Most of us who have heard of Jackie Gleason probably know him from his portrayal of Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners or Minnesota Fats in the movie The Hustler. He was a rather large man who often made fun of his own stature, but as his nickname, 'The Great One', suggests, he was large in many other respects as well.
Herbert John Gleason (his mother called him Jackie) was born on February 26, 1916 in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, the same neighborhood as was the setting for The Honeymooners, in fact. He grew up in the same kind of tenement building that the Honeymooners characters Ralph and Alice Kramden lived in. His father deserted the family when Jackie was eight years old, leaving him alone with his mother. His mother took a job selling subway tokens to get by and young Jackie did odd jobs to help, quitting school after the sixth grade.
A break finally came their way when 15-year-old Jackie won a local talent show that led to jobs as master of ceremonies and comic at theaters, speak-easies and clubs and a reputation for brash wit and fast ad-libbing. This earned Jackie steady work and good pay for the depression era, but the energetic young man bolstered his income with further odd jobs that included carnival ringmaster, stunt driver and high diver as well as disk-jockey and radio host.
Fame and Fortune
A much bigger break came at age 25, when Jack Warner himself spotted Jackie in a club act and signed him up for Warner Brothers Studios. Jackie had small parts in several movies from Warner Brothers. He then hit the Broadway musical circuit. The starring role in "Take Me With You" earned him a Tony Award. He later appeared on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town show. That appearance further led to the starring role in the TV show The Life of Riley. He then went on to host the Cavalcade of Stars, where he developed several of his characters, including Joe the Bartender and Ralph Kramden, the blustery bus driver. Cavalcade was very popular and made Jackie a national star. The Ralph Kramden sketches were spun off to create The Honeymooners (TV's first spin-off show).It would surprise many to know that The Honeymooners ran for only one season (39 episodes), but it has been in continuous syndicated reruns ever since. Jackie decided to stop writing The Honeymooners because he felt he could not maintain the quality of the material and didn't want it to diminish.
Other Sides of the Man
Despite his minimal formal education and hard formative years, Jackie Gleason was broad in mind as well as girth and became accomplished in many ways.
Steel Against the Sky -uncredited- (1941) as the Drunk in the Diner
Navy Blues (1941) as Tubby
Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1942) as Hank
Springtime in the Rockies -uncredited- (1942) as the Commissioner
Orchestra Wives (1942) as Ben Beck
Lady Gangster (1942) as Wilson
All Through the Night (1942) as Starchy
Larceny, Inc. (1942) as Hobart
Escape from Crime (1942) as Screwball
The Desert Hawk (1950) as Aladdin
The Hustler (1961), Nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor as Minnesota Fats, opposite Paul Newman
Gigot (1962) as Gigot
Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) as Maish Rennick
Soldier in the Rain (1963) as Master Sergeant Maxwell Slaughter, opposite Steve McQueen
Papa's Delicate Condition (1963) as Jack Griffith
Skidoo (1968) as Tony Banks
How to Commit Marriage (1969) as Oliver Poe
Don't Drink the Water (1969) as Walter Hollander
How Do I Love Thee? (1970) as Stanley Waltz
Mr. Billion (1977) as John Cutler
Smokey and the Bandit (1977) as Sheriff Buford T. Justice
Smokey and the Bandit II (1980) as Sheriff Buford T. Justice
The Toy (1982) as U. S. Bates, opposite Richard Prior
Smokey and the Bandit III (1983) as Sheriff Buford T. Justice
Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson -TV- (1983) as Mr. Johnson
The Sting II (1983) as Gondorff
Izzy and Moe -TV- (1985) as Izzy Einstein
Nothing in Common (1986) as Max Basner, opposite Tom Hanks
Jackie couldn't read music or play an instrument, but he had a vision for a kind of music that he couldn't buy anywhere. His solution was to hire an orchestra and work with some orchestrators to realize the vision. Basically, his idea was to cover popular songs in a soft, romantic style to create mood music, or more specifically, music to put you in 'the mood'. The song titles of the 20 highly successful albums he published through Capitol Records are quite explicit about what 'the mood' means: 'Music for Lovers Only,' 'Music to Change Her Mind,' 'Oooo!', 'That Moment,' etc. The cover of one album, 'The Lonesome Echo,' featured art by Salvador Dali. In addition to the make-out music, he also created the theme tune for The Honeymooners, "You're My Greatest Love"; and the theme for The Jackie Gleason Show, "Melancholy Serenade." He also strongly influenced the soundtrack of the movie Gigot. He stopped recording albums in 1969.
He established the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic, a high-paying golf tournament in Florida.
A Leaner Cuisine
In the early 1950s, he proposed the idea of a series of frozen dinners that were labeled with exact calorie content for dieters.
Played real pool with the real Minnesota Fats on TV in a celebrity challenge series.
"How su-weeeet it is!"
"Baby, you're the greatest!"
from The Honeymooners (credit to Borgo
"And awaaay we go!" (usually accompanied by his signature body movement; see his statue).
"One of these days, Pow! Right in the kisser!"
"Our dreams are first-hand creations, rather than residues of waking life. We have the capacity for infinite creativity; at least while dreaming, we partake of the power of the Spirit, the infinite Godhead that creates the cosmos." (He was into parapsychology.)
"The second day of a diet is always easier than the first. By the second day you're off it."
Jackie died of cancer on June 24, 1987 in Lauderhill, Florida. He is buried alongside his wife under a pillared monument that greets visitors with the cheerful inscription, "And away we go!"
The Honeymooners on YouTube