June 08, 1992 12:00 PM

by W.J. Weatherby

Ralph Kramden, as every couch potato knows, is a lovable bully, equal parts dreamer, blowhard and big-hearted buffoon. When he trips over his own foibles, as inevitably he does, he turns into an abashed puppy, his saving grace. Now subtract the lovable, big-hearted puppy. What you get, it seems, is Kramden’s creator.

This is the insecure Gleason of Henry’s book (Doubleday, $22.50), the better written and more moving of the two biographies, both of which deliver the basic story of the outsize comedian who rose to fame from scrappy blue-collar roots. Herbert John (Jackie) Gleason was born in New York City in 1916 to Mae and Herb Gleason, a hard-drinking life insurance clerk who deserted the family when his son was 9 years old, never to be heard from again. Gleason began as a stand-up comic, did stunt dives from the Steel Pier in Atlantic City and tried pro boxing, four-round bouts with a $2 guarantee. But by the mid-’40s he was again doing stand-up, this time at Broadway clubs, where he occasionally got as much as $3,000 a week. A 1949-50 TV stint on NBC’s The Life of Riley led to stardom on the smaller DuMont network’s Cavalcade of Stars. There he met Art Carney. And there, with Gleason portraying the boisterous bus driver Ralph Kramden and Carney the sewer worker Ed Norton, The Honeymooners was hatched. In 1955, CBS launched the series that would make Gleason wealthy and a rerun immortal.

Weatherby, a biographer also of James Baldwin and Salman Rushdie, assures us repeatedly that Gleason was a wondrously energetic, hard-drinking, free-spending comedy genius, but his Intimate Portrait (Pharos Books, $19.95) bogs down in trivia. Example: For a TV appearance with Frank Sinatra, Gleason was awarded a Cadillac, “bottle green, according to legend, but black according to the records of the Cadillac agency.”

Henry, culture critic for TIME magazine and twice a Pulitzer prizewinner (once for TV criticism), offers a harsher but far more persuasive study: Gleason as an insecure bully seeking always to dominate, a boozer, a glutton, a rotten father, an uncertain friend.

A telling number of associates speak against him. Gene Wolsk, manager of the 1978 Gleason tour of Larry Gelbart’s play Sly Fox: “The worst person I ever worked with in 40 years in show business.” Mike Dann, longtime programming chief at CBS: “A true depressive…the most self-destructive performer I ever knew.” Neil Simon, explaining what kept him laboring over Come Blow Your Horn, his first stage hit: “I did not want to get to be a middle-aged man…writing gags for some abusive, unappreciative shit like Jackie Gleason.”

As a husband, he was also no Great One. Jackie had three wives: Genevieve, a devout Catholic, bore him two daughters and for years wrangled with him over their divorce proceedings; Beverly he parted from after four years; Marilyn, sister of June Taylor, his TV show choreographer, kept him content until his death (com cancer, at 71, in 1987.

Yet even those who loathed Gleason acknowledge his extraordinary talent, which Henry’s biography so successfully recalls, as it recalls also the quixotic flashes of generosity and tenderness that belied the gross behavior. We mourn, it seems, a Gleason we did not know; Ralph Kramden is the man we really miss.

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