Jackie Gleason

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Jackie Gleason
Jackie Gleason - 1966.jpg
Born John Herbert Gleason
(1916-02-26)February 26, 1916
Brooklyn, New York, United States
Died June 24, 1987(1987-06-24) (aged 71)
Lauderhill, Florida, United States
Cause of death Colon cancer
Occupation Actor, comedian, musician
Years active 1941–1986
Spouse(s) Genevieve Halford (1936–1970; 2 children)
Beverly McKittrick (1970–1975)
Marilyn Taylor (1975–1987; his death)
Children Geraldine Halford (b. 1940)
Linda Halford (b. 1942)[1]

John Herbert "Jackie" Gleason (February 26, 1916 – June 24, 1987) was an American comedian, actor, and musician who developed a style and characters in his career from growing up in Brooklyn, New York. He was known for his brash visual and verbal comedy style, exemplified by his character Ralph Kramden in the television series The Honeymooners. By filming the episodes with Electronicam, Gleason later could release the series in syndication, building its popularity over the years with new audiences. He also developed The Jackie Gleason Show, which had the second-highest ratings in the country 1954-1955, and which he produced over the years in variations, including in the venue of Miami, Florida after moving there.

Among his notable film roles were Minnesota Fats in the Academy Award-winning 1961 drama The Hustler (co-starring with Paul Newman), and Buford T. Justice in the Smokey and the Bandit series from 1977 into the early 1980s, in which he co-starred with Burt Reynolds.

Early life[edit]

Gleason was born in 1916 at 364 Chauncey Street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.[2] He grew up at 328 Chauncey (an address he later used for Ralph and Alice Kramden on The Honeymooners).[3] Originally named Herbert Walton Gleason Jr., he was baptized John Herbert Gleason.[4] His parents were Mae "Maisie" (née Kelly), Farranree, Cork,[5] Ireland, and Herbert Walton "Herb" Gleason, an Irish-American insurance auditor.[5][6][7][8] Gleason was one of two children; his brother Clemence died of spinal meningitis at age 14.[5]

He remembered his father as having "beautiful handwriting", and used to watch him work at the family's kitchen table to write policies in the evenings. On the night of December 14, 1925, Gleason's father disposed of any family photos in which he appeared; just after noon on December 15, he collected his hat, coat, and paycheck, and left the insurance company and his family permanently. When it was evident he was not coming back, Mae went to work as a subway attendant for the Brooklyn–Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT).[9]

After his father left, young Gleason began hanging around on the streets with a local gang and hustling pool.[9] He attended elementary school at P.S. 73 in Brooklyn and attended (but did not graduate from) John Adams High School in Queens and Bushwick High School in Brooklyn. Gleason became interested in performing after being part of a class play; when he left school, he got a job as master of ceremonies at a theater that paid $4 per night. Other jobs he held included working in a pool hall, as a stunt driver, and as a carnival barker.[9][10] Gleason and his friends made the rounds of the local theaters; he put an act together with one of his friends, and the pair performed on amateur night at the Halsey Theater (where Gleason replaced his friend Sammy Birch as master of ceremonies). He was also offered the same work two nights a week at the Folly Theater.[9]

After his father's abandonment, Gleason was raised by his mother. When she died in 1935 of sepsis from a large neck carbuncle (which young Jackie had tried to lance), Gleason was 19,[4] had nowhere to go and less than 40 cents to his name. The family of his first girlfriend, Julie Dennehy, offered to take him in; Gleason, however, was headstrong and insisted he was going into the heart of the city.[9] His friend Sammy Birch made room for him in the hotel room he shared with another comedian. Birch also told him of a one-week job in Reading, Pennsylvania, that would pay $19, more money than Gleason could imagine. The booking agent advanced him bus fare for the trip against his salary. This was Gleason's first job as a professional comedian, and he had regular work in a number of small clubs after that.[11]


Early photo of Gleason

Gleason worked his way up to a job at New York's Club 18, where insulting its patrons was the order of the day. Gleason greeted noted skater Sonja Henie by handing her an ice cube and saying, "Okay, now do something."[12] It was here that Jack L. Warner first saw Gleason, signing him to a film contract for $250 a week.[9]

By age 24 Gleason was appearing in movies: first for Warner Brothers (as Jackie C. Gleason) in such films as Navy Blues (1941) with Ann Sheridan and Martha Raye and All Through the Night (1941) with Humphrey Bogart, for Columbia Pictures for the B military comedy Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1942) and finally for Twentieth Century-Fox, where Gleason played Glenn Miller Orchestra bassist Ben Beck in Orchestra Wives (1942). He also had a small part as a soda shop clerk in Larceny, Inc., (1942) with Edward G. Robinson, and a modest part as an actor's agent in the 1942 Betty GrableHarry James musical Springtime in the Rockies.

Gleason did not make a strong impression on Hollywood at first; at the time he developed a nightclub act that included comedy and music. At the end of 1942, Gleason and Lew Parker led a large cast of entertainers in the road show production of Olsen and Johnson's New 1943 Hellzapoppin.[13][14][15] He also became known for hosting all-night parties in his hotel suite; the hotel soundproofed his suite out of consideration for its other guests.[12] "Anyone who knew Jackie Gleason in the 1940s", wrote CBS historian Robert Metz, "would tell you The Fat Man would never make it. His pals at Lindy's watched him spend money as fast as he soaked up the booze."[citation needed]

Gleason's first significant recognition as an entertainer came on Broadway when he appeared in the hit musical Follow the Girls (1944). While working in films in California, Gleason also worked at former boxer Maxie Rosenbloom's nightclub (Slapsy Maxie's, on Wilshire Boulevard).[9][16][17]

Early television[edit]

Gleason and Rosemary DeCamp as Chester and Peg Riley in The Life of Riley.
Jackie Gleason straightening a dancer's hat
Gleason and June Taylor dancer Margaret Jeanne get ready for St. Patrick's Day 1955

