A Fond Goodbye to the Great One
Save a table for me, pal.” With this wry but heartfelt scribble, sent along with flowers, Jackie Gleason said au revoir to his best friend, Toots Shor, the Manhattan tavern keeper, who died in 1977. Just over a week ago Gleason arrived to claim his reservation. After a three-month battle with cancer of the colon, the Volkswagen-shaped leprechaun who reigned as Mr. Saturday Night during the Golden Age of TV comedy died peacefully at home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was 71. “If God wants another joke man,” he said just before the end, “I’m ready.”
Two days later, while tapes of Melancholy Serenade and other Gleason compositions played softly in the background, some 2,000 mourners filed past his closed casket in a Miami funeral parlor. The next day family and close friends prayed for his soul at a requiem Mass. Geraldine and Linda, Gleason’s daughters by his first wife, were there with his widow, Marilyn, and drove with her to Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery. Audrey Meadows, Gleason’s co-star in The Honeymooners, was the only famous performer who showed up at the service, but Art Carney, Jackie’s close friend and comic sidekick, sent flowers. So did Perry Como, Mickey Rooney and Bob Hope, who spoke for millions when he said: “Jackie was a supercomic, bigger than life as a talent and as a man.”
Gleason would surely have agreed. Orson Welles dubbed him “The Great One,” and he wore the epithet as proudly as an emperor wears ermine, charming and tickling and bullying us until we took him at his own measure. Gross in physique, gargantuan in gourmandise, oceanic in liquid capacity, prodigal of purse, a fire hose of libido and a Niagara of comic invention, the B man was excess personified and § one of the great entertainers of the I age. He was the last of the dear mad I Irishmen who from Finley Peter Dunne (Mr. Dooley) to Frank Fay to Fred Allen have made America laugh at their inspired shenanigans, and he died in an Indian summer of his renown. Yet another generation has fallen in love with his finest work, The Honeymooners, and it is in that vintage series, more than anywhere else, that we can still feel the beating of his big, crazy heart.
Herbert John Gleason was born on Feb. 26,1916, in Brooklyn’s Bushwick section. Mother Mae was a rosary addict. Father Herb worked in the death claims department of a small insurance firm, drank like a culvert and absquatulated when Jackie was 9, leaving Mae on her uppers. (“He was as good a father,” Jackie later quipped, “as I’ve ever known.”) Mother went to work as a subway change clerk and numbed her nights with booze. Jackie developed both a panic appetite that turned him into a lifelong oval and a mania for attention that made him a performer.
He performed at the local pool hall so skillfully that at 12 he was hustling grown men for candy money. He also performed to guffaws at grade school assemblies, where he recited Little Red Riding Hood in a Yiddish accent. Fired up, he dropped out in ninth grade, beat out “guys who played stomach pumps” in an amateur-night contest and at 15 was hired as emcee at a neighborhood theater for $4 a night. Soon he was the toast of Bushwick, a noisy wiseguy who ripped off Milton Berle’s routines and strutted the sidewalks in Chesterfield, derby, spats and a Jell-O-yellow polka-dot scarf.
When he was 19, Mae died of an infected carbuncle, and Jackie glumly lit out for Manhattan with 36 cents to his name. For weeks he lived on “potage a l’automat”—hot water and ketchup spiked with Tabasco sauce. Then he got a gig in a Newark, N.J. “bucket of blood” called the Miami Club, where “the rats went next door to eat” and the show was a shouting match between comics and customers. “Is that your face, sir, or did your pants fall down?” was par for the coarse.
At 20, Jackie had $114 a week, unlimited booze and babes and a sizzling rep as the funniest man in New Jersey. But this brash kid figured he was the funniest man in the world. So he wangled a date at Club 18, Manhattan’s top comedy store, and night after night whammered the celebrity-salted house with one-liners that were part burlesque and part Berlesque but delivered with a raffish élan that was all Gleason and a yard wide. Soon he was the hot name in the club scene—Berle called him “my two favorite comedians”—and before long he had a movie contract: two years at $250 a week.
Much good it did him. Warners relegated him to bit parts in six god-awful movies (like Navy Blues and Orchestra Wives). To relieve boredom, Gleason took the mike in Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom’s saloon and for awhile shared a flat with the ex-pugilist. One night, after Maxie had entertained a hooker and then sunk into a drunken doze, Gleason painted his member with Mercurochrome. When he woke up, Rosenbloom let out a yelp. “Omi-god,” said Gleason. “That hooker gave you a case of Colorado.” Rosenbloom gasped, “Colorado? Is that bad?” Gleason shook his head. “It ain’t good.” Rushing to the phone, Rosenbloom frantically asked his doctor what he should do for a case of Colorado.
By 1943, 4-F in the draft because he was 100 pounds overweight, Gleason was back East in Club 18—just across 52nd Street from Toots Shor’s glitzy watering hole, where one afternoon he pulled off his most famous prank. He challenged Toots, a man almost as bulbous as Gleason, to a race around the block. “You run clockwise, I’ll run counterclockwise. First man back to the restaurant wins. Loser pays the winner a grand.” Off they galumphed. But the instant that Shor was out of sight, Gleason hailed a cab and made the trip in comfort. When Shor came huffing home, Gleason was sitting at the bar. Shaking his head in amazement, Shor forked over 10 big ones. Then his eyes opened wide. “Hey!” he yelled. “How come I never passed you?”
