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Jackie Gleason

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Also Known As: Herbert John Gleason, Jackie C. Gleason Died: June 24, 1987
Born: February 26, 1916 Cause of Death: colon cancer
Birth Place: Brooklyn, New York, USA Profession: comedian, actor, composer, conductor, vaudevillian, arranger, carnival barker

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Dubbed "The Great One" by none other than Orson Welles and beloved as one of the biggest stars of television's golden era, multi-talented comedic actor Jackie Gleason enjoyed a life and career as robust as his onscreen persona. After gaining recognition as a performer in the nightclubs of New York and on the stages of Broadway - interrupted by a brief, unsatisfying stint in Hollywood - Gleason took on the new medium of television as the star of "Cavalcade of Stars" (DuMont, 1949-1952). There, he introduced several of his famous long-running characters, including Reginald Van Gleason III, The Poor Soul, and Joe the Bartender. But it was another character, New York bus driver Ralph Kramden, that led to the creation of "The Honeymooners" (CBS, 1955-56), considered one of the greatest programs in the history of television. Often underappreciated for his substantial dramatic talent, Gleason was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in "The Hustler" (1961) and earned high marks for his turn in "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (1962). A decade and a half later, he attracted scores of new fans as the caustic Sheriff Buford T. Justice in the Burt Reynolds hit "Smokey and the Bandit" (1977). More film work and...

Dubbed "The Great One" by none other than Orson Welles and beloved as one of the biggest stars of television's golden era, multi-talented comedic actor Jackie Gleason enjoyed a life and career as robust as his onscreen persona. After gaining recognition as a performer in the nightclubs of New York and on the stages of Broadway - interrupted by a brief, unsatisfying stint in Hollywood - Gleason took on the new medium of television as the star of "Cavalcade of Stars" (DuMont, 1949-1952). There, he introduced several of his famous long-running characters, including Reginald Van Gleason III, The Poor Soul, and Joe the Bartender. But it was another character, New York bus driver Ralph Kramden, that led to the creation of "The Honeymooners" (CBS, 1955-56), considered one of the greatest programs in the history of television. Often underappreciated for his substantial dramatic talent, Gleason was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in "The Hustler" (1961) and earned high marks for his turn in "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (1962). A decade and a half later, he attracted scores of new fans as the caustic Sheriff Buford T. Justice in the Burt Reynolds hit "Smokey and the Bandit" (1977). More film work and the occasional "Honeymooners" revival occupied Gleason's later years, although he never abandoned his favorite pastimes - golf, food and alcohol - even as his health declined. A revered entertainer to generations of fans, Gleason's famous tagline of "How sweet it is!" reflected both his body of work and his thirst of life.

Born Herbert Walton Gleason, Jr. on Feb. 26, 1916 in Brooklyn, NY, he was later baptized as John Herbert Gleason, but affectionately referred to as "Jackie" by his mother, Mae. Young Jackie's early years were filled with heartbreak and uncertainly after his older brother, Clemence, died from spinal meningitis when Jackie was three years old and his father, Herbert, an insurance salesman, abandoned the nine-year-old and his mother in 1925. Forced to earn a meager living as a toll booth attendant, Mae did her best to keep her precocious son on the straight and narrow until her death in 1935 when Jackie was only 19. By then, Gleason had already begun his performing career, first in a school play and later emceeing at various local theaters. Following his mother's death, a destitute Gleason moved into the city, where he lived with friends and found his first professional gigs as a comedian. By the late 1930s, he had made it to Broadway in vaudeville-burlesque revues like "Keep Off the Grass" and become a frequent presence at various Manhattan nightclubs, such as the popular Club 18. It was during one of his routines at the latter club that Gleason was spotted by film studio executive Jack L. Warner, who was impressed enough by the rotund funny man to sign him to a contract with Warner Bros. in 1940.