Gleason's big break occurred in 1949, when he landed the role of blunt but softhearted aircraft worker Chester A. Riley for the first television version of the radio comedy The Life of Riley. (William Bendix originated the role on radio but was initially unable to accept the television role because of film commitments.) Despite positive reviews, the show received modest ratings and was cancelled after one year. Bendix reprised the role in 1953 for a five-year series.[18] The Life of Riley became a television hit for Bendix during the mid- to late 1950s.[12] But long before this, Gleason's nightclub act had received attention from New York City's inner circle and the fledgling DuMont Television Network. He was working at Slapsy Maxie's when he was hired[9] to host DuMont's Cavalcade of Stars variety hour in 1950, having been recommended by comedy writer Harry Crane, whom he knew from his days as a stand up comedian in New York.[19] The program initially had rotating hosts; Gleason was first offered two weeks at $750 per week. When he responded it was not worth the train trip to New York, the offer was extended to four weeks. Gleason returned to New York for the show.[9] He framed the acts with splashy dance numbers, developed sketch characters he would refine over the next decade, and became enough of a presence that CBS wooed him to its network in 1952.

Renamed The Jackie Gleason Show, the program became the country's second-highest-rated television show during the 1954–55 season.[20] Gleason amplified the show with even splashier opening dance numbers, inspired by Busby Berkeley screen dance routines and featuring the precision-choreographed June Taylor Dancers. Following the dance performance, he would do an opening monologue. Then, accompanied by "a little travelin' music" ("That's a Plenty", a Dixieland classic from 1914), he would shuffle toward the wings, clapping his hands and shouting, "And awaaay we go!" The phrase became one of his trademarks, along with "How sweet it is!" (which he used in reaction to almost anything).[20] Theona Bryant, a former Powers Girl, became Gleason's "And awaaay we go" girl. Ray Bloch was Gleason's first music director, followed by Sammy Spear, who stayed with Gleason through the 1960s; Gleason often kidded both men during his opening monologues. He continued developing comic characters, including

The Poor Soul, staring at a stretching ballerina
Gleason as the Poor Soul on Toast of the Town in 1954
  • Reginald Van Gleason III, a top-hatted millionaire with a taste for both the good life and fantasy
  • Rudy the Repairman, boisterous and boorish
  • Joe the Bartender, gregarious and with friendly words for the never-seen Mr. Dennehy (always first at the bar)
  • The Poor Soul, a silent character who could (and often did) come to grief in the least-expected places (or demonstrated gratitude at such gifts as being allowed to share a newspaper on a subway)
  • Rum Dum, a character with a brush-like mustache who often stumbled around as though drunk and confused
  • Fenwick Babbitt, a friendly, addle-headed young man usually depicted working at various jobs and invariably failing
  • Charlie Bratton, a loudmouth who frequently picked on the mild-mannered Clem Finch (portrayed by Art Carney, a future Honeymooners co-star)
  • The Bachelor, a silent character (accompanied by the song "Somebody Loves Me") doing everyday things in an unusually lazy (or makeshift) way

In a 1985 interview, Gleason related some of his characters to his youth in Brooklyn. The Mr. Dennehy whom Joe the Bartender greets is a tribute to Gleason's first love, Julie Dennehy. The character of The Poor Soul was drawn from an assistant manager of an outdoor theater he frequented.[9]

Gleason disliked rehearsing. With a photographic memory[21] he read the script once, watched a rehearsal with his co-stars and stand-in, and shot the show later that day. When he made mistakes, he often blamed the cue cards.[22]

The Honeymooners[edit]

Main article: The Honeymooners
Alice Kramden kissing Ralph after he gives her a bouquet
Gleason as Ralph Kramden with Audrey Meadows as Alice, circa 1955

By far Gleason's most popular character was blustery bus driver Ralph Kramden. Largely drawn from Gleason's harsh Brooklyn childhood, these sketches became known as The Honeymooners. The show was based on Ralph's many get-rich-quick schemes, his ambition, antics with his best friend and neighbor, scatterbrained sewer worker Ed Norton, and clashes with sensible wife Alice, who typically pulled Ralph's head down from the clouds.

Gleason developed catchphrases he used on The Honeymooners, such as threats to Alice: "One of these days, Alice, pow, right in the kisser" or "To the moon Alice, to the moon."

The Honeymooners originated from a sketch Gleason was developing with his show's writers. He said he had an idea he wanted to enlarge: a skit with a smart, quiet wife and her very vocal husband. He went on to describe that, while the couple had their fights, underneath it all they loved each other. Titles for the sketch were tossed around until someone came up with The Honeymooners.[9]

The Honeymooners first was featured on Cavalcade of Stars on October 5, 1951, with Carney in a guest appearance as a cop (Norton did not appear until a few episodes later) and character actress Pert Kelton as Alice. Darker and fiercer than the milder later version with Audrey Meadows as Alice, the sketches proved popular with critics and viewers. As Kramden, Gleason played a frustrated bus driver with a battleaxe of a wife in harrowingly realistic arguments; when Meadows (who was 15 years younger than Kelton) took over the role after Kelton was blacklisted, the tone softened considerably. Modern critics accustomed to Meadows' Alice are shocked if they see Kelton's early sketches. .

When Gleason moved to CBS, Kelton was left behind; her name had been published in Red Channels, a book that listed and described reputed communists (and communist sympathizers) in television and radio, and the network did not want to hire her. Gleason reluctantly let her leave the cast, with a cover story for the media that she had "heart trouble". At first he turned down Meadows as Kelton's replacement. Meadows wrote in her memoir that she slipped back to audition again and frumped herself up to convince Gleason that she could handle the role of a frustrated (but loving) working-class wife. Rounding out the cast, Joyce Randolph played Trixie, Ed Norton's wife. Elaine Stritch had played the role as a tall and attractive blonde in the first sketch, but was quickly replaced by Randolph. Comedy writer Leonard Stern always felt The Honeymooners was more than sketch material and persuaded Gleason to make it into a full hour-long episode.

