Comedian, actor. Born Herbert John Gleason, on February 26, 1916, in New York City, into a poor Irish-Catholic immigrant family living in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. His father, John Herbert Gleason, an insurance clerk, abandoned the family when Jackie was eight. Subsequently, his mother, Mae Kelly Gleason, worked as a subway token booth agent; she died when Jackie was 16. His only sibling, Clemence, had succumbed to tuberculosis in early childhood, when Jackie was three. Gleason attended Public School 73 in Brooklyn but dropped out of high school before his 16th birthday. He spent much of his time with the Nomads, a Brooklyn “athletic club,” an organization that differed little from a street gang. He was a familiar figure in the neighborhood, well known for a sharp tongue, “dandy” dressing, and virtuoso pool playing, qualities that would be features of his professional persona. Though a voracious eater as a teenager, he excelled at football and boxing and did not then sport the heavyweight “spare tire” that would eventually become his trademark.
Early in life, Gleason displayed a flair for the rough verbal play of the Brooklyn streets, and he seems to have set his sights on a career built around that talent. After appearing in several grade school and church plays, he took first prize with an original comedy routine in a neighborhood talent contest; this in turn led to a stint as master of ceremonies at the Folly Theatre, a Brooklyn vaudeville house. Upon leaving school in 1932, he began traveling around the New York metropolitan region, finding work as an emcee at amateur shows, as a carnival barker, and as a house comic at resort hotels in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
In 1935, now known as “Jumpin’ Jack” Gleason for the frenetic style of his presentation, he was hired to work as both an emcee and a bouncer at the Miami Club, a rough-and-tumble Newark saloon. There he gained notoriety for handling hecklers, both verbally and physically. He also got his first job in broadcasting, working as a part-time disc jockey at the Newark radio station WAAT.
Gleason married Genevieve Halford, a dancer, in Newark in 1936; the couple had two daughters, Linda and Geraldine, his only children. The marriage was a rocky one, resulting in several legal separations and reconciliations. A permanent separation agreement was made in 1954; a final divorce would not take place until 1971.
The pace of the young comedian’s career accelerated in 1938, when he won several bookings at Manhattan nightspots. This exposure brought a role in the 1940 Broadway musical Keep Off the Grass. In 1941, the film mogul Jack Warner caught Gleason’s act at the Club 18. Responding to the comedian’s loudmouthed, off-color performance, Warner signed him to a contract on the spot. At age 25, Gleason pulled up stakes and headed for Hollywood.
This early encounter with the movies proved disappointing. Warner could not even remember who the 250-pound comic was, attributing his signature on Gleason’s contract to drunkenness. During a year as a studio player at Warner Brothers, Gleason was cast in minor roles in three films: Navy Blues (1941), Larceny, Inc. (1942), and All Through the Night (1942). His option was not renewed. Signing on with Twentieth Century Fox, he appeared in Springtime in the Rockies and Orchestra Wives during 1942 but was again let go. This bitter experience in Los Angeles was never quite forgotten. Gleason would prefer to live and work on the East Coast, first in New York and later in Florida, for the balance of his career.
Returning to nightclub work, he took whatever stage roles he could get, and also tried his hand at radio, several times substituting for host Bob Crosby on the Old Gold Hour, a National Broadcasting Company variety program. Broadway appearances included Artists and Models (1943) and Follow the Girls (1944). In the latter he won some notice for his drag impersonation of a Navy Wave. He nonetheless found himself unable to gain a starring role on Broadway, and though he worked regularly at Manhattan cabarets, his career had reached a kind of plateau. As the New York Mirror columnist Jim Bishop wrote, “He was not big enough for the $5,000-a-week places.”
In 1948, George (“Bullets”) Durgom took over management of Gleason’s career, thus beginning a mutually profitable long-term association. Within a year he had placed Gleason in a featured role with Nancy Walker in the musical Along Fifth Avenue (1949). But Durgom was looking beyond Broadway. At a time when many show business pundits had doubts about television, he saw the medium, with its overabundance of close-ups, as a natural showcase for the comic’s extravagant mugging and gesturing.
Gleason’s first encounter with television, however, was less than auspicious. In 1949, he was cast in the title role of the TV adaptation of a popular radio situation comedy, The Life of Riley. The Riley character was something of a kindhearted blockhead, a role very much out of character for the quick-witted smooth talker. The show received poor notices and the series was quickly canceled, marking another West Coast failure. (It was later revived successfully with its radio star, William Bendix, in the title role.)
A far more advantageous genre for the display of Gleason’s talents was the comedy-variety format. Vaudevillians and nightclub stand-ups, such as Milton Berle, Jack Carter, and Eddie Cantor, were achieving spectacular TV successes with this type of programming. Gleason got a key break in 1950 when he was signed by the Dumont Network as summer host of Cavalcade of Stars. Here he began to find a path to the stardom that had thus far eluded him. Making grandiose gestures at the camera, gawking at a continuous parade of long-legged showgirls, he moved seamlessly between stand-up sets and comedy blackout sketches, exhibiting what the critic Gilbert Seldes saw in him as “the traditional belief of heavy men in their own lightness and grace.” After two episodes he was signed as permanent host of the show.
It was during his two years on Cavalcade that Gleason created and developed the repertoire of famous and beloved characters that he would reprise throughout most of his career. These included Ralph Kramden, a boisterous, blundering déclassé bus driver, eternally frustrated in his twin efforts to get rich quick and to assert dominance over an implacable wife; Reginald Van Gleason III, a vainglorious millionaire, conspicuously flaunting his worldly advantage with every facial expression and body movement; and the Poor Soul, a pantomime character wandering the streets of the city, inviting the world to make him its doormat. Lesser Cavalcade creations included Joe the Bartender, the fussbudget Fenwick Babbitt, and Loudmouth Charlie Bratton.