But life wasn’t all fun and games. All through the ’40s, Jackie’s career was stymied, and his life was a mess. In 1936, at 20, he had dashed to the altar with a shapely hoofer named Genevieve Halford. They produced two children, Geraldine and Linda, but from Day One there was trouble. Gen was more Catholic than the Pope—a friend of Jackie’s called her “Mother Cabrini in leotards.” Jackie was a streetnik, a comedy hit man who shot from the lip. He was bored by his bride’s church-mousey life-style, and she was appalled by his riotous living.
Gleason smoked six packs of cigarettes a day, ate like a regiment (for a late-night “snack” he might put away three T-bone steaks and two full chickens) and made a religion of booze. “I drink,” he said proudly, “with the honorable intention of getting bagged.” With lunch he swilled six double scotches and at dinner the same. Then he partied all night, often lurching home after dawn. To chase his hangover he usually took a hair of the dog, but sometimes he felt so frazzled his doctor gave him a Thorazine injection.
And then there were the “broads.” Though he admitted that “sex for a fat man is much ado about puffing,” Gleason rarely refused the exertion. In one club “there were 22 chorus girls,” he reported happily, “and all you had to say was, ‘Would you like to have dinner?’ ” Jackie paraded his infidelities and from time to time remorsefully confessed them to his spouse. Like Saint Monica, Gen relentlessly forgave her man and prayed for his salvation.
Almost as hard to forgive were Jackie’s fiscal orgies. He borrowed big bucks from friends and employers and threw them around like there was no tomorrow. “Drinks for the house!” he would roar as he swaggered into Shor’s. Once he hit Toots for $500 and rented a limo to drive Frank Sinatra to a bar half a block away. Night after night he hired a band and invited “the gang” to a party in his hotel room. Again and again Gen begged him to put his financial house in order. But he never did.
What hidden engine powered all these excesses? Sheer terror, suggests biographer Jim Bishop in The Golden Ham (1956). The slum bunny from Bushwick felt small and scared in the big world he had crashed with no ticket but talent, and all the gorging, guzzling and wenching were attempts to anesthetize terror with sensations that made him feel secure. Fat itself was a defense: When he was thin, Gleason’s doctor told Bishop, he got cramps before he had to do a show; when he was fat, he didn’t. And splurging was a way of buying social security. To buy drinks was to buy friends, to show that a nobody was in fact a Somebody, that an outsider was One of the Boys. But inside the compulsive carouser an anguished seeker was struggling to get out. Jackie often retreated into black Irish moods, and in his solitary hours he read deep in the literature of mysticism and the occult.
So much for analysis, which fails to explain what mattered about the man. His first agent said it best: “He’s funny, and he’s got a heart like a house.”
What Gleason needed was a national showcase for these shining qualities, and TV provided it. A strong year on The Life of Riley bounced him into his own variety show, Cavalcade of Stars, which rang up sterling ratings. In 1952 CBS signed the 36-year-old comic for The Jackie Gleason Show, and in 1954 offered him record numbers: $11 million to continue the show for three more years. Success at last! Jackie knew what to do with it. He took total control of the production: vetted every gag, cast every character, critiqued every riff of the score and hip-flip of the choreography. Many a week he worked till he collapsed, then took a toke of oxygen and worked some more. Perfection was harder to achieve in those days—shows were shot and broadcast live.
What Gleason achieved was smashing televaudeville: a garland of lush sound (Ray Bloch’s band) and flashy motion (the June Taylor Dancers) encircling a core of sidesplitting skits in which Gleason created a burlesque of Bushwick and stocked it with American archetypes—each one a parody of some trait he had observed in himself. Among them: Reginald van Gleason III, an upper-crust flake with a floor-mop mustache who sports a smokestack hat and pursues tippling as a career; the Poor Soul, a pious wimp with a Goody-Good Samaritan Complex who condescends to help Those Less Fortunate and can’t understand why he continually gets taken for a sucker; the Bartender, an affable ignoramus who stirs fractured facts and garbled conclusions into a wisdom cocktail and serves it to the viewer—on the house.
But the high point of the show was a skit called The Honeymooners. It featured Gleason as a fat Don Quixote, a blustering, blundering bus driver from Brooklyn named Ralph Kramden, who constantly re-dreams the American Dream of Making It Big and constantly falls flat on his face. Art Carney is his skinny Sancho Panza, a dim-witted sewer worker named Ed Norton who describes himself as “an engineer of subterranean sanitation” and follows Ralph around like a pet roach. Audrey Meadows is Alice, Ralph’s missile-tongued missus, who regularly shoots him down to earth. (He: “This is probably the biggest thing I ever got into.” She: “The biggest thing you ever got into was your pants.”) And Joyce Randolph is Trixie, the lucky lady who gets to do Ed’s laundry.
