33 years ago Morley Safer interviewed Jackie Gleason on 60 Minutes. He asked him where his nickname, The Great One, came from. It was Orson Welles who dubbed him, and then Lucille Ball picked it up. When Safer asked if he believed it, Gleason said, “You just saw me play pool, didn’t you?” In the immortal words of The Great One, “Give me a little travelin’ music…and away we go.”
I grew up watching The Jackie Gleason Show and The Honeymooners on TV. I loved all the characters and the jokes, but what made it special was this obese, loud guy from Brooklyn who lived large. He was incredibly graceful—the way he moved and danced was balletic. He owned who he was. The constant fat jokes were a badge of honor. Aside from overeating, he smoked five packs of cigarettes a day and drank to excess every day except for show day. He hated to rehearse, and drove everyone nuts by just showing up for the taping and being unreasonable in general. And yet, when he is on screen, you can’t look at anyone else. He truly was the biggest thing on TV.
Surrounded by the talents of Art Carney, Audrey Meadows and great writers like Marvin Marx, when you watch episodes of The Honeymooners, which after more than 60 years are still televised daily, it is stunning how the energy completely changes when Gleason walks in the room. He makes everyone around him come alive. I once had an actress girlfriend who worked on The Sopranos for a while. She told me that James Gandolfini was like that. This was Jackie Gleason’s talent—emitting beautiful, exciting energy that encouraged everyone to be their greatest self.
Years ago, my mother was eating lunch in Hong Kong by herself one day. At the next table there was a nicely dressed American woman of a certain age (about the same as mother) eating by herself. The two women struck up a conversation, whereupon my mom was invited to join her new friend at her table. The lady asked what my mom was doing in Hong Kong. After she explained that she was buying jewelry, my mom asked the lady what she did. “I used to be a TV star,” she said. It had been a long time, but my mom could peel away the years and see that this friendly, unassuming lady was Audrey Meadows. So naturally, she had to ask what it was like working with Jackie Gleason. She said that it was just wonderful. She could never say a bad word about him. She loved him, and that was that.
Not so with Art Carney. I’ve heard that Gleason and Carney didn’t get along. Gleason always spoke glowingly of Carney, but Carney was a studied actor and big on preparation. He was uncomfortable with Gleason forcing the cast to fly by the seat of their pants, but this is what made those shows special. This improvisational attitude fed into Gleason’s love of jazz. Many show biz people of that generation loved jazz, but like everything else in his life, The Great One took it to another level.
Although he couldn’t read or write music or play an instrument, he composed his theme songs and produced a number of best selling records. During the Swing Era, he was buddies with Tommy Dorsey, another celebrity who lived large. Sometimes Gleason would go on the road with Dorsey’s band and ride the bus. Among the many stories of their pranks and escapades, is the time when in the middle of the night, the band bus was driving through a small town in the Midwest. Dorsey and Gleason noticed a closed for the night fur shop on the main stem, and ordered the driver to stop. The two of them got off the bus and called the owner of the fur shop from a pay phone. The poor man was woken out of a dead sleep, and was convinced to put on his clothes, open the store and sell his most expensive fur coats to these two drunk maniacs so they could give them as presents to their wives when the sun came up. Like I said, living large.
Starting out in vaudeville, Gleason tried a number of jobs before achieving modest success as a stand-up comic at New York’s Club 18, where Jack Warner saw him and signed him to a movie contract. In an un-credited role in Orchestra Wives, he played the bassist in the Glenn Miller Orchestra. He must have been in seventh heaven filming that.
When Hollywood couldn’t figure out what to do with him, he returned to New York to appear in a hit Broadway show and perform stand-up, where becoming a regular in one of the clubs where the up-and-coming stars performed. It was here that he honed his craft. Milt Hinton played bass in the house band and became chummy with Jackie, who loved to buy everyone drinks.
A few years later Milt found himself out of work and was worrying about how he could make his mortgage payment and support his wife and young daughter. He had his head down as he crossed Sixth Avenue around 50th Street and bumped into a big man on the opposite corner. The man said, “Milt.” Milt looked up in amazement, “Jackie.” Gleason asked how Milt was doing, and Milt told him that he needed a job. Jackie said, “Milt