In 1955 Gleason gambled on making it a separate series entirely. These are the "Classic 39" episodes, which finished 19th in the ratings for their only season.[20] They were filmed with a new DuMont process, Electronicam; like kinescopes, it preserved a live performance on film but with higher quality, comparable to a motion picture.[23] That turned out to be Gleason's most prescient move. A decade later, he aired the half-hour Honeymooners in syndicated reruns that began to build a loyal and growing audience, making the show a television icon. Its popularity was such that in 2000, a life-size statue of Jackie Gleason, in uniform as bus driver Ralph Kramden, was installed outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City.

Musical work[edit]

Gleason standing with Irish author Brendan Behan, arms around each other
Prominent Irish writer Brendan Behan with Jackie Gleason in Gleason's dressing room after a performance of Take Me Along (1960)

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Gleason enjoyed a secondary music career, lending his name to a series of best-selling "mood music" albums with jazz overtones for Capitol Records. Gleason believed there was a ready market for romantic instrumentals. His goal was to make "musical wallpaper that should never be intrusive, but conducive".[24] He recalled seeing Clark Gable play love scenes in movies; the romance was, in his words, "magnified a thousand percent" by background music. Gleason reasoned, "If Gable needs music, a guy in Brooklyn must be desperate!"[9]

Gleason's first album, Music for Lovers Only, still holds the record for the album longest in the Billboard Top Ten Charts (153 weeks), and his first 10 albums sold over a million copies each.[25] At one point, Gleason held the record for charting the most number-one albums on the Billboard 200 without charting any hits on the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.[26]

Gleason could not read or write music; he was said to have conceived melodies in his head and described them vocally to assistants who transcribed them into musical notes.[9] These included the well-remembered themes of both The Jackie Gleason Show ("Melancholy Serenade") and The Honeymooners ("You're My Greatest Love").[10] There has been much debate over the years as to how much credit Gleason should have received for the finished products. Biographer William A. Henry III wrote in his 1992 book, The Great One: The Life and Legend of Jackie Gleason, that beyond the possible conceptualizing of many of the song melodies, Gleason had no direct involvement (such as conducting) in making the recordings. Red Nichols, a jazz great who had fallen on hard times and led one of the group's recordings, was not paid as session-leader. Cornetist and trumpeter Bobby Hackett soloed on the albums and was leader for seven of them. Asked late in life by musician–journalist Harry Currie in Toronto what Gleason really did at the recording sessions, Hackett replied, "He brought the cheques".

But years earlier Hackettt had told writer James Bacon:

"Jackie knows a lot more about music than people give him credit for. I have seen him conduct a 60-piece orchestra and detect one discordant note in the brass section. He would immediately stop the music and locate the wrong note. It always amazed the professional musicians how a guy who technically did not know one note from another could do that. And he was never wrong."[27]

Nearly all of Gleason's albums are still available and have been re-released on compact disc.

Gleason had a lead role in the musical Take Me Along, which ran from 1959 to 1960. He won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical.

Return to television[edit]

Edward R. Murrow (standing) lighting Gleason's cigarette; Gleason is seated in an armchair
Edward R. Murrow and Gleason when the comedian was the subject of an interview on Person to Person in 1956

In 1956 Gleason revived his original variety hour (including The Honeymooners), winning a Peabody Award.[28] He abandoned the show in 1957 when his ratings for the season came in at #29[20] and the network "suggested" he needed a break.[29] He returned in 1958 with a half-hour show featuring Buddy Hackett, which did not catch on.

One of the perks Gleason received from CBS was the network's picking up the tab for his Peekskill, New York "Round Rock Hill" mansion.[30] Set atop a hill on six acres, the complex included a guest house and a round storage building. Gleason planned the design of the house for two years; it was completed in 1959,[31] but Gleason sold the home when he relocated to Miami.[32][33]

His next foray into television was the game show You're in the Picture, which survived its disastrous premiere episode only because of Gleason's[34] humorous on-the-air apology the following week.[10] For the rest of its scheduled run, the program was a talk show named The Jackie Gleason Show.

In 1962, Gleason resurrected his variety show with more splashiness and a new hook: a fictitious general-interest magazine called The American Scene Magazine, through which Gleason trotted out his old characters in new scenarios. He also added another catchphrase to the American vernacular, first uttered in the 1963 film Papa's Delicate Condition: "How sweet it is!" The Jackie Gleason Show: The American Scene Magazine was a hit, and continued for four seasons. Each show began with Gleason delivering a monologue and commenting on the attention-getting outfits of band leader Sammy Spear. Then the "magazine" features would be trotted out, from Hollywood gossip (reported by comedian Barbara Heller) to news flashes (played for laughs with a stock company of second bananas, chorus girls and dwarfs). Comedian Alice Ghostley occasionally appeared as a downtrodden tenement resident, sitting on her front step and listening to boorish boyfriend Gleason for several minutes. After the boyfriend took his leave, the smitten Ghostley would exclaim, "I'm the luckiest girl in the world!" Veteran comics Johnny Morgan, Sid Fields and Hank Ladd were occasionally seen opposite Gleason in comedy sketches. Helen Curtis played alongside him as a singer and actress, delighting audiences with her 'Madame Plumpadore' sketches with 'Reginald Van Gleason.'

The final sketch was always set in Joe the Bartender's saloon, with Joe singing "My Gal Sal" and greeting his regular customer, the unseen Mr. Dennehy (the TV audience, as Gleason spoke to the camera in this section). During the sketch, Joe would tell Dennehy about an article he had read in the fictitious "American Scene" magazine, holding a copy across the bar. It had two covers: one featured the New York skyline and the other palm trees (after the show moved to Florida in 1964). Joe would bring out Frank Fontaine as Crazy Guggenheim, who would regale Joe with the latest adventures of his neighborhood pals and sometimes show Joe his current Top Cat comic book. Joe usually asked Crazy to sing—almost always a sentimental ballad in his fine, lilting baritone.

