Jackie Gleason, the late rotund, physical, and verbal comedian, who was best remembered for an eclectic array of characterizations on his self-titled show which was one of the more dominant programs during the 1950s Golden Age of Television, and especially as irascible yet loveable blowhard Brooklyn loser bus driver Ralph Kramden on one of televisions all-time great sitcoms The Honeymooners, has a birthday today.
To those who follow “everyman” type comedians who transcend a chubbiness in physicality in today’s society, everyone from Seth Rogen to Zack Galifanakis and from Jonah Hill to especially Kevin James, owe a direct or indirect nod to the man who was coined “the great one,” Jackie Gleason. Comedians through the years like Chris Farley, John Goodman, Jim and John Belushi, and the great Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker on All in the Family also owe the direct or indirect nod.
But make no mistake, Jackie Gleason wasn’t a one note comedian/actor/man who just relied on jokes which made fun of his girth. The genius of Gleason was also in his style, his sly winks and nods, and physical use of his body and body language; he could get laughs, and ones of the belly aching variety, by simply tweaking eyebrows or bugging out his eyes, flailing his arms and his legs, bellowing sounds out of his mouth like a rhino or hippo, or simply wiggling and knee slapping shuffling from exits stage left or right to and fro. When Jackie Gleason combined some of, or all of those elements in one fell swoop during a comedy sketch, he was truly an absolute joy to watch. Gleason also had a gift for being verbal; he had some of the best timing in the business at the time he was one of its hottest properties, sporting in fact some of the best comic timing of all time.
Starting out with a slight career identity crisis as a dramatic actor, he quickly found his niche as character/sketch actor in comedy and soon got his own television show in which to showcase his immense talents to the country, first on the defunct Dumont Network on their Cavalcade of Stars then on his own Jackie Gleason Show on CBS. His large litany of characters on the program—the likably naïve and Buster Keaton-like mute Poor Soul; the egotistical Uncle Scrooge like billionaire Reginald Van Gleason; the boastful and blowhard Rudy the Repairman; the friendly yet dim witted Fenwick Babbitt, who usually was hapless at the various jobs he failed yet, yielding hysterical results; the loudmouth Charlie Bratton and more—made America marvel and howl with laughter at the program, usually an audience that reached into the millions each and every week. The show ran in various incarnations until 1970, capping an almost 20 year run for him when it was all said and done. But it was the character that combined all the traits of the aforementioned ones that made Gleason an instant legend and star and thrust him into the annals of the great all-time television and sitcom personalities, Ralph Kramden.
As Ralph Kramden, the main character of The Honeymooners, Gleason created a character that most hard working stiff laymen could relate to, laugh at and even empathize with. The character of Kramden, a loud, big dreamer who never could make it past the first run of his grandiose ideas, slaved away behind the wheel of a bus and only had the security of his run down home and loyal yet non-submissive wife Alice (played by various actresses, but Audrey Meadows played the best remembered version of the character) to come to, who he traded sarcastic barbs with almost hourly yet loved her dearly and madly. His best friend and neighbor, the well-liked yet not-too-much-upstairs-in-the-common-sense department Ed Norton, was played by Art Carney and almost defined the word chemistry with the Laurel and Hardy style interplay between him and Gleason each and every week. Norton became insufferable to Kramden, usually had as much to do with the failures that beset Kramden more than anything else, even though regardless of the circumstances Norton always remained cheerfully earnest, which angered and bewildered Kramden more times than not, and created comic tensions that stand up there with any great comedic match of any great comedic duo in media history, and became as much a factor of the success of Gleason’s career as anything else that helped foster it.
The Honeymooners first debuted on Gleason’s own show and then on its own half hour program, which only aired 39 episodes. Those extremely well-written episodes are known legendarily as “The Classic 39” and have been running in syndication in virtual perpetuity since it’s original first run airing back in 1955-56 and have consistently and constantly found new generations of rabid audiences at each successive clip. The show made various appearances here and there after those “Classic 39,” mostly in other versions of Gleason’s own self-titled program, and well into the 1970s as a series of reunion specials which were mainly holiday themed. In the mid-1980s, Gleason himself spearheaded the discovery of “Lost Honeymooners” episodes (which were really the sketches that appeared on his self-titled program) which were a huge cause for celebration among fans of the program. All the “lost episode” sketches and Classic 39 episodes are available in nicely packaged DVD sets currently. The Honeymooners remains one of televisions great sitcoms, one of the few times a hard working stiff was the protagonist of a show of that genre and it set the stage for countless shows that followed, from All in the Family to The King of Queens to name two.
Gleason also had a successful film career, in which this time, after his success on TV, he was able to play more dramatically straight roles (a highlight was playing pool shark Minnesota Fats in The Hustler with Paul Newman) and then found another character to play comedically, but this time in the cinema as the pesky Buford T. Justice, who relentlessly played cat and mouse with Burt Reynolds in the Smokey and the Bandit film series. By the time the first film was released in 1977, Gleason, who was in his sixties at that point, was a mandarin of television, a living legend, who walked with a style and absolute awe-inspiring panache which endeared him to critics and fans alike still.
He continued to do a few movies here and there and the popularity of The Honeymooners had always kept him busy in the multitude of interviews he gave about it as the “Classic 39” reached its 30th Anniversary in the mid-1980s. Gleason had showed no signs of slowing down in his active career when he tragically succumbed to cancer in 1987. His last role was playing the cantankerous dad to young Tom Hanks in the film Nothing in Common.
While he may be a curio to today’s society and generation, the memory of Jackie Gleason burns strong in any physical comedian who pratfalls, uses his weight as a comic prop, or a certain physicality. His influence still runs strong, The Honeymooners remains popular and always will, its body of work still examined and sussed out and enjoyed gleefully by many fans around the country. Celebrate the man today and exclaim at his broad and one-of-a-kind comedic talents with the catchphrase in which he will always be associated with, “How Sweet It Is!” Indeed, how sweet the life and career of Jackie Gleason WAS and always will be. Happy Birthday Jackie.