Birth Date: February 26, 1916
Birth Place: Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York, USA
Date of Death: June 24, 1987 / Age: 71
Location of Death: Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA
Cause of Death: colon and liver cancer
Biography: Herbert John (Jackie) Gleason (February 26, 1916 – June 24, 1987), nicknamed "The Great One", was a rotund, Brooklyn-born comedian famous for brash humor and fast ad-libs who immortalized his Chauncey Street neighborhood in The Honeymooners, playing bus driver Ralph Kramden alongside his pal and upstairs neighbor, sewer worker Ed Norton, and their wives Alice Kramden and Trixie Norton. The foursome were later transplanted into the Stone Age on The Flintstones, the entire show being a transparent tribute to The Honeymooners.
Gleason first gained recognition in the Broadway play Follow the Girls. He simultaneously appeared in small parts in such films as Springtime in the Rockies and Navy Blues, but did not make a mark in Hollywood in his early years.
In 1949, he played the role of Chester A. Riley on the short-lived TV comedy The Life of Riley. William Bendix had originated the role on radio, and Gleason's series was unsuccessful. At the same time, his nightclub act was drawing attention from New York City's inner circle.
Gleason was hired as the host of Cavalcade of Stars, where he originated many of his famous characters and skits, from 1950 to 1952 on the small DuMont Television Network. The debut of The Honeymooners came on October 5, 1951, with character actor Pert Kelton in the role of Alice, and Art Carney - not as the now-familiar Norton, but playing a neighborhood cop in a brief sketch. Within a few years, Gleason moved to CBS, retitling his program The Jackie Gleason Show, which quickly became the number two television show in the nation behind I Love Lucy. In 1955, Gleason abandoned his live variety hour for a filmed run of The Honeymooners, which lasted one season. These episodes have been re-run in syndication for years, and are often referred to as the Classic 39. Ironically, these programs were filmed for CBS by DuMont, Gleason's old network, using a new process called Electronicam.
Gleason returned to his variety show the following year, but by 1959, Art Carney had left the show and it had run out of steam. An abortive attempt at a game show, You're in the Picture, was a notorious flop - cancelled after the first episode, with Gleason spending the following week's half-hour delivering a rather funny apology for the earlier show. Finally, in 1962, Gleason returned to weekly television with a splashy variety hour entitled Jackie Gleason and His American Scene Magazine, which lasted four seasons. The show moved to Miami Beach starting in 1964 (reportedly so that Gleason could indulge in one of his favorite pastimes, golf, year-round) and was again called The Jackie Gleason Show for the last four years of its run, which were in color. Many of these latter shows were full-length hour-long musical versions of The Honeymooners (some with plots recycled from the earlier series) and the revamped program, plus the added lure of color television, pushed Gleason's ratings back into the Top 5.
One of his trademark phrases was "How sweet it is!", uttered during the applause at the opening of his show. Gleason first said these words during his starring role in the movie Papa's Delicate Condition, and brought them to television with the debut of his 1962 American Scene TV series. Another famous Gleason catch-phrase was "And awa-a-ay we go!", usually said as he ended his monologue and exited, stage left. In his later years, Gleason would often close the show by saying, "The Miami Beach audience is the greatest audience in the world!"
Gleason, employing the same talent and pathos as he did portraying Ralph Kramden, proved to be an excellent dramatic actor, and was acclaimed for his live television performances in The Laugh Maker on CBS' Studio One(where he played a semi-autobiographical role as fictional TV comedian Jerry Giles), and in William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life, also for CBS as an episode of the famed anthology series Playhouse 90. He later earned praise for his portrayal of Minnesota Fats in the 1961 Paul Newman movie The Hustler, in which he made his own pool shots. The role earned Gleason an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In the 1970s, Gleason gained further fame for his portrayal of foul-mouthed Sheriff Buford T. Justice in the Smokey and the Bandit series of films. Reportedly, Gleason was also considered for the role of Archie Bunker in Norman Lear's groundbreaking comedy All in the Family, which occupied the Saturday-night time slot that Gleason's variety show once held.
Gleason's show was eventually cancelled due to declining ratings, an aging audience, and the ever-increasing costs of producing a weekly variety show live-on-tape. In the last original Honeymooners episode aired on CBS, "Operation Protest," Ralph Kramden encounters the youth-protest movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was a sign of the changing times.
After leaving CBS in 1970, Gleason and his cohort Carney appeared in several Honeymooners specials on ABC during the 1970s, and a made-for-television movie, Izzy and Moe. In 1985, three decades after the debut of the filmed Honeymooners, Gleason revealed that he had carefully preserved kinescopes of his live 1950s programs in a vault for future use. The "Lost Episodes," as they came to be called, first aired on the Showtime cable network and later were syndicated to local TV stations.
Throughout the 1950s and early '60s, Gleason enjoyed a secondary career in recorded music, lending his name to a series of best-selling "mood music" albums for the Capitol Records label. Although Gleason could not read or write music in a conventional sense, he was able to compose melodies "in his head" and transpose them with the help of an able staff. There has been some minor controversy over the years as to how much credit Gleason should have received for the finished product.
Gleason had an interest in the paranormal, and evidently believed in UFOs, claiming to have seen them himself. There was even a report that Richard Nixon took Gleason to view the remains of aliens killed in the crash of a flying saucer, but as this particular report first appeared in the pages of the National Enquirer, it is dubious at best.
Jackie Gleason's final role came in the 1986 film Nothing in Common, playing an Archie Bunker-esque character opposite a young Tom Hanks. It was not widely known at the time that he was fighting against a terminal illness. Diagnosed with cancer of the liver and colon, Gleason checked himself out of the hospital and died quietly at his Florida home on June 24, 1987.
On June 30, 1988 the Sunset Park Bus Depot in Brooklyn was renamed in honor of the native Brooklynite, becoming the Jackie Gleason Bus Depot. (Gleason's Ralph Kramden worked for the fictional Gotham Bus Company.) A statue of Gleason as Ralph Kramden in his bus driver's uniform was dedicated in August, 2000 in New York City by the cable TV channel TV Land. The statue is located at 40th Street and 8th Avenue at the entrance of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey bus terminal. Another such statue stands at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame in North Hollywood, California, showing Gleason in his famous "And awa-a-ay we go!" pose.
In 2003, after an absence of more than thirty years, color episodes of The Honeymooners, gleaned from the 1966-70 Miami Beach shows, returned to American television on the Good Life TV Network. In 2005, a movie version of The Honeymooners appeared in theatres, with a twist - a primarily African-American cast, headed by Cedric the Entertainer. This version, however, bore only a passing resemblance to Gleason's original series and was widely panned by critics, including WNBC-TV's Jeffrey Lyons.