Nearly three decades have passed since Jackie Gleason first stuffed himself into Ralph Kramden’s bus driver duds, and a whole generation of fans never even heard of the network on which that sketch originated—DuMont—yet the resulting classic series, The Honeymooners, like Gleason himself, won’t fade a way. Currently seen in the movie sequel Smokey and the Bandit II, the Great One, 64, has won new praise for his rendition of Sheriff Buford T. Justice. Jackie commanded a princely $1.2 million for his 14 days on the set, and earned the admiration of co-star Burt Reynolds. “I always prided myself on being able to make chicken salad out of chicken shit,” says Burt, “but Jackie can make it into cordon bleu.” In fact, it is remarkable that Gleason was able to make the movie at all. In 1978, while touring in the stage comedy Sly Fox, he was felled by a heart attack and finally had to undergo a six-hour triple bypass operation. Now fully recovered, he lives with his third wife, Marilyn, 55, sister of choreographer June Taylor, in a $2 million home in Lauder hill, Fla. “I’m going full tilt with everything,” he says. “I don’t see any sense getting a heart operation if you’re not going to live after you have it.” That philosophy and his 53-year show business career were among the topics of an interview with PEOPLE’s Jim Calio.
Do people recognize you now mostly as Sheriff Justice?
No, they yell out, “Awayyy we go,” or “How sweet it is,” or “Hey, Ralph.” Even after all these years, they still remember me from The Honeymooners.
What do you think of comedy on television these days?
It’s pitiful. Everything is sexual innuendo. I don’t believe that there is one sitcom on television now that isn’t sexually oriented.
Yes, but weren’t some of your lines in Smokey pretty raw?
That’s what they come to see, but there’s nothing sexual about it. What amazes me is that people are bringing their 5-year-old kids.
Does it bother you?
I figure that when they say “parental guidance,” they mean it. If I’m doing something on the screen a parent doesn’t want his kid to see, he won’t let him come see it. But I found out lately that that’s not the ballgame at all. Kids see everything.
How about Saturday Night Live?
Horrible. I saw a sketch the night Burt was on the show. They did a scene in a “vomitorium.” Every now and then somebody would come in and throw up. I said to Marilyn, “Shock isn’t funny. Funny is funny.”
Do you miss having a live weekly show?
Oh, God, no. But fortunately for me I have a photographic memory. I’d pick up a script, look at it and that was it. I got to where I wouldn’t look at a script until the day of the show, preferably an hour or two before we had to go into rehearsal. And then I wouldn’t rehearse. I had a stand-in.
Did it ever backfire on you?
I remember one time I threw a sketch out just four hours before we were due to go on. I took Art Carney and Pert Kelton, who was playing Alice Kramden then, and we went over to my house to write something new. But first we all had a drink. Then Pert typed “The Honeymooners” across the top of a page. I said, “Maybe we ought to have another drink.” Well, to make a long story short, we sat there until about 7 o’clock with nothing on the paper. I said, “The hell with this. Look, you say to me, ‘Go down to the corner and buy a loaf of bread.’ I’ll start an argument.” I said, “Art, when you hear this going good, come in. And I’ll try to chase you out. You’ll say you’re here to protect her and we’ll get into a thing.” They said, “Fine.” So we did it. By the time the show was over, we had all sobered up. We went up to my dressing room and I said, “Well, that’s it, folks, the end of a beautiful friendship. We’re finished.” Then one of our sponsors came up and said, “I want to tell you that’s one of the funniest Honeymooners I’ve ever seen.” I looked at Pert and I said, “We can’t lose.”
Why is there such turnover on TV today?
If you’re doing situation comedy you have to have the people like you. That’s what’s probably wrong with the sitcoms today. There’s no one you can really feel you want to like. They can provoke you into laughing, maybe, but you don’t like them. One of the most important things a comedian has to be able to do is make an audience cry. There’s only one great comedian who couldn’t do it—that was Groucho Marx, because he was a cartoon of a human being. But all good comedians could make an audience cry. Carroll O’Connor can. Red Skelton could. Abbott—I mean Costello—could. W.C. Fields could. Chaplin certainly could. Buster Keaton could.