Temporarily relocated to Los Angeles, with a wife and two small children still in New York, Gleason found himself somewhat adrift in Hollywood. With his substantial girth and unpolished exterior, he was considered ill-suited for leading man roles, resulting in him most often being cast a gangster or tough guy. Several forgettable appearances - including "Navy Blues" (1941) with Ann Sheridan, "All Through the Night" (1941) with Humphrey Bogart, and "Larceny, Inc." (1942) opposite Edward G. Robinson - made up a portion of his unremarkable filmography at the time. Underutilized by the studio and frequently bored, Gleason developed a stage act and performed at several L.A. supper clubs and night spots like Slapsy Maxie's. That, and a near constant schedule of carousing and hosting late-night parties in his hotel room filled the hours throughout Gleason's initial stay on the West Coast. When Warner Bros. chose not to renew his contract, he happily returned to New York in 1942. It was during this time that he made a name for himself as a Broadway performer, appearing in productions like "Artists and Models" (1943), "Follow the Girls" (1944) and "Along Fifth Avenue" (1949), in which he introduced the playboy persona that later evolved into Reginald Van Gleason III.

With the advent of television, Gleason was one of the first to take a chance on the new medium. He was signed to star in "The Life of Riley" (NBC, 1949-1950), as the titular husband and father, bumbling his way through daily events. Although the show proved moderately successful, Gleason soon left the series (replaced by William Bendix) and returned to NYC where he assumed hosting and performing duties on the variety show "Cavalcade of Stars" (DuMont, 1949-52). It was during his tenure on "Cavalcade" that Gleason first worked with Art Carney and June Taylor, along with six chorus girls dubbed the "June Taylor Dancers." One popular sketch featured Carney as a nervous photographer and Gleason as the wealthy Reggie Van Gleason. Another bit introduced a bickering couple who lived in a Brooklyn tenement - the forerunners of Ralph and Alice Kramden. Two years later, Gleason had been signed to a two-year, multi-million dollar contract by CBS to host "The Jackie Gleason Show" (CBS, 1952-59).

Among the skits regularly featured on "The Jackie Gleason Show" was an ongoing routine focusing on bus driver Ralph Kramden, his wife Alice (initially played by Pert Kelton, later by Audrey Meadows) and their neighbors Ed and Trixie Norton (Carney and Joyce Randolph). "The Honeymooners" segments typically consisted of comical marital discord and get-rich schemes, but always ended with Ralph assuring Alice that he loved her. In 1955, Gleason tired of the hour-long format and spent one season concentrating on "The Honeymooners" (CBS, 1955-56) exclusively as a sitcom. While only 39 episodes were produced before the network persuaded Gleason to return to the hour-long variety format, the show lived on for decades in syndication, becoming one of the all-time classics of early television. Gleason's love of music also played a large role in his career at this time. Although he played no instrument himself, Gleason arranged and produced a series of popular jazz-influenced "mood music" albums throughout the decade. His first release, Music for Lovers Only, broke records after spending 153 weeks on Billboard's Top 200.

After ending his show in 1959, Gleason returned to Broadway where he triumphed as the star of the genteel musical "Take Me Along," based on Eugene O'Neill's play "Ah, Wilderness!" Leading a cast that also included Walter Pidgeon, Robert Morse and Eileen Herlie, he took home the Tony Award as Best Actor in a Musical in 1960. Gleason returned to his former home on the small screen as host of the infamously short-lived game show "You're in the Picture" (CBS, 1961). So terrible was the program - in which celebrity contestants put their heads through holes in life-sized paintings and tried to guess what famous tableau they were in - that it lasted only a single episode. The following week, a recalcitrant Gleason reappeared on a stripped down set and delivered a now historic 30-minute apology for what he described as "the biggest bomb in history." In order to complete his commitment to the network, he finished the season as the host of the hastily renamed "The Jackie Gleason Show," which had been retrofitted as a more traditional talk-variety program. Gleason would return to the variety format in the mid-'60s, once again reviving "The Honeymooners" with Carney returning as Norton, but this time with Sheila MacRae as Alice and Jane Kean as Trixie. With entertainment tastes changing at the end of the decade and his ratings in decline, Gleason left his long-running show and with the exception of the occasional reunion special, was finished with regular television.