Autographed color photo of Gleason in front of Miami Beach Auditorium
Miami Beach Auditorium, where Gleason taped his shows after his Florida move

Gleason revived The Honeymooners—first with Sue Ane Langdon as Alice and Patricia Wilson as Trixie for two episodes of The American Scene Magazine, then with Sheila MacRae as Alice and Jane Kean as Trixie for the 1966 series.[10] By 1964 Gleason had moved the production from New York to Miami Beach, Florida, reportedly because he liked year-round access to the golf course at the nearby Inverrary Country Club in Lauderhill (where he built his final home). His closing line became, almost invariably, "As always, the Miami Beach audience is the greatest audience in the world!" In 1966, he abandoned the American Scene Magazine format and converted the show into a standard variety hour with guest performers.

Gleason kicked off the 1966–1967 season with new, color episodes of The Honeymooners. Carney returned as Ed Norton, with MacRae as Alice and Kean as Trixie. The sketches were remakes of the 1957 world-tour episodes, in which Kramden and Norton win a slogan contest and take their wives to international destinations. Each of the nine episodes was a full-scale musical comedy, with Gleason and company performing original songs by Lyn Duddy and Jerry Bresler. Occasionally Gleason would devote the show to musicals with a single theme, such as college comedy or political satire, with the stars abandoning their Honeymooners roles for different character roles. This was the show's format until its cancellation in 1970. (The exception was the 1968–1969 season, which had no hour-long Honeymooners episodes; that season, The Honeymooners was presented only in short sketches). The musicals pushed Gleason back into the top five in ratings, but audiences soon began to decline. By its final season, Gleason's show was no longer in the top 25. In the last original Honeymooners episode aired on CBS ("Operation Protest"), Ralph encounters the youth-protest movement of the late 1960s, a sign of changing times in both television and society.

Gleason (who had signed a deal in the 1950s that included a guaranteed $100,000 annual payment for 20 years even if he never went on the air) wanted The Honeymooners to be just a portion of his format, but CBS wanted another season of only The Honeymooners. The network had cancelled a mainstay variety show hosted by Red Skelton and would cancel The Ed Sullivan Show in 1971 because they had become too expensive to produce and attracted, in the executives' opinion, too old an audience. Gleason simply stopped doing the show in 1970, and left CBS when his contract expired.

Honeymooners revival[edit]

Gleason did two Jackie Gleason Show specials for CBS after giving up his regular show in the 1970s, including Honeymooners segments and a Reginald Van Gleason III sketch in which the gregarious millionaire was portrayed as an alcoholic. When the CBS deal expired, Gleason signed with NBC. He later did a series of Honeymooners specials for ABC. Gleason hosted four ABC specials during the mid-1970s. Gleason and Carney also made a television movie, Izzy and Moe (1985), about an unusual pair of historic Federal prohibition agents in New York City who achieved an unbeatable arrest record with highly successful techniques including impersonsations and humor, which aired on CBS in 1985.

In April 1974, Gleason revived several of his classic characters (including Ralph Kramden, Joe the Bartender and Reginald Van Gleason III) in a television special with Julie Andrews. In a song-and-dance routine, the two performed "Take Me Along" from Gleason's Broadway musical.

In 1985, three decades after the "Classic 39" began filming, Gleason revealed he had carefully preserved kinescopes of his live 1950s programs in a vault for future use (including Honeymooners sketches with Pert Kelton as Alice). These "lost episodes" (as they came to be called) were initially previewed at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City, aired on the Showtime cable network in 1985, and later added to the Honeymooners syndication package. Some of them include earlier versions of plot lines later used in the 'classic 39' episodes. One (a Christmas episode duplicated several years later with Meadows as Alice) had all Gleason's best-known characters (Ralph Kramden, the Poor Soul, Rudy the Repairman, Reginald Van Gleason, Fenwick Babbitt and Joe the Bartender) featured in and out of the Kramden apartment. The storyline involved a wild Christmas party hosted by Reginald Van Gleason up the block from the Kramdens' building at Joe the Bartender's place.

Film roles[edit]

Gleason did not restrict his acting to comedic roles. He had also earned acclaim for live television drama performances in The Laugh Maker (1953) on CBS's Studio One and William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life (1958), which was produced as an episode of Playhouse 90 (a television anthology series).

He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of pool shark Minnesota Fats in The Hustler (1961), starring Paul Newman. Gleason made all his own trick pool shots.[35] (In his 1985 appearance on The Tonight Show, Gleason told Johnny Carson that he had played pool frequently since childhood, and drew from those experiences in The Hustler.) He was extremely well-received as a beleaguered boxing manager in the movie version of Rod Serling's Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962). Gleason played a world-weary army sergeant in Soldier in the Rain (1963), in which he received top billing over Steve McQueen.

Gleason wrote, produced and starred in Gigot (1962), in which he played a poor, mute janitor who befriended and rescued a prostitute and her small daughter. It was a box office flop. But the film's script was adapted and produced as the television film The Wool Cap (2004), starring William H. Macy in the role of the mute janitor; the television film received modestly good reviews.

Gleason played the lead in the Otto Preminger-directed Skidoo (1968), considered an all-star failure. In 1969 William Friedkin wanted to cast Gleason as "Popeye" Doyle in The French Connection (1971), but because of the poor reception of Gigot and Skidoo, the studio refused to offer Gleason the lead; he wanted it. Instead, Gleason wound up in How to Commit Marriage (1969) with Bob Hope, as well as the movie version of Woody Allen's play Don't Drink the Water (1969). Both were unsuccessful.

