Today is the birthday of The Great One, Mr. Jackie Gleason. The fact that that title was bestowed upon him by Orson Welles will give some indication of how highly his artistry was regarded in some quarters during his life.
My appreciation for him took many years to blossom. As a kid I found Ralph Kramden too scary to be funny; I didn’t dig The Honeymooners at all. “To the moon, Alice” is a bit much for me; I came from a home where the frustrated working slob often made good on such threats, and the results didn’t resemble humor. And let’s face it — Gleason, with those pop-eyes, the raspy voice and the mountainous girth, is a scary-looking dude.
But neither Jackie nor Ralph are like that, you eventually learn. No anecdotes of real life domestic violence mar Gleason’s biographies (even though he did plenty of scrapping in the streets and pool halls). And Ralph, though frightening in his rages, is ultimately Alice’s vassal, a sort of wayward and blustering child. I still have to regard it as a fairy tale fantasy, of course, but with exposure to the show, Gleason’s gifts become apparent, his comic timing, his give-and-take with the other performers, the 3 dimensional shadings of the character, and his abilities as a dramatic actor. And a little research reveals this is only the tip of the ice berg: there were his dramatic performance in films, and his incredible work in television variety: he was a hilarious host, a top flight sketch comedian, and even a terrific straight man. He also loved music (he wrote the memorable Honeymooners theme).
Born this day in 1916, he grew up in Bushwick (memories of which informed the set of The Honeymooners). And now that I think of it, the apartments of my friends who live in Bushwick today look pretty much the same. He started out attending shows at his local vaudeville theatre (where he would later host the amateur night) and when vaudeville petered out, began to work in nightclubs and burlesque (sidelining as a boxer and a bar bouncer when he couldnt get gigs). His first shot at films in the early forties went nowhere, but things gradually picked up with high profile gigs at Slapsie Maxies, a tour with Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin, several Broadway shows and a season substituting for William Bendix on the television version of the popular radio show The Life of Riley (1949-50).
He was the centerpiece of several tv variety shows in the 50s and 60s, in which (much like Red Skelton) he essayed a wide variety of popular characters: Reginald Van Gleason, The Poor Soul, Joe the Bartender, and others. The Honeymooners also began as a series of short sketches on his variety shows (and later returned to that format in the years following its single season as a half-hour sit com.)
In addition to his art film Gigot (1962), Gleason got some juicy prestige roles in dramatic films in the early 60s (The Hustler, Requiem for a Heavyweight), some way-out roles in the late sixties (Skidoo, Don’t Drink the Water). More on these years here. He finally got his long sought after movie star status in old age, starting with Smokey and the Bandit in 1977. His last role was Nothing in Common with Tom Hanks in 1986, the year before he died.
Perhaps nothing in his remarkable life compares to the occasion in 1973 when (Gleason claimed) President Richard M. Nixon took him to a special morgue beneath the White House and showed him the bodies of several dead space aliens. “And away we go”, indeed.
To find out more about the history of variety entertainment, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc