Scholars’ Spotlight: Jackie Gleason

Scholars’ Spotlight: Jackie Gleason – Cinema Scholars

Early Years

On February 26, 1916, Herbert Walton Gleason, Jr. was born in New York City. Growing up in the Brooklyn neighborhood, Stuyvesant Heights, on Chauncey Street, his father, Herb, was an insurance salesman, born and raised in New York City. His mother, Maisie, a housewife hailed from County Cork in Ireland. Gleason was baptized with the name of John. This was soon used in place of his given name. It wasn’t long before it evolved once more into “Jackie”.
Jackie was the youngest of the couple’s two children. Tragically, his older brother, Clement would pass away when Gleason was only three years old from meningitis. Gleason would recall that even though he was very young when his brother passed away he remembered him. His most vivid memory was that Clement had beautiful handwriting.
Jackie Gleason, Sonny Werblin, Marilyn Monroe, and Robert Q. Lewis at a party thrown by Gleason at Toot Shore’s in New York (1955)
Months before his tenth birthday, another misfortune that would change Jackie’s life forever. Ten days before Christmas, on December 15, 1925, Gleason’s father walked out on his wife and young son. He burned every family photograph he appeared in on the way out the door. Gleason’s mother had no choice but to enter the workforce. Subsequently, she got a job as a subway attendant at the Brooklyn–Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT).
As a result of his broken home, Gleason began to play hookey from school, opting to hang out at pool halls with a local gang of juvenile delinquents. Gleason would eventually drop out of school altogether so he could pursue a career in show business. His early jobs during this period included performing as a carnival barker and a stunt man. Young Gleason was also a master of ceremonies at a theatre for $4 a night.

Early Comedy Career

In 1935, tragedy struck Gleason again. Gleason’s mother developed a large boil on her neck and Gleason made the decision to lance it for her. The area became infected and she died from sepsis soon after. Broke and with nowhere to go, a friend named Birch took pity on him and let him crash in his hotel room. Birch introduced Jackie to a booking agent who offered him a seven-night gig in Reading, Pennsylvania. Paying $19, Gleason accepted, and his career in comedy was born.
President Nixon with Jackie Gleason at the Country Club of Miami on July 6, 1969
Gleason eventually gained employment at Club 18 in Manhattan where his job consisted of insulting the audience from the stage. He also began to hone his comedic skills on various vaudeville stages around town.

“If you have it and you know you have it, then you have it. If you have it and don’t know you have it, you don’t have it. If you don’t have it but you think you have it, then you have it”

– Jackie Gleason

While working in vaudeville, in 1936, Gleason met dancer Genevieve Halford. They started dating and it wasn’t long before Halford gave Jackie an ultimatum. Either they would get married or she would date other men. A few days later while onstage at the Club Miami in Newark, New Jersey, Gleason saw Halford in the front row with another man. As soon as his act ended, Gleason went to the table and proposed to her in front of her date. Gleason and Halford were married on September 20th of that year.
Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen on the set of 1963’s “Soldier in the Rain”

Marriage Problems and Hollywood Adventures

Gleason’s marriage got off to a rocky start and stayed there. The biggest issue was that he wanted to live the same life he had before being married. This included staying out all night drinking and carousing with the guys. Genevieve eventually got fed up and the couple separated in the early 1940s. Eventually, they reconciled in 1948 and the couple had two children along the way, Geraldine and Linda (who is the mother of actor Jason Patric).
In 1940, Jack Warner saw Gleason at Club 18 and was impressed by the comedian. He signed him to a contract with Warner Brothers for $250 a week. The following year, Gleason began to appear in movies and made several over the next two years. These included Navy Blues with Ann Sheridan, All Through the Night with Humphrey Bogart, and Larceny Inc. with Edward G. Robinson. Gleason also appeared in Springtime in the Rockies with Betty Grable. His roles in these movies were bit parts, some uncredited. However, Gleason was known more for his all-night, booze-soaked Hollywood parties and his comedy routines on the stage of Slapsy Maxie’s on Wilshire Boulevard.

“Anyone who knew Jackie Gleason in the 1940s 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”

– Robert Metz

Art Carney, Jackie Gleason, and Audrey Meadows during a table read of a “Honeymooners” script.
While working in Hollywood Gleason would routinely fly back to New York City to see his wife and kids. On one of his flights, two of the plane’s engines cut out and the pilot was forced to make an emergency landing in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Gleason decided then and there that he was done with airplanes. He left the airport and headed into downtown Tulsa, found a hardware store, and asked its owner to lend him $200 for a train ticket to New York. The store owner refused. Gleason then explained his situation. However, the owner of the hardware store didn’t believe that he was in movies.
Gleason decided to buy two tickets to the movie and take the store owner so he could see the Gleason in action. After watching the movie (which Gleason didn’t appear in until well over an hour into the runtime) the owner gave Gleason the loan, and he took the next train to New York. Gleason then borrowed $200 to repay the hardware store owner. It would be decades before Gleason would fly again.
Jackie Gleason with train “conductor” Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper during his cross-country train trip promoting his show “Jackie Gleason’s American Scene Magazine” (August 9, 1962)

Broadway Foray

At the tail-end of 1942, Gleason joined the road show of Olsen and Johnson’s New 1943 Hellzapoppin. The play was staged at the Nixon Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Hanna Theatre, in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Erlanger Theatre in Chicago, Illinois.