Eight years passed before Gleason had another hit film. This role was the cantankerous and cursing but comically inept Texas sheriff Buford T. Justice in the films Smokey and the Bandit (1977), Smokey and the Bandit II (1980) and Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 (1983). He co-starred with Burt Reynolds as the Bandit, Sally Field as Carrie (the Bandit's love interest), and Jerry Reed as Cledus "Snowman" Snow, the Bandit's truck-driving partner. Former NFL linebacker Mike Henry played his dimwitted son, Junior Justice. Gleason's gruff and frustrated demeanor and lines such as "I'm gonna barbecue yo' ass in molasses!" made the first Bandit movie a hit.

Years later, when interviewed by Larry King, Reynolds said he agreed to do the movie only if the studio hired Jackie Gleason to play the part of Sheriff Buford T. Justice (the name of a real Florida highway patrolman, who knew Reynolds' father). Reynolds said that director Hal Needham gave Gleason free rein to ad-lib a great deal of his dialog and make suggestions for the film; the scene at the "Choke and Puke" was Gleason's idea. Reynolds and Needham knew Gleason's comic talent would help make the film a success, and Gleason's characterization of Sheriff Justice strengthened the film's appeal to blue-collar audiences.

During the 1980s, Gleason earned positive reviews playing opposite Laurence Olivier in the HBO dramatic two-man special, Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson (1983). He also gave a memorable performance as wealthy businessman U.S. Bates in the comedy The Toy (1982) opposite Richard Pryor. Although the movie was critically panned, Gleason and Pryor's performances were praised. His last film performance was opposite Tom Hanks in the Garry Marshall-directed Nothing in Common (1986), a success both critically and financially.

Personal life[edit]

Playing golf with President Gerald Ford, c. 1975

Marriages and family[edit]

Gleason met dancer Genevieve Halford when they were working in vaudeville, and they started to date. Halford wanted to marry but Gleason was not ready to settle down. She said she would see other men if they did not marry. One evening when Gleason went onstage at the Club Miami in Newark, New Jersey, he saw Halford in the front row with a date. At the end of his show, Gleason went to the table and proposed to Halford in front of her date. They were married on September 20, 1936.[11][36][37]

Halford wanted a quiet home life but Gleason fell back into spending his nights out.[11] Separated for the first time in 1941 and reconciled in 1948,[12] the couple had two daughters (Geraldine and Linda).[38] Gleason and his wife informally separated again in 1951.[37]

In early 1954, Gleason suffered a broken leg and ankle on-air during his television show. His injuries sidelined him for several weeks.[39][40] Halford visited him while Gleason was hospitalized, finding dancer Marilyn Taylor there from his television show. Halford filed for a legal separation in April 1954.[38] A devout Catholic, Halford did not grant Gleason a divorce until 1970.[41][42]

Gleason met his second wife, Beverly McKittrick, at a country club in 1968, where she worked as a secretary. Ten days after his divorce from Genevieve was final, Gleason and McKittrick were married in a registry ceremony in Ashford, England on July 4, 1970.[43]

In 1974 Marilyn Taylor encountered Gleason again when she moved to the Miami area to be near her sister June, whose dancers were part of Gleason's shows for many years. She had been out of show business for nearly 20 years. In September 1974 Gleason filed for divorce from McKittrick (who contested, asking for a reconciliation).[44] The divorce was granted on November 19, 1975.[45] As a widow with a young son, Marilyn Taylor married Gleason on December 16, 1975; the marriage lasted until his death in 1987.[46][47][48][49]

Gleason's daughter Linda became an actress and married actor-playwright Jason Miller. Their son, Gleason's grandson, is actor Jason Patric.[36]

Fear of flying[edit]

For many years, Gleason would travel only by train; his fear of flying arose from an incident in his early movie career. Gleason would fly back and forth to Los Angeles for relatively minor movie work. After finishing one movie, the comedian boarded a plane for New York. When two of the plane's engines cut out in the middle of the flight, the pilot had to make an emergency landing in Tulsa, Oklahoma.[50]

Although another plane was prepared for the passengers, Gleason had had enough of flying. He went into downtown Tulsa, walked into a hardware store, and asked its owner to lend him $200 for the train trip to New York. The owner asked Gleason why he thought anyone would lend a stranger so much money. Gleason identified himself and explained his situation. The store owner said he would lend the money if the local theater had a photo of Gleason in his latest film. But the publicity shots showed only the principal stars. Gleason proposed to buy two tickets to the movie and take the store owner; he would be able to see the actor in action. The two men watched the movie for an hour before Gleason appeared on screen. The owner gave Gleason the loan, and he took the next train to New York. There he borrowed $200 to repay his benefactor.[50]

Interest in the paranormal[edit]

Gleason was greatly interested in the paranormal , buying and reading numerous books on the topic, as well as on parapsychology and UFOs.[47][51][52][53] During the 1950s he was a semi-regular guest on a paranormal-themed overnight radio show hosted by John Nebel, and wrote the introduction to Donald Bain's biography of Nebel.[54] After his death, his large book collection was donated to the library of the University of Miami.[55] A complete listing of the holdings of Gleason's library has been issued by the online cataloging service LibraryThing.[56]

According to writer Larry Holcombe, Gleason's known interest in UFOs allegedly prompted President Richard Nixon to share some information with him and to disclose some UFO data publicly.[57]

Illness and death[edit]

Gleason's sarcophagus—with the inscription "And Away We Go"—at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Cemetery in Miami.