Instead, Gleason, now based in Florida, concentrated on his film career. In the early 1960s, at the height of his popularity, he attempted to make the crossover to the big screen. He earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his spot-on performance as Minnesota Fats in "The Hustler" (1961) opposite Paul Newman. The following year, in what he considered his finest screen performance, Gleason portrayed a kind-hearted mute, the eponymous "Gigot" (1962), in a drama based on a story by Gleason and directed by Gene Kelly. Although "Gigot" was not embraced by critics, Gleason garnered far more respect for another dramatic role that same year, essaying a corrupt boxing manager in the Rod Serling-penned "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (1962). Other notable films of the decade included the family comedy "Papa's Delicate Condition" (1963) in which he debuted his famous catchphrase of "How sweet it is!" as well as a turn as a reluctant tourist in the Woody Allen-scripted "Don't Drink the Water" (1969).

Largely unknown to the younger generation, Gleason gained millions of new fans as Burt Reynolds' arch nemesis, the profanely hilarious Sheriff Buford T. Justice, in the mega-hit action-comedy "Smokey and the Bandit" (1977) and its two sequels. Enjoying his newfound screen popularity, Gleason later took on roles as a billionaire father who hires Richard Pryor as his son's playmate in "The Toy" (1982) and as an ersatz version of Paul Newman's original con man character in "The Sting II" (1983). On the small screen, Gleason fulfilled a long-held dream of working with Laurence Olivier in "Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson" (HBO, 1983), playing the latter, a man who had loved Olivier's character's deceased wife for decades. He and Carney reteamed one last time for "Izzy and Moe" (CBS, 1984), a based-on-fact tale about two retired vaudevillians who become prohibition agents in the 1920s. Diagnosed with diabetes and phlebitis, an ailing Gleason offered one more poignant turn as Tom Hanks' irascible father in his final film, "Nothing in Common" (1986). The comedic actor died of complications due to colon cancer at his Florida home at the age of 71 on June 24, 1987. At the base of Gleason's interment site was a plaque inscribed with another of his most famous catchphrases - "And away we go!"

By Bryce Coleman

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

DIRECTOR:

3.

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Nothing in Common (1986) Max Basner
2.
 Izzy and Moe (1985) Isadore "Izzy" Einstein
3.
 SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, PART 3 (1983) Buford T Justice
4.
 Toy, The (1982) Us Bates
5.
 Sting II, The (1982) Henry Gondorff
6.
 Smokey And The Bandit II (1980) Buford T Justice; Gaylord T Justice; Reginald T Justice
7.
 Smokey And The Bandit (1977) Sheriff Buford T Justice
8.
 Mr. Billion (1977) John Cutler
9.
 How Do I Love Thee? (1970) Stanley Waltz
10.
 How To Commit Marriage (1969) Oliver Poe
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

