Jackie Gleason: An Intimate Portrait
Since the author had written biographies of heavy hitters such as Salman Rushdie and James Baldwin, I was expecting a substantial biography with sociological, political, or cultural asides. But, alas and alack, for all its pleasing readability, it’s nearly insight-free and lightweight, unlike its subject. On the positive side, he’d actually met Gleason, in 1961, and they hit it off enough to go out drinking together a couple of times. Another plus is that Weatherby interviewed the important figures in his professional life such as Honeymooners veterans Art Carney and Audrey Meadows as well as Milton Berle, Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rooney and Paul Newman.
In the biography, Weatherby tells about Gleason’s father abandoning the family when Jackie was nine and the loss of his mother when she was only 49 and he was 19. The young Gleason worked like mad in night clubs and other venues honing his formidable power at improvisation. When figure skating star Sonja Henie entered a club where he was working, he handed her an ice cube and said, “Do something.” Rejected by the military since he was 100 pounds overweight, Gleason spent the Forties on a treadmill of supper clubs, night spots, and joints. After a dissatisfying stint in Hollywood, which didn’t know what to do with him except cast him in lousy movies, he returned to New York and the stage, eventually breaking into TV in its early days. He was the star of Life of Riley and Cavalcade of Stars.
In the Fifties he created The Honeymooners, the legendary sit-com in which he played Ralph Kramden, the bus driver with outsized dreams, living in a dreary apartment with his long-suffering wife Alice. Even the premise was hilarious - that somebody with such an evil temper would be a bus driver in Brooklyn for more than a week without having a massive heart attack. What a hoot. His co-star, Art Carney, was also a masterful comic as Ed Norton.
When I was a kid and saw this show in re-reruns in the late Sixties, I thought it always had too much yelling. "I'm the boss!" Ralph shouts at Alice. "You're nothing!" At which never-nonplussed Alice throws it right back, "Big deal. You're boss over nothing!" This kind of thing seemed realer than real to me, ever easy to influence, and I was mightily impressed with Gleason’s spontaneity and vitality. I’m positive that Ralph Kramden was the role model for the blustering fool persona that I’ve used now and then for laughs and for real since I was teenager.
Anyway, when The Honeymooners was murdering the competition with stunning ratings, after only one season, Gleason said he felt he was running dry and walked away from the show. Fans, not to mention network executives who saw millions of dollars go out the window, were not happy at his decision. But he went on to do memorable work in movies such as The Hustler and Gigot.
Readers born in the Fifties will remember that Gleason owned Saturday nights from 1962 to 1970 when CBS broadcast his hour-long variety show The American Scene Magazine. I remember my young self respecting Gleason’s creative development of a wide variety of characters more than his ability to make me laugh with those same characters. With a straight face, I always wondered why somebody didn’t help Rum Dum. Even at ten, I thought The Poor Soul to be mawkish; I must not have the gene for bathos. Reginald Van Gleason III and Joe the Bartender were out of my experience, not being a rich kid or barfly. Rudy the Repairman and Charlie Bratton reminded me too much of how adult males in my white working class town really acted. Keeping it real, yeah, you bet.
Gleason, whose weight fluctuated from 220 to 280 pounds, was a member of the Fat Comics Club founded by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in the silent era. Like Arbuckle and Curly Howard, Gleason mastered goofy facial expressions and over the top body language. Like Arbuckle and Oliver Hardy to a lesser extent, he moved so effortlessly as to be unexpected and hilarious in a stout guy. In keeping with many comedians of bygone days, Gleason was a master of all kinds of comedy from slapstick clowning a la Lou Costello to wacky quips and cracks like Jonathan Winters. “I'm at the age where food has taken the place of sex in my life,” he once said. “In fact, I've just had a mirror put over my kitchen table.”
Similar to Chris Farley and John Belushi, Gleason was a walking advertisement for indulging to the max one’s appetites for gorging, guzzling, smoking, carousing and dallying, all night partying, gabbing and throwing money around for lavish gifts and huge tips. “I'm no alcoholic,” he claimed. “I'm a drunkard. There's a difference. A drunkard doesn't like to go to meetings.”
But like all comics, fat or thin, Gleason lived at least part-time in Crazy Land. He needlessly brooded about ratings. He couldn’t sleep and had massive midnight snacks. He had a fear of flying. Though a believing if not practicing Catholic, he still read avidly about the paranormal, parapsychology, and UFOs. He actually wondered about issues like the value of gaining the world if it meant losing one’s soul. Like Bert Lahr, he was an affectionate man who craved intimacy but seemed emotionally inept. He himself said he was a lousy husband and a lousy father.
Gleason was a victim of the changes in pop culture of the much-maligned Sixties. In 1970, in efforts to attract the younger generation with urban dramas and updated comedy, the network axed his show, along with long-standing heart-warming knee-slapping shows like Red Skelton and Petticoat Junction. He made movies like the legendary flop Skidoo in 1968, which I’ve unfortunately not seen, and Smokey and the Bandit, which I’ve unfortunately seen more than once. Hard living didn’t kill him young like it did Farley and Belushi – suffering diabetes and phlebitis, Gleason died of liver and colon cancer at 71 years of age in 1987.