Gleason smoked four packs of cigarettes a day.[58] While touring in the lead role of Larry Gelbart's play Sly Fox in 1978 he suffered chest pains, forcing him to leave the show in Chicago and undergo triple-bypass surgery. Gleason initially went to the hospital for chest pains but was treated and released. After he suffered another bout the following week, it was determined that heart surgery was necessary.[58][59][60]

Gleason delivered a critically acclaimed performance as an infirm, acerbic, and somewhat Archie Bunker–like character in the Tom Hanks comedy–drama Nothing in Common (1986). This was Gleason's final film role. During production he was suffering from terminal colon cancer, which had metastasized to his liver. "I won't be around much longer", he told his daughter at dinner one evening after a day of filming. Gleason kept his medical problems private, although there were rumors that he was seriously ill.[61] A year later, on June 24, 1987, Gleason died at his Florida home.[62]

After a funeral mass at the Cathedral of Saint Mary in Miami, Gleason was entombed in a sarcophagus in a private outdoor mausoleum at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Cemetery in Miami.[48] Gleason's sister-in-law, June Taylor, is buried to the left of the mausoleum, next to her husband, Sol Lerner.

Legacy and honors[edit]

Ralph Kramden statue at the Port Authority Bus Terminal

Representation in popular culture[edit]

Rectangular blue-and-green sign reading, "Welcome to Brooklyn. How sweet it is!"
Sign welcoming drivers to Brooklyn (circa 2000s)

On television[edit]

The television home of The Honeymooners at 328 Chauncey Street in Brooklyn
  • A television movie called Gleason was aired by CBS on October 13, 2002, exploring Gleason's life. It was thought to take liberties with some of the Gleason story, but was significant for showing his troubled home life (a private side of Gleason which he had protected from common knowledge).[citation needed] The film showed backstage scenes from his best-known work. Brad Garrett of Everybody Loves Raymond portrayed Gleason in his prime.
  • Sean Cullen played a small role as Gleason in the 2002 made-for-TV movie Martin and Lewis.
  • In 2003, after an absence of more than 30 years, the color musical versions of The Honeymooners from the 1960s Jackie Gleason Show in Miami Beach were shown on the GoodLife TV (now ALN) cable network.
  • In 2005, a movie version of The Honeymooners was released, featuring a primarily African-American cast, headed by Cedric the Entertainer. This version bore only a passing resemblance to Gleason's original series and was panned by critics.[citation needed]
  • Late in his life actor-playwright Jason Miller, Gleason's former son-in-law, was writing a screenplay based on Gleason's life. He died before it was completed. Gleason's daughter, Linda Miller, was also an actress.[36]

Career accomplishments[edit]



  • Your Sports Special (1949)
  • The Lamb's Gambol (March 27, 1949)
  • On The Two A Day (1949, NBC TV)
  • The Life of Riley (October 4, 1949 – March 28, 1950) TV Series
  • The Arrow Show (1949)
  • Tex and Jinx (1949)
  • This Is Show Business (1950)
  • Showtime USA (1950)
  • Cavalcade of Stars (1950–1952) TV Series
  • The Frank Sinatra Show (1950)
  • Ford Star Revue (1951)
  • The Frank Sinatra Show (1951)
  • Cavalcade of Bands (1951)
  • Stage Entrance (1951, DuMont TV)
  • Musical Comedy Time: No! No! Nanette! (1951)
  • Texaco Star Theatre (1951)
  • Ford Festival (1951)
  • The James Melton Show (May 3, 1951)
  • This Is Show Business (1951)
  • The Colgate Comedy Hour (1951)
  • Ford Star Revue (1951)
  • The Colgate Comedy Hour (1951)
  • The Kate Smith Evening Hour (1951)
  • The Jackie Gleason Show (September 20, 1952 – June 18, 1955) TV Series
  • Arthur Murray Party (1952)
  • The Sam Levinson Show (1952)
  • The Ken Murray Show (1952)
  • Toast of the Town (1952)
  • Celebrity Time (1952)
  • Scout O' Rama (1952)


  • The Fabulous Fifties (1960)
  • Arthur Godfrey Special (1960)
  • The Secret World of Eddie Hodges (June 23, 1960) TV Movie [narration only]
  • The Jackie Gleason Special: The Big Sell (October 9, 1960) TV Movie
  • Step On the Gas (CBS-10/19/60) TV special
  • The Red Skelton Show (January 24, 1961)
  • Sunday Sports Spectacular: Jackie Gleason with the putter and cue (1961)
  • You're In the Picture/The Jackie Gleason Show (January 27 – March 24, 1961)
  • The Jackie Gleason Special: The Million Dollar Incident (April 21, 1961) TV Movie
  • Jackie Gleason and His American Scene Magazine (September 29, 1962 – June 4, 1966) TV Series
  • The 35th Annual Academy Awards (1963)
  • Freedom Spectacular (May 14, 1964) NAACP Special
  • The Bob Hope Chrysler Theatre: The Big Stomach (November 16, 1966)
  • The Jackie Gleason Show (September 17, 1966 – September 12, 1970) TV Series
  • Here's Lucy: Lucy Visits Jack Benny (September 30, 1968)
  • The Mike Douglas Show (October 15, 1968)
  • The David Frost Show (February 17, 1970)
  • The David Frost Show (April 6, 1970)
  • The David Frost Show (May 7, 1970)
  • The Jackie Gleason Special (December 20, 1970)
  • The Mike Douglas Show (November 13–17, 20-24 and 29, 1972)
  • The Jackie Gleason Special (November 11, 1973)
  • Show Business Tribute to Milton Berle (1973)
  • Julie & Jackie: How Sweet It Is! (1974)
  • Bob Hope Special (1974)
  • The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast (1975)
  • The Dick Cavett Show (August 30, 1975)
  • Dinah! (January 13, 1975)
  • Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason: Two for Three (December 3, 1975)
  • Super Night at the Super Bowl (1976)
  • The Mike Douglas Show (January 12–16, 1976)
  • The Honeymooners Second Honeymoon (February 2, 1976)
  • Donahue (1976)
  • The Captain and Tennille (September 20, 1976)
  • Bing Crosby's White Christmas (1976)
  • Dinah! (February 11, 1977)
  • The Honeymooners Christmas Special (November 28, 1977)
  • The Honeymooners Valentine Special (February 13, 1978)
  • The Second Honeymooners Christmas Special (December 10, 1978)
  • The Mike Douglas Show (7 May 1980)
  • Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson (June 3, 1983) TV Movie
  • All Star Party for Burt Reynolds (1984)
  • 60 Minutes (1984)
  • Izzy and Moe (September 23, 1985) TV Movie
  • The Honeymooners Reunion (May 13, 1985)
  • The 39th Annual Tony Awards (June 2, 1985)
  • The Honeymooners Anniversary Celebration (October 18, 1985)
  • Gleason: In His Own Words (February 14, 1986)
  • The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1986)