Does a tragic life lie behind the comedian’s art?
I don’t think so, but it does seem strange, though, that all comics came from broken families or poor families. But what the hell, everybody came from a broken family in Brooklyn, but everybody wasn’t a comedian.
When did you first know you wanted to be an actor?
I was 5 years old and my father took me to the old Halsey Theater. I thought it was sensational. When the lights went on for intermission I got up, turned around and faced the audience. That was even greater than watching the guy on stage.
How did your friends react to your wanting to be an actor?
The guys used to kid me. But I was a good fighter, so they didn’t kid me too much. You couldn’t wear makeup in Brooklyn unless you could fight.
Did your mother approve?
She hated me to tell jokes, or have anything else to do with show business. When I became the emcee at the Halsey years later she said, “You look silly up there.” I knew she liked it, though she’d never admit it.
Your father left home when you were very young. When did you start working?
Well, when I was 11 years old I was in a traveling water show. I remember one time we were in Bangor, Maine, in an armory. And we had a high dive into a canvas tank. One day the guy who usually did it was drunk, so he told me to do it. I knew I had to, so I went up 65 feet and jumped off. Then I said, “That’s it, I’m not doing that anymore.” And the guy said, “Well, you’re fired.” I’m in Bangor, Maine, for Christ’s sake, and I’m 11. How do you get home? I borrowed enough money to get the bus.
Did you graduate from high school?
I only graduated from grammar school. I went to high school, but I got my cousin’s boyfriend to come to school and explain how poverty-stricken my mother was. He said it was absolutely necessary that I get out of school and go to work. By then I was hustling pool. I’d started when I was 10.
Is that why you were so convincing as Minnesota Fats in The Hustler?
The poolroom they used in that movie was right down the street from a place on 44th Street I’d been in a hundred times when I was younger. I learned how to fight in a poolroom. In those days there was no carrying knives or clubs or anything. You had to fight with your fists. There was no way out. That’s how later I learned how to busk.
Fighting for money. I must have been about 17 or 18. I was working a club in Newark. One of the reasons they hired me was because I could fight good. You got $2 a round, $5 extra if you won. Four rounds. You’d go around to the back of the arena. You’d stand there. A guy would come out and call out weights. You’d raise your hand and go in. Lots of knockouts.
When did you get your first crack at TV?
After the war. I was playing a club in Los Angeles, and a guy came in and said they needed a comic for the old Cavalcade of Stars back in New York. I was always a good scene comic, and that’s what television was waiting for—someone who did scenes instead of just telling jokes.
Who is your favorite comedian?
A guy who makes me laugh is Henny Youngman. He tells four million jokes and maybe a hundred get a laugh. That kills me.
How about the new comics?
I don’t know of anybody who’s a comic. Flip Wilson is the closest.
I’d like to see him do an act without the blue stuff. You come out and say, “Somebody’s going to kick my —— black ass,” you’re going to get a laugh. But I’d like to see him say something without that. I think he can do it.
How did you meet your current wife?
I went with Marilyn 25 years ago. She was in the chorus when we did the original Gleason show. But my first wife wouldn’t give me a divorce. So I told Marilyn, “We’re kidding ourselves. You’re ruining your life. Let’s call it off.” Twenty-five years later we meet, I’m single and we walk off into the sunset, Warner Brothers style.
Did you not get divorced sooner because you were a Catholic?
No. No one could really call me a Catholic because I don’t go by the rules or go to Mass. But I think I’m religious. I’ve sought God all my life, but I’ve never found Him. It’s remarkable to me how all these born-again Christians are walking down the street with Christ and talking to Him and getting business information. I’ve been studying all my life and I’ve never run into Him. I think that the real religion is to keep seeking God throughout your life.
Do you have a credo?
I have a philosophy which is, “Play the melody.” It means don’t over-arrange, don’t make life difficult. Just play the melody, do it the simplest way possible.