The scripts are hilarious—page after page of gut-busting dialogue. “I’m the boss!” Ralph bellows at Alice. “You’re nothing!” Whereupon Alice yells back, “Big deal. You’re boss over nothing!” Ralph’s catchphrases—”One of these days, Alice. Pow! Right in the kisser!”—became fixed in the language. But what touches the shows with genius is the impromptu interplay between Gleason and Carney. Gleason, whose eidetic memory could register every line of a 60-page script in a single read-through, allowed only minimal rehearsals—he thought they killed spontaneity. Under this pressure, Carney was astoundingly inventive, the perfect Laurel to Gleason’s Hardy. Once, when Gleason missed an entrance, he strolled to the icebox, selected an orange and peeled it with a crescendo of preposterous flourishes that had viewers holding their sides.
How good is The Honeymooners? Groucho Marx called it TV’s “only real classic.” And novelist John O’Hara considered Ralph Kramden “a character we might be getting from Dickens if he were writing for TV.” In a day when the tube was extruding middle-class mush like Ozzie and Harriet, Gleason produced a realistic comedy of poverty rooted in his own experience—all in all the most consistently brilliant sitcom ever to grace the small screen.
Viewers loved the skits so much that in 1955 they were spun off as a separate show. And just to make sure he didn’t jump to another network, CBS agreed to pay him a $100,000 retainer every year for 15 years. After only 18 months on the air, Jackie had dethroned Uncle Miltie as King of Comedy. And he had become a major power in the music business. Between 1952 and 1971 he produced 64 albums of music-to-snuggle-by—one listener said it sounded like “Log Cabin syrup poured over a slowly turning pizza.”
Now he was truly The Great One, and he lived up to his moniker. He snored through meetings with CBS top brass—”Any TV executive,” he hooted, “must have one important attribute: cologne.” He chartered a train and threw a 10-day coast-to-coast party—with two Dixieland bands and a bevy of beauties. He golfed with Bob Hope, got sloshed with Mickey Mantle, hobnobbed with Presidents. One night, needing spiritual counsel, he called the Pope (but got a monsignor who spoke no English). His pranks became more outlandish: He sent Toots 600 pounds of horse manure and somebody else a basketful of shrunken heads.
But as he moved into middle age, sanity invaded his private life. In 1952 Gen and Jackie were legally separated, and soon after that he fell in love with a 27-year-old dancer named Marilyn Taylor, the sister of June Taylor. She was quiet, pretty and warmhearted, and he asked her-to marry him the minute he got a divorce. But Gen refused to give him a divorce. Marilyn waited four years, then married another man. Some months later Jackie took up with Glea-Girl Honey Merrill, who hung on for 13 years before she did the same.
Meanwhile Jackie’s career went rolling right along. When The Honeymooners went off the air, The Jackie Gleason Show took its place. Off and on for six years, he produced it in Miami “because I like to play golf.” By 1970, when his show at last was canceled, Gleason had shifted from TV to movies (Soldier in the Rain, Requiem for a Heavyweight, The Toy) and evolved into a dramatic actor of unique presence and power. In The Hustler (1961) he won an Oscar nomination for his intense and elegant portrayal of Minnesota Fats, a gentleman of the cue. (He also won the undying admiration of co-star Paul Newman by executing his own trick shots.)
Who would have imagined that such a wild Irishman would live to enjoy a happy old age? But he did. He persuaded Gen at last to give him that divorce, weathered another unworkable marriage, this time to ex-secretary Beverly McKittrick, and in 1975 finally wed the widow of his dreams: his old girlfriend Marilyn. Their golden years were not without dark moments—in 1978 Gleason had a triple bypass operation. But he restrained his lust for lunch, had an eye job and a chin tuck, made MasterCard commercials, played the steaming sheriff in the Smokey and the Bandit movies, grew a riverboat-gambler mustache that crawled across his face like a hairy, black caterpillar, built up a multimillion-dollar estate and basked in the afterglow of mass adoration.
What revived the glory that was Gleason? In recent years a creeping fascination with The Honeymooners has become a national addiction. Since they first went into reruns, back in 1958, the 39 episodes Gleason telecast in 1955-56 have never been off the air. Now aired by 100 stations worldwide, the skits have been shown more than 100 times in some areas. In 1985 Gleason gave his Honeymoonies—who have set up the Royal Association for the Longevity and Preservation of The Honeymooners(R.A.L.P.H.)—a massive bonus of delight. He revealed the existence of “lost” kinescopes of The Jackie Gleason Show, including Honeymooners sketches first telecast between ’52 and ’57, that had sat unseen for 30 years in a refrigerated vault. For a sum in excess of $5 million, he sold distribution rights to Viacom Enterprises. Edited into 70 new episodes of The Honeymooners, the shows were aired on Showtime in 1986 and then released for syndication.
It’s a grand legacy, befitting a grand Irish life. “Almost everything I wanted to do,” he said not long ago, “I’ve been able to do, and most of it turned out pretty good. Everybody’s been damn nice to me.”
And how would he like to be remembered? “Aw, hell. I’d just like to be remembered.”
That he will be.