Jackie Gleason was loud, controlling, sweet, generous, enormous, and graceful all at once. He looked like a man who ate up life, which didn’t prevent him from enjoying a long showbusiness career until his death in 1987. His eternal fame, rightfully, springs from just a single season of television. “The Honeymooners” (1955), where Gleason played blustery Brooklyn bus driver, Ralph Kramden, remains one of the most-loved TV shows ever, and for good or bad made it difficult for anyone to imagine Gleason in any role other than his acerbic alter ego. Gleason, on the other hand, went on to defy audience expectations to win acclaim in both film and stage work long after “The Honeymooners” was relegated to perpetual late-night syndication.
Herbert John Gleason was born on February 26, 1916, in Brooklyn, New York. His mother called him “Jackie” and relied on him from an early age, as Gleason’s father abandoned the family when he was just eight years old. While his mother took any job she could get to support them, Gleason was drawn to showbusiness as a career. At 15, he won amateur-night at a Brooklyn theater and was soon one of the top emcees among the city’s thriving Vaudeville houses. But Gleason was not satisfied to just talk for a living. Already immensely ambitious, he rounded out his showbusiness training by working as a radio DJ, a daredevil driver, and a stunt diver for the water follies.
Gleason became known for his brash humor onstage. His big break came when he was discovered by Warner Brothers studio head, Jack Warner, at the famous Club 18 in New York. Warner signed the young comic to a contract, and Gleason moved to Hollywood to make a few forgettable turns in even more forgettable films like “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” (1942) and “Larceny, Inc.” (1942).
He missed New York and the thrill of live performance, so he moved back East and worked on stage in Broadway musicals like Hellzapoppin’. This was the late 1940’s and New York was emerging as the capital of TV, so Gleason tried his hand at the new medium. He was an instant hit, winning fame in such series as “Life of Riley” (1949-50) and “Cavalcade of Stars” (1949-52). On the latter show he created the character of Ralph Kramden, which spun off into “The Honeymooners.” The show was a cultural landmark, and was only canceled because Gleason felt he couldn’t sustain its high quality beyond one season.
Although he could neither read nor write music, Gleason used his fame and clout to record a series of popular albums featuring jazz soloists and string orchestrations. The albums were sentimental and romantic, revealing the softer side of Gleason that co-existed with his brash bravado. Gleason also used his TV fame to further his movie career; he earned an Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting actor for his portrayal of Minnesota Fats in “The Hustler” (1961) and appeared in the popular “Smokey and the Bandit” (1977) and its two sequels. When he died, of liver and colon cancer at the age of 71, he left a lasting legacy of showbusiness excellence. He also left a family to carry on that legacy: his grandson is the actor Jason Patric.