Jackie Gleason was billed as The Great One. And for a good reason.
It is unfortunate that there is a generation coming up that may likely not have heard of Jackie Gleason, an enormous presence in entertainment over five decades that left behind an impressive legacy. His work spanned generations, from his supporting roles in 1940s movies, his truly classic “Honeymooners” shows of the 1950s, his variety series during the 1960s, and appearances in films like “The Hustler” (1961), “Requiem For a Heavyweight” (1962), all the way up to “Smoky and the Bandit” (1976) and “Nothing in Common” (1986). Gleason played both comedy and drama, his humorous characters ranging from the boisterous Ralph Kramden to the pathos of The Poor Soul, and his movie roles running the gamut from a shifty prizefight manager to a redneck sheriff.
It is perhaps the Ralph Kramden character that has most effectively lived on over time and generations. “The Honeymooners” was originally a sketch on Gleason’s variety show, but during the 1955-1956 TV season a decision was made to film the series as a sitcom, but with a live audience. The 39 episodes from this season have been rerun for nearly 60 years, and remain every bit as fresh and funny as they ever were (curiously, the 1985 discovery and re-release of Honeymooners sketches from seasons previous to, and following, the Classic 39 were only sporadically amusing). Kramden was a working class dreamer of little means whose blustery manner hid a kind heart. With silly sidekick Art Carney as Ed Norton, Audrey Meadows as no-nonsense wife Alice, and Joyce Randolph as Norton’s wife Trixie, the 39 episodes of this series investigated several levels of each character.
While Kramden was the central character in each plot, the supporting characters framed the action perfectly. Ralph’s determination was inspiring even if ideas like “wallpaper that glows in the dark” were ridiculous. It was hard to not respect a man who rented a piano and studied the history of popular music in preparation for a quiz show, or sympathize when he plummeted into abject paranoia after being summoned to the IRS offices.
Often actors in sitcoms of any kind are stereotyped by their role and are hard to accept in anything else. While he concentrated on television throughout the 1950s, during the 60s Gleason juggled a TV and a film career. While continuing with his variety series, Gleason took roles in films, especially during the first half of the 1960s. On Saturday nights he would be on TV engaging in routines with Frank Fontaine as Crazy Guggenheim, and then show up in theaters as pool player Minnesota Fats in “The Hustler” or unscrupulous fight manager Maishe in “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” taking on the role played by Rod Steiger in the original TV drama. Gleason also played opposite Steve McQueen in “Soldier in the Rain” (1961).
Gleason tried to revive “The Honeymooners” a few different times, the most notable version during the 1960s was from 1966-1970 and featured Carney along with Sheila MacRae as Alice and Jane Kean as Trixie. The dynamic was similar to the Classic 39, but the structure was altered, as the shows now ran an hour and featured musical numbers throughout. Gleason, who had his entire production moved to Miami Beach, would delight the live audience with his “How sweet it is!” greeting at the opening of the program, and his introducing the series actors as the show concluded. Gleason made fewer movies during the late 1960s, none of them enjoying much success. Even his teaming with Bob Hope in “How to Save a Marriage” (1969) fell flat, while Woody Allen’s “Don’t Drink The Water” was another comedy film that failed to reach near its potential. While filming “How Do I Love Thee?” (1970), a drunken Gleason stumbled and crushed co-star Maureen O’Hara’s hand. Miss O’Hara never regained the full use of that hand.
Gleason made something of a comeback with “Smoky and the Bandit” (1976), an immensely popular film where his character of hot tempered, foul mouthed redneck sheriff Buford T. Justice became nearly as iconic as Ralph Kramden. Also during the seventies, Gleason would occasionally revive “The Honeymooners” for TV specials, bringing back Audrey Meadows as Alice due to the popularity of the Classic 39 in reruns, but retaining Jane Kean from the musical era.
Gleason’s final role was in the drama “Nothing In Common” (1986) opposite Tom Hanks. He died the following year after decades of indulgences. He was 71 years old.
The Classic 39 Honeymooners episodes remain in sporadic syndication, but, as with most shows shot in black and white, is relegated to TV stations dealing with older programs, and shown late at night. As a result, new generations are not exposed to one of the leading figures in television. It is notable that, among the closing credits of the Classic 39 Honeymooners, it states “entire production supervised by Jackie Gleason.” It is Gleason’s vision that made this series a bonafide classic of the small screen. And his performances in movies like “The Hustler” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight” still resonate over 50 years later.
Jackie Gleason’s being billed as The Great One was completely accurate.