“Modesty in an actor is as fake as passion in a call girl”

– Jackie Gleason

Soon after Gleason finished with these performances the entertainer was drafted into the United States Army. However, Gleason was eventually granted 4-F status, primarily due to his weight. He was thus rejected from military service.
Jackie Gleason with Polly Bergen, Jane Meadows, Joyce Randolph, Audrey Meadows, and Jayne Mansfield (circa 1956).
In 1944, Gleason got his first real break when he was cast in the hit Broadway musical Follow the Girls. The show ran for a total of 888 performances bouncing from the New Century Theatre to the 44th Street Theatre and then finally to the Broadhurst Theatre. Gleason would go on to appear in a number of shows on and around Broadway during the rest of the 1940s. These include The Duchess Misbehaves, Heaven on Earth, and Along Fifth Avenue.
Over a decade later, in 1959, Jackie Gleason would return to Broadway as the lead in the musical Take Me Along. He would eventually go on to win a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical in 1960.
Mary Martin, Jackie Gleason, Anne Bancroft, and Melvyn Douglas show off their awards at the 1960 Tony Awards

Television Superstardom

In 1949 Gleason was cast in his first television role as Chester A. Riley for the first television version of the radio comedy The Life of Riley. The show was canceled after only one season as a result of modest ratings.

“I knew that nobody could be on television week after week as themselves and exist for any length of time, because no one has that rich a personality…So I knew that I had to create some characters”

– Jackie Gleason

After Gleason’s initial stint on television came to a close, the actor headed back to Hollywood, where he worked exclusively at Slapsy Maxie’s. Although he had left New York, Gleason still had a huge following in the Big Apple, especially within television circles.
Jackie Gleason in front of his Miami-based television studio in 1964
In June of 1950 Gleason was offered to host DuMont’s Cavalcade of Stars variety hour on the DuMont Television Network for two weeks at the rate of $750 per week. The show’s previous host, Jerry Lester, had moved to NBC in June 1950 to host the late-night show Broadway Open House. Gleason refused because it wasn’t a long enough stint for him to travel cross-country by train. The network countered with four weeks and Gleason accepted the job.
Gleason’s first episode of Cavalcade of Stars aired on July 15, 1950, and was an instant sensation. The show was broadcast live in front of a studio audience and offered the same kind of vaudevillian entertainment that Gleason had been surrounded by for decades. The four-week stint quickly turned into two years at DuMont.
In 1952, CBS president William S. Paley offered Gleason a substantial raise to move to his network. Gleason accepted the offer. The series was retitled The Jackie Gleason Show and premiered on CBS Television on September 20, 1952. The Jackie Gleason Show continued to grow in success becoming the second highest-rated show of the 1954-55 season behind only I Love Lucy, also on CBS.
Jackie Gleason playing golf with President Gerald Ford at the Lago Mar Country Club in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (1974). Photo by Roy Erickson
Gleason brought over The Honeymooners sketch series from Cavalcade of Stars to the CBS show. However, Pert Kelton, the original actress to play Alice Kramden was left behind. She had played the role since the first sketch aired on October 5, 1951. The network pressured Gleason to dump Kelton because she was a suspected communist. He reluctantly agreed and Audrey Meadows was recast to play the character going forward.
In addition to Ralph Kramden and The Honeymooners, Gleason developed other popular characters during this period. Some of these characters included Fenwick Babbitt, Joe the Bartender, and The Poor Soul. all of these creations were inspired by people that Gleason had known from his youth in Brooklyn.
During his years on television, Gleason didn’t want to rehearse. Citing his photographic memory, the actor would instead he would read the script once, watch the rehearsal with a stand-in, and then show up to do the live performance.
Jackie Gleason dances with a line of chorus girls in a scene from his CBS television comedy-variety series “The Jackie Gleason Show,” 1952
In 1954, Gleason broke his leg while working on The Jackie Gleason Show. When his wife went to visit him at the hospital she found another woman, a dancer from his show named Marilyn Taylor, in his arms. She filed for legal separation in April 1954 but would grant Gleason a divorce until 1970.

Mood Music

In the early 1950s through the early 1970s Gleason produced nearly five dozen “mood music” LPs for Capitol Records. He was inspired to put music out due to the romantic music that played during love scenes in the movies.

