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Jackie Gleason

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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.

Jackie Gleason

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.

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Howard Keel

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Howard Keel

He may be best known to younger generations as Clayton Farlow on Dallas, but Howard Keel had a vast and impressive film career before settling down on Southfork. In more than thirty film roles throughout the 50s and 60s, Howard starred opposite some of Hollywood’s most notable legends.

Born Harry Clifford Leek in Gillespie, Illinois, Howard was working as a representative for Douglas Aircraft Corporation in Southern California when he was selected for a role in the Los Angeles Theatre Guild. He worked on Broadway in Carousel and Oklahoma before landing the role of Boke in the 1948 British thriller The Small Voice. He was 29. A role in 1950’s Pagan Love Song followed, but it was his role in the Oscar-winning Annie Get Your Gun that gained Howard real notice.

Obviously deciding film adaptations of popular musicals were a good idea, Howard chose as his next film 1951’s Show Boat. Playing Ava Gardner’s leading man, Howard helped the film become the second highest-grossing film of that year.

Howard Keel

Thanks to a string of not-so-memorable films, Howard’s career treaded water for the next couple of years. In 1953 he redeemed himself, however, by starring in the Doris Day rendition of Calamity Jane. Equally successful was that year’s Kiss Me Kate, starring Howard and Kathryn Grayson. And in 1954, he co-starred with Jane Powell in the Academy Award-nominated Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

After 1959’s The Big Fisherman, the quality of film roles Howard was accepting began to decline. He chose more commercial films, mostly westerns and science fiction films, and as a result, his audience began to narrow. In 1968 he seemed to disappear altogether, possibly never to be resurrected, if it weren’t for a certain TV show that was looking for an opposing father figure.

By the time Howard joined Dallas as Clayton Farlow, it was already in its fourth season. Viewers were watching in droves and Howard’s role — to stand up to the vicious Ewings — would require an authority and confidence only a veteran actor could deliver. After a brief flirtation with Sue Ellen, Clayton became involved with the matriarch of the Ewing family, Miss Ellie. By the end of the series, the characters would marry.

After Dallas’ end in 1991, Howard appeared in the TV movie Hart to Hart: Home is Where the Heart Is and hosted both That’s Entertainment! III and The Making of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Keel died in 2004.

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Robert Wagner

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Robert Wagner

Robert Wagner proved to be more than just a pretty face. An enduring and versatile entertainer, he had many successful Hollywood incarnations: from awkward juvenile lead to bobby-sox idol to assured leading man to television star and finally back to captivating character actor. The Brylcreem Kid, as he was known in the early days, turned out to be a major talent.

Born February 10, 1930, in Detroit, Michigan, Robert Wagner was not supposed to become an actor. The son of a wealthy steel executive, Robert was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps and achieve great things in the world of business. But Robert caught the acting bug instead, and moved to Los Angeles before he was twenty to pursue his dreams.

His good looks and easy going manner got him into films and soon he became a contract player for 20th Century Fox. One of his first notable roles was in a unique John Ford war comedy called “What Price Glory?” (1952) which put him on screen with the likes of James Cagney. The film was originally intended to be a musical, though the final cut only contained two songs. The Ford film got Wagner noticed and he quickly appeared in a slew of smaller roles in films like “With a Song in My Heart” (1952) and “Stars and Stripes Forever” (1952).

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood

Robert with Natalie Wood

Wagner soon progressed to leading man status in films like “Prince Valiant” (1953). But while the roles were getting bigger, they weren’t very challenging, and Wagner still wasn’t taken very seriously as an actor. Woman-kind swooned over Wagner’s all-American looks and every bobby-soxer wished they could take him to their prom. In 1954, however, Wagner got the chance to cut his teeth on a more serious role and display his talent in Edward Dmytryk’s riveting western “Broken Lance.”

Wagner seemed well on his way to establishing himself as a serious actor with another lead role in the western “White Feather” (1955) and the crime drama “A Kiss Before Dying” (1956), when suddenly his personal life completely eclipsed his professional life. In 1956, he met the love of his life, Natalie Wood. In 1957, they married in Scottsdale, Arizona. Hollywood trumpeted their marriage as the most “glittering union of the 20th century.” The public could not hear enough about the two love-birds and were ecstatic when they made their first film together, “All the Fine Young Cannibals” (1960). The moroseness of the film, however, turned out to be prescient: While the two appeared to be the perfect couple, living the perfect life, they were actually living on the edge and running out of money.

The two were deeply in love, but professional and financial stress began to take its toll on their marriage. Wagner was being overshadowed by new male leads like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, while Wood was placed on a fourteen month suspension by Warner Bros. for refusing to shoot a film in England. They couldn’t afford to upkeep their $150,000 mansion on Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills, they couldn’t live up to the shimmering facade the tabloids had created, they couldn’t get the work they wanted in Hollywood. They wound up divorcing in 1962.

Wagner was a wreck after the divorce and went to Europe to film “The Longest Day” (1962), in part to assuage his grief. On the rebound, he married his old friend Marion Marshall in 1963. Still unable to regain his leading man status, Wagner tried his hand at comedy in “The Pink Panther” (1963) and at mystery in “Harper” (1966) — in which he played a supporting role to the man who had contributed to edging him out of the spotlight: Paul Newman. Reluctantly, Wagner went into television to star in “It Takes a Thief” (1968). The new medium resurrected his career, and he went on to star in many TV movies and several TV series, including the one he is most known for, “Hart to Hart” (1979).

While Wagner’s professional life was once again thriving by the late sixties, his personal life was not. He was still desperately in love with Natalie Wood, though he was still married to his second wife and Wood was newly married to British producer Richard Gregson. Each had a daughter. Wagner was divorced again in 1970, and one fated day, in 1971, Natalie and Robert ran into one another in a restaurant. The years of hardship and strife disappeared; the old magic was back. Wood divorced Gregson and the two love birds re-married in 1972 on their yacht, The Splendour.

Their second marriage really was picture perfect. The two were overjoyed to be reunited, and raised their children together happily. They made three television movies together during this time: “The Affair” (1973), “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1976), and “Hart to Hart” (1979). Then, in 1981, tragedy struck and Wagner’s life was shattered again. Under mysterious circumstances, Wood slipped from the deck of The Splendour and drowned. Wagner was inconsolable and spent the next ten years trying to lose himself in his work, and raising Natalie’s and his daughters alone.

Wagner eventually remarried to Jill St. John, though to this day he finds it difficult to talk about his wife Natalie Wood’s death.

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Shirley Jones

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Shirley Jones

Shirley Jones burst onto the screen in Oklahoma, with a voice and a fresh-faced beauty that inspired a generation of men to daydream about taking her out in a surrey with a fringe on top.

Her role in “Carousel” and her Oscar®-winning turn in “Elmer Gantry” cemented Jones’s status as a star. On June 5, 1962, a parade featuring Shirley Jones and Robert Preston in “The Music Man” composer Meredith Wilson’s hometown of Mason City, Iowa, attracted a crowd of 125,000 people!

Shirley Jones

After having made so many classic films, it’s ironic that Shirley Jones is so well-known as a mother in a TV sitcom. Real movie fans know better.

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