Stage productions[edit]


Singles discography[edit]

Year Title Label and Number
1951 "What Is a Girl?"/"What Is a Boy?" (spoken by Gleason) Decca 27684
1952 "Melancholy Serenade"/"You're Getting to Be a Habit" Capitol F2361
1953 "Alone Together"/"Body & Soul" Capitol F2437
1953 "My Funny Valentine"/"Love Is Here to Stay" Capitol F2438
1953 "But Not for Me"/"Love" Capitol F2439
1953 "I'm in the Mood for Love"/"I Only Have Eyes for You" Capitol F2440
1953 "Terry's Theme from Limelight"/"Peg O' My Heart" Capitol F2507
1953 "White House Serenade"/"The President's Lady" Capitol F2515
1953 "Mystery Street"/"Golden Violins" Capitol F2659
1955 "The Band Played On"/"In the Good Old Summertime" Capitol F3144
1955 "Autumn Leaves"/"Oo! What You Do to Me" Capitol F3223
1956 "Capri in May"/"You're My Greatest Love" Capitol F3337
1957 "What Is a Girl?"/"What Is a Boy?" (spoken by Gleason) Capitol EAP871
1958 "Where Is She Now?"/"Just Only Yesterday" Capitol F4062
1962 "Allo 'Allo 'Allo"/"Joi De Vivre" (soundtrack) Capitol F4800
1963 "La La La La"/"It's Such A Happy Day " Capitol F4933

Unreleased songs[edit]

The following songs were recorded for various LP albums, but not included in the final product. However, when the albums were released on CD, these songs were included as extras.

  • "A Little Love, a Little Kiss" (Capitol) (recorded for Music, Martini and Memories, released on CD Lover's Rhapsody, 2001)
  • "After My Laughter Came Tears" (Capitol) (recorded for Lonesome Echo, released on CD Romantic Jazz, 2002)
  • "After You've Gone" (Capitol) (recorded for the LP Music, Martini and Memories, released on the CD Lover's Rhapsody, 2001)
  • "Alice Blue Gown" (Capitol) (recorded for the LP Night Winds, released on the CD, 2005)
  • "Blue Café" (Capitol) (recorded for the LP Night Winds, released on the CD, 2005)
  • "Can This Be Love?" (Capitol) (recorded for Lonesome Echo, released on CD Romantic Jazz, 2002)
  • "Crazy Rhythm" (Capitol) (recorded for the LP Music, Martini and Memories, released on the CD Lover's Rhapsody, 2001)
  • "Down Among the Sheltering Palms" (Capitol) (recorded for Lonesome Echo, released on CD Romantic Jazz, 2002)
  • "I Concentrate on You" (Capitol) (recorded for the LP Night Winds, released on the CD, 2005)
  • "If You Were the Only Girl" (Capitol)(recorded for single release, released on Music To Remember Her CD, 2001)
  • "I'll Never Be the Same" (Capitol) (recorded for the LP Romantic Jazz, released on the CD, 2002)
  • "It's All Right With Me" (Capitol) (recorded for the LP Night Winds, released on the CD, 2005)
  • "More Than You Know" (Capitol) (recorded for the LP Night Winds, released on the CD, 2005)
  • "My Baby Just Cares for Me" (Capitol) (recorded for the LP Night Winds, released on the CD, 2005)
  • "Rain" (Capitol) (recorded for the LP Romantic Jazz, released on the CD, 2002)
  • "That Certain Party" (Capitol) (recorded for the LP Night Winds, released on the CD, 2005)
  • "The Waning Honeymoon" (Capitol) (recorded for the LP Night Winds, released on the CD, 2005)
  • "Too Much Mustard" (Capitol) (recorded for the LP Captain Gleason's Garden Band, released on the CD for Night Winds, 2005)
  • "You're My Greatest Love" (Capitol)(recorded for the LP Music to Change Her Mind, released on the CD And Away We Go!, 1996)

Sources for unreleased songs data[edit]

  • Romantic Moods of Jackie Gleason CD, 1996
  • And Awaaay We Go! CD, 1996
  • Lover's Rhapsody CD, 2001
  • Music to Remember Her CD, 2001
  • Romantic Jazz CD, 2002
  • Night Winds CD, 2005

LP record discography[edit]