Dumont soon found itself hard-pressed to compete for the services of its biggest star. Gleason began to moonlight as an occasional host for other shows, including NBC’s Colgate Comedy Hour. In 1952, the chairman of the Columbia Broadcasting System, William S. Paley, personally courted the star and signed him to an exclusive contract. The network agreed to cover production costs for a new Saturday night comedy-variety hour, The Jackie Gleason Show, and to pay the star a salary of $10,000 per week, which put Gleason among the elite performers in the new medium. CBS also built him a circular mansion in Peekskill, New York, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars; this was just one of a number of extravagant residences Gleason owned during his lifetime, reflective of his generally extravagant tastes. He would enjoy an exclusive relationship with CBS for the next 18 years.
Given full authorial control of the program and a lavish budget to mount it, he honed the formula that had worked so well for him. Each week the star’s royal entrance was preceded by a chorus-line number performed by the June Taylor Dancers, featuring a signature overhead kaleidoscope shot. His opening monologue included a visit from one of the “Glea Girls,” who delivered his cup of “coffee,” one sip of which would lead him to exclaim, “How sweeeeeeet it is….” Asking the bandleader for “a little travelin’ music,” he danced wildly across the screen, freezing stage right to announce, “And awa-a-ay we go,” leading the viewer off into an hour of sketch comedy and guest appearances by top musical acts.
“The Honeymooners” was the show’s most popular sketch. Ralph’s closed-fisted threat to send wife Alice (Audrey Meadows) “to the moon” during the couple’s ritualistic arguments became a household phrase. The pairing of the nervous, quick-tempered Ralph with his dim-witted upstairs neighbor Ed Norton (Art Carney) yielded one of television’s first great original comedy teams. The radical contrasts between Gleason’s ostentatious, volatile gyrations and Carney’s methodical, deliberate stylings suggest comparison with Laurel and Hardy.
During the 1955-56 season, Gleason repackaged the sketch into a filmed half-hour situation comedy format so that he could reduce his hectic production schedule and pursue other projects. The 39 episodes made for that season became one of the most successful commercial properties in show business history, continuing to air widely in reruns a half-century later. In 1985, dozens of the old “Honeymooners” skits from the Gleason comedy-variety shows were re-edited and released as The Honeymooners: The Lost Episodes.
As a television superstar Gleason attempted to rectify what he felt had been his less-than-grand treatment as a stage and screen performer. In 1959, he won a Tony Award for his performance in the stage musical Take Me Along. In the film The Hustler (1961) he was cast opposite Paul Newman as the legendary pool player Minnesota Fats, performing his own pool shots for the camera; the role earned him an Academy Award nomination. Gigot (1962) was his most artistically ambitious project. He wrote, scored, and starred in this Chaplinesque film about an unkempt, deaf-mute Parisian street tramp who befriends and protects a prostitute and her young daughter. He also starred in Papa’s Delicate Condition (1963). Gleason’s finest dramatic work, however, was in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), in which he portrays Maish Rennick, a boxing manager caught between gambling debts to the mob and loyalty to a punch-drunk fighter.
Several new television projects were attempted as well. A 1961 game show, You’re in the Picture, designed as a Groucho Marxlike showcase for his off-the-cuff wit, was canceled after just one episode, forcing the star to make an on-air apology. He then tried a half-hour prime-time talk program, interviewing such stars as Mickey Rooney and Jayne Mansfield, but it too failed in the ratings.
Gleason’s least remembered but perhaps most remarkable achievement was in the record business. Although he did not read a note of music, he composed many songs (including his trademark television theme, “Melancholy Serenade”), humming the melodies for transcribers. In 1955, at his own expense, he assembled a large orchestra and, personally wielding the baton, recorded his syrupy arrangements of such standards as “I’m in the Mood for Love” and “My Funny Valentine.” Unable to sell the album to a major company, the comedian paid Capitol to manufacture it for him. For Lovers Only sold more than half a million copies and became the first of some 35 popular Gleason “romantic music” LPs.
In 1962, after a short hiatus, he came back to television with Jackie Gleason’s American Scene Magazine, which was supposed to break new ground in topical satire. This innovation, however, never materialized. Instead, Gleason returned to his comedy-variety formula, complete with the opening dance number and his old repertoire of sketch characters. The title soon reverted to The Jackie Gleason Show. In 1966, he was rejoined by Art Carney and Audrey Meadows for new hour-long episodes of The Honeymooners. These had little of the verve of the originals, but their nostalgic appeal to older viewers kept the show on the air through 1970, making Gleason one of the longest-lasting of the pioneer TV comedy stars. A second marriage, to Beverly McKittrick, in July 1971, ended in divorce in 1974. The next year Gleason, wed choreographer Marilyn Taylor, the sister of June Taylor.
After spending much of the 1970s in enforced retirement, Gleason successfully returned to feature films as Sheriff Buford T. Justice in the Burt Reynolds comedy Smokey and the Bandit (1977), reprising the role in the 1980 and 1983 sequels it spawned. A new generation was introduced to Gleason as a cantankerous, drawling redneck lawman in a squad car. If Ralph Kramden had been culled from Gleason’s Brooklyn childhood, Sheriff Justice was a comparable product of his later years in Florida. Following the success of these films, he began to work regularly in movies again, appearing in The Toy (1982), The Sting II (1983), Nothing in Common (1986), costarring Tom Hanks, and Izzy and Moe, the latter a 1985 television movie that reunited him with Art Carney. Gleason died of heart failure on June 24, 1987, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and is buried at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Cemetery in Miami, Florida.
omantic music” LPs.