“If (Clark) Gable needs music, a guy in Brooklyn must be desperate!”

– Jackie Gleason

Gleason could not read or write music but that didn’t get in his way of writing songs. He would hum songs he came up with and have them transcribed by assistants into sheet music. Gleason would also use this technique to come up with the theme tunes for both The Jackie Gleason Show and The Honeymooners.
Jackie Gleason
Jackie Gleason on the set of “The Jackie Gleason Show” in Miami, Florida
Jackie Gleason’s first ten albums had sold over a million copies each. His 1953 album entitled  Music for Lovers Only still currently holds the record for the longest stay on the Billboard Top Ten Charts at an astonishing 153 weeks.

The Honeymooners

As Gleason’s initial three-year contract with CBS came to a close, the studio offered him a much larger one. The new three-year contract, with a value of $11 million, was one of the largest in show business at the time. Gleason was to produce seventy-eight episodes of The Honeymooners over two seasons, with an option for a third season of thirty-nine more. Production for The Honeymooners was handled by Jackie Gleason Enterprises Inc., which also produced the show’s lead-in, Stage Show.
The first episode of the new half-hour series aired on October 1, 1955, a Saturday. The show received mixed reviews from critics and lower-than-expected ratings. As a result of this and the difficulty of the writers coming up with consistently good storylines, CBS and Gleason canceled The Honeymooners after one season. The thirty-ninth and final episode aired on September 22, 1956. Soon after production wrapped Gleason sold the series to CBS for $1.5 million.
Jackie Gleason
Jackie Gleason on the set of “The Jackie Gleason Show” (February 1955)

You’re in the Picture

Gleason spent the latter part of the 1950s working in television sporadically. In late 1960, the actor was offered the job of host of a new CBS game show called You’re in the Picture. The format of the show was a four-member celebrity panel sticking their heads into a life-sized illustration of a famous scene or song lyric with a hole cut out. The panel would then take turns asking yes/no questions to Gleason, trying to figure out what scene they were a part of.
If the panel was able to figure out the scene, a hundred CARE Packages were donated in their name. If they were stumped, the packages were instead donated in Gleason’s name. The celebrity panel for the premiere episode of the show consisted of Pat Harrington Jr., Pat Carroll, Jan Sterling, and Arthur Treacher.
The series’ first and only episode aired on the CBS network on January 20, 1961. This was directly after the network’s coverage of the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy had concluded. The show was an unmitigated disaster on all levels.
Jackie Gleason
Jackie Gleason poses with the June Taylor dancers
The following week Gleason came out and offered a thirty-minute-long apology for what a terrible show You’re in the Picture was. Hilarious and engaging the network offered Gleason the slot for a talk show which was dubbed The Jackie Gleason Show, which ran until March 1961 fulfilling the schedule commitment for You’re in the Picture.

Later Years

Gleason appeared in several movies during the 1960s including The Hustler (1961) with Paul Newman and Papa’s Delicate Condition (1963). He also co-starred in Soldier in the Rain (1963) with Steve McQueen. In 1962 Gleason returned with a new version of The Jackie Gleason Show subtitled The American Scene Magazine. Two years later Gleason moved the show from New York to Miami, Florida because he wanted to be able to play golf every day.
In 1966 the name of the show was changed to just The Jackie Gleason Show. During the next few years, he would often have new Honeymooners sketches incorporated into the show. However, in 1970 CBS decided they wanted the show to change into exclusively new episodes of The Honeymooners. Gleason refused and walked away from the show.
Jackie Gleason
Jackie Gleason with Ed Sullivan at CBS Studios in New York.
Gleason would go on to do a few television specials throughout the 1970s including four Honeymooners-themed shows for ABC. By the end of the decade, he was basically done with television, save for interviews on shows such as 60 Minutes. He also starred in a TV movie, Izzy and Moe (1985) with longtime collaborator Art Carney.
Gleason appeared in several movies during the last decade of his life including Smokey and the Bandit (1977), The Toy (1982), and Nothing in Common (1986), which was his final role. Richard Pryor, Gleason’s co-star on The Toy would go on to say that his conversations with Jackie on the film set were funnier than anything that ended up on screen in the movie.
Gleason, who smoked six packs of cigarettes a day for decades, began to experience health problems in 1978, eventually undergoing triple bypass surgery. Gleason would pass away from colon cancer on June 24, 1987, at the age of 71. He was survived by his third wife, Marilyn Taylor, whose sister June had worked with Gleason for years on TV as leader of The June Taylor Dancers.
Jackie Gleason
Jackie Gleason spends time with George Marshall, Laurel Goodwin, and Elvis Presley on the set of Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962)
Gleason was interred at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Cemetery in Miami. The inscription on his sarcophagus is “And Away We Go,” arguably his most famous catchphrase.

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