# Year Title Label and Number U.S. Billboard 200 Chart
1 1952 Music for Lovers Only Capitol H352 (10") # 1 (153 total weeks within the Billboard Top Ten)[67]
2 1953 Lover's Rhapsody Capitol H366 (10") No. 1
3 1953 Music to Make You Misty Capitol H455 (10") No. 1
4 1954 Tawny Capitol L471 (10") No. 8
5 1954 And Awaaay We Go! Capitol H511 (10") No. 35
6 1954 Music, Martinis and Memories Capitol W509 No. 1
7 1954 Melancholy Serenade Capitol E532 (EP) -
8 1955 Lonesome Echo Capitol H627 (10") No. 1
9 1955 Music for Lovers Only Capitol W352 No. 7
10 1955 Music to Make You Misty Capitol W455 No. 11
11 1955 And Awaaay We Go! Capitol W511 No. 85
12 1955 Romantic Jazz Capitol W568 No. 2
13 1955 Music to Remember Her Capitol W570 No. 5
14 1955 Lonesome Echo Capitol W627 No. 1
15 1956 Captain Gleason's Garden Band Capitol E646 (EP) -
16 1956 Music to Change Her Mind Capitol W632 No. 8
17 1956 Night Winds Capitol W717 No. 10
18 1956 Merry Christmas Capitol W758 No. 16
19 1957 Music for the Love Hours Capitol W816 No. 13
20 1957 Velvet Brass Capitol SW/W859 No. 16
21 1957 Jackie Gleason Presents "Oooo!" Capitol SW/W905 No. 14
22 1958 The Torch With the Blue Flame Capitol SW/W961 # 2
23 1958 Riff Jazz Capitol SW/W1020 No. 27
24 1959 Rebound Capitol SW/W1075 No. 18
25 1959 That Moment Capitol SW/W1147 No. 36
26 1959 Take Me Along (original cast) RCA Victor LSO1050 -
27 1960 Aphrodisia Capitol SW/W1250 No. 49
28 1960 The Actor's Prayer (spoken by Gleason) The Marsalin Institute -
29 1960 Opiate D'Amour Capitol SW/W1314 No. 53
30 1961 Lazy Lively Love Capitol SW/W1439 No. 57
31 1961 The Gentle Touch Capitol SW/W1519 No. 62
32 1962 A Lover's Portfolio (two records in a "briefcase") Capitol SWBO/SBO1619 No. 135
33 1962 Love, Embers and Flame Capitol SW/W1689 No. 103
34 1963 Gigot (soundtrack) Capitol SW/W1754 -
35 1963 Champagne, Candlelight & Kisses Capitol SW/W1830 No. 97
36 1963 Movie Themes For Lovers Only Capitol SW/W1877 No. 82
37 1963 Today's Romantic Hits/For Lovers Only Capitol SW/W1978 No. 115
38 1964 A Lover's Portfolio Vol. 1 (Music for Sippin' & Dancin') Capitol SW/W1979 No. 128
39 1964 A Lover's Portfolio Vol. 2 (Music for Listenin' & Lovin') Capitol SW/W1980 No. 137
40 1964 Today's Romantic Hits/For Lovers Only Vol. 2 Capitol SW/W2056 No. 82
41 1965 Last Dance For Lover's Only Capitol SW/W2144 No. 131
42 1965 Silk 'N' Brass Capitol SW/W2409 No. 141
43 1966 Music from Around the World – For Lovers Only Capitol SW/W2471 No. 102
44 1966 How Sweet It Is For Lovers Capitol SW/W2582 No. 71
45 1967 A Taste of Brass For Lovers Only Capitol SW/W2684 No. 200
46 1967 'Tis the Season Capitol ST/T2791 No. 37
47 1967 The Best of Jackie Gleason Capitol SW/W2796 -
48 1967 The Best of Jackie Gleason Capitol Record Club SWAO-90601 -
49 1968 Doublin' In Brass Capitol SW/W2880 No. 165
50 1969 The Best of Jackie Gleason, vol. 2 Capitol SKAO-146 -
51 1969 The Now Sound Capitol SW/W2935 No. 200
52 1969 Irving Berlin's Music For Lovers Only Capitol SW106 -
53 1969 Close Up Capitol SW255 No. 192
54 1969 All I Want for Christmas Capitol ST346 No. 13
55 1970 Softly Capitol SL6664 -
56 1970 Romeo & Juliet Capitol ST398 -
57 1971 Come Saturday Morning Capitol ST480 -
58 1972 Words of Love Capitol ST693 -
  • Discography courtesy of Tom Lowery (from his personal collection).

Compact disc discography[edit]

Year Title Label
1984 Lush Moods Pair
1987 Music, Martinis and Memories Capitol
1990 Merry Christmas Capitol
1991 Night Winds & Music to Make You Misty Capitol
1993 The Best of Jackie Gleason Curb
1994 Shangri-La Pair
1994 Intimate Music for Lovers CEMA Special Markets
1995 Merry Christmas Razor & Tie
1995 Body & Soul Pair
1995 22 Melancholy Serenades CEMA Special Markets
1996 And Awaaay We Go Scamp
1996 How Sweet It Is! The Velvet Brass Collection Razor & Tie
1996 Romantic Moods of Jackie Gleason (Two Disc Set) EMI Capitol
1996 Thinking of You CEMA Special Markets
1996 ‘Tis the Season Capitol
1996 The Best of Jackie Gleason Collectibles
1999 Music for Lovers Only & Music to Make You Misty Collector's Choice
2000 Best of Jackie Gleason EMI Special Products
2000 Tawny & Music, Martinis and Memories Collector's Choice
2000 Music, Moonlight and Memories (Three Disc Set) Reader's Digest
2001 Lonesome Echo Collector's Choice
2001 Music to Remember Her Collector's Choice
2001 Lover's Rhapsody & And Awaaay We Go Collector's Choice
2001 Snowfall EMI
2002 For Lovers Only: 36 All Time Greatest Hits (Three disc set) Timeless Media Group
2003 Plays Romantic Jazz Collector's Choice
2004 Music to Change Her Mind Collector's Choice
2005 Night Winds Collector's Choice
2006 A Taste of Brass & Doublin' in Brass Capitol
2007 Complete Bobby Hackett Sessions (Four Disc Set) Fine & Mellow
2009 Take Me Along (1959 Original Broadway Cast) DRG
2009 'Tis The Season Capitol
2011 That Moment/Opiate D'Amour Dutton Vocalion
2011 Torch with the Blue Flame; Best of 'Oooo!' Dutton Vocalion
2012 Movie Themes - For Lovers Only; The Last Dance - For Lovers Only Dutton Vocalion
2012 Romeo and Juliet - A Theme for Lovers; Music Around the World - For Lovers Only Dutton Vocalion
2012 Gigot Dutton Vocalion
2012 Champagne, Candlelight, Love Embers and Flame Dutton Vocalion
2012 Tis The Season/Merry Christmas Relayer Records


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]