. There has been some controversy over the years as to how much credit Gleason should have received for the finished product.
Gleason had an interest in the paranormal, and evidently believed in UFOs, claiming to have seen them himself. There was even a report that Richard Nixon took Gleason to view the remains of aliens killed in the crash of a flying saucer, but as this particular report first appeared in the pages of the National Enquirer, it is dubious at best.
Jackie Gleason's final role came in the 1986 film Nothing in Common, playing an infirm Archie Bunker-esque character opposite a young, intense Tom Hanks. It was not widely known at the time that he himself was fighting cancer of the liver and colon. Gleason ended up checking himself out of the hospital where he had been admitted shortly before the end, and died quietly at his Florida home on June 24, 1987, at the age of 71. That same year, the city of Miami Beach honored his contributions to the community and local tourism by renaming the Miami Beach Auditorium, former home of the Gleason show, as the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts.
On June 30, 1988, the Sunset Park Bus Depot in Brooklyn was renamed in honor of the native Brooklynite, becoming the Jackie Gleason Bus Depot. (Gleason's Ralph Kramden worked for the fictional Gotham Bus Company.) A statue of Gleason as Ralph Kramden 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 at 40th Street and 8th Avenue at the entrance of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey bus terminal. Another such statue stands at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame in North Hollywood, California, showing Gleason in his famous "And awa-a-ay we go!" pose.
A television movie called Gleason was aired by CBS on October 13, 2002, and took a deeper look into the life of Gleason. While the movie took liberties with some aspects of Gleason's story, it featured his private life at home (which few people ever got to see), as well as scenes from backstage at his well-known shows. Brad Garrett, from Everybody Loves Raymond, portrayed Gleason (after Mark Addy had to drop out) and Garrett's height (6'9") created some logistical problems on the sets, which had to be specially made so that Garrett did not tower over everyone else.
In 2003, after an absence of more than thirty years, color episodes of The Honeymooners, gleaned from the 1966-70 Miami Beach shows, returned to American television on the Good Life TV 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, including WNBC-TV's Jeffrey Lyons.
- The Life of Riley (1949-1950)
- Cavalcade of Stars (host from 1950-1952)
- The Jackie Gleason Show (1952-1959)
- The Honeymooners (1955-1956)
- The Secret World of Eddie Hodges (1960) (narrator)
- You're in the Picture (1961)
- The Million Dollar Incident (1961)
- Jackie Gleason and His American Scene Magazine (1962-1966)
- The Jackie Gleason Show (1966-1970)
- Julie and Jackie: How Sweet Is Is (1974)
- The Lucille Ball/Jackie Gleason Special (1975)
- The Honeymooners Second Honeymoon (1976) (also director)
- The Honeymooners Christmas Special (1977) (also director)
- The Honeymooners Valentine Special (1978)
- Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson (1983)
- Izzy and Moe (1985)
- Navy Blues (1941)
- Steel Against the Sky (1941)
- All Through the Night (1942)
- Lady Gangster (1942)
- Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1942)
- Larceny, Inc. (1942)
- Escape from Crime (1942)
- Orchestra Wives (1942)
- Springtime in the Rockies (1942)
- The Desert Hawk (1950)
- The Hustler (1961)
- Gigot (1962) (also writer)
- Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)
- Papa's Delicate Condition (1963)
- Soldier in the Rain (1963)
- Skidoo (1968)
- How to Commit 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)
- The Sting II (1983)
- Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 (1983)
- Nothing in Common (1986)
- Keep Off the Grass (1940)
- Artists and Models (1943)
- Follow the Girls (1944)
- Along Fifth Avenue (1949)
- Take Me Along (1959)
- Music for Lovers Only (1953)
- Music, Martinis and Memories (1954)
- Lover's Rhapsody (1955)
- Music to Make You Misty (1955)
- Tawny (1955)
- And Awaaay We Go! (1955)
- Romantic Jazz (1955)
- Music to Remember Her (1955)
- Lonesome Echo (1955)
- Music to Change Her Mind (1956)
- Night Winds (1956)
- Merry Christmas (1956)
- Music for the Love Hours (1957)
- Velvet Brass (1957)
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