1931:
Won an amatuer night contest in Brooklyn at age 15 (date approximate)
:
Worked as a carnival barker and emcee in Pennsylvania and New Jersey
1935:
First professional nightclub appearance in Newark, NJ
1938:
Made Broadway debut in "Hellzapoppin'"
:
Appeared on Broadway throughout the 1940s in such shows as "Artists and Models" (1943), "Follow the Girls" (1944), in which he appeared in drag, and "Along Fifth Avenue" (1949)
1940:
Put under contract by Warner Bros after Jack Warner spotted him performing at a Manhattan nightclub
1941:
Feature film debut in "Navy Blues"
1948:
Made TV debut on "Talk of the Town", hosted by Ed Sullivan
1949:
Made TV series debut starring in "The Life of Riley" (NBC); show filmed in California
1950:
Returned to NYC
:
Hosted "Cavalcade of Stars" (DuMont); first introduced the character of Ralph Kramden; also first teaming with Art Carney
:
Starred in first incarnation of "The Jackie Gleason Show" (CBS), a one-hour variety series
1953:
Recorded first album for Capitol Records
1953:
Had first dramatic role in "The Laughmaker", co-starring Art Carney
1955:
Signed $14 million contract with CBS and Buick (the sponsor of his variety series)
:
Did one season as star of the half-hourcomedy series "The Honeymooners" (CBS)
:
Returned to the hour-long variety format with "The Jackie Gleason Show" (CBS)
:
Became a Broadway star with "Take Me Along"; won Tony Award as Best Actor in a Musical
1961:
Earned Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Minnesota Fats in "The Hustler"
1961:
Hosted disastrous "You're in the Picture" (CBS)
1961:
Wrote and starred in "The Million Dollar Incident" (CBS)
1962:
Co-wrote and starred in "Gigot"; also wrote the music score
:
Returned to TV as star of the variety series "The Jackie Gleason Show" (CBS); also reprised "The Honeymooners"
1963:
Starred as Jack Griffith in "Papa's Delicate Condition"
1964:
Permanently moved to Florida
1968:
Co-starred in the disastrous "Skidoo"
1977:
First played Sheriff Buford T Justice in "Smokey and the Bandit"; would appear in two sequels
1978:
Returned to Broadway for brief run in "Sly Fox"
:
While on tour with "Sly Fox", suffered a heart attack and underwent triple by-pass surgery
1983:
Starred with Laurence Olivier in the HBO TV-movie "Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson"
1985:
Reteamed with Art Carney as co-stars in the CBS TV-movie "Izzy and Moe"; also wrote the musical score
1986:
Made final film appearance in "Nothing in Common", playing Tom Hanks' father
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

John Adams High School: Brooklyn , New York -
Bushwick High School: Brooklyn , New York -
P S 73: Brooklyn , New York -

Notes

Although he was nominated for an Emmy Award, Gleason never won one.

He recorded nearly 40 albums with the Jackie Gleason Orchestra.

Inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1986.

"Jackie Gleason is my favorite two comedians." --Miton Berle

"Critics report on accidents to eye witnesses." --Jackie Gleason

"Everyone is insecure to a degree. My business is composed of a mass of crisis. It all adds up to the manufacturing of insecurity. Some people find escape in comfort, dames, liquor, or food. But that is not enough." --Jackie Gleason

"Playing a serious rle is easy for a comedian, It's the other way around that's tough. Name one serious actor who can make it in comedy." --Gleason quoted in press material for "Nothing in Common" (1986)

"As my wife would tell you, I am not entralled with awards - I would rather received payment for my performance." --Jackie Gleason in a 1985 TV interview

Companions close complete companion listing

wife:
Genevieve Halford. Married September 20, 1936; leagally separated on December 15, 1954; divorced 1971; mother of Gleason's two daughters.
companion:
Honey Merrill. Former secretary. Together from 1956 until 1970.
wife:
Beverly McKittrick. Married 1971; divorced 1974.
wife:
Marilyn Taylor. Originally dated c. 1953; sister of dancer June Taylor; married in 1975 until his death.
VIEW COMPLETE COMPANION LISTING

Family close complete family listing

father:
Herb Gleason. Insurance auditor. Abandoned the family when Gleason was nine years old on December 15, 1925.
mother:
Mae Gleason. Subway booth attendant. Died in 1932.
brother:
Clemence Gleason. Older; died in 1919.
daughter:
Geraldine Gleason. Born July 31, 1939; mother, Genevieve Halford.
daughter:
Linda Gleason. Actor. Born on September 16, 1941; mother, Genevieve Halford; formerly married to writer-actor Jason Miller, with whom she had three children including actor Jason Patric.
grandson:
Jason Patric. Born June 1966; mother, Linda Gleason; father, Jason Miller.
VIEW COMPLETE FAMILY LISTING

Bibliography close complete biography

"Jackie Gleason: An Intimate Portrait of the Great One" Pharos Books
"The Great One: The Life and Legend of Jackie Gleason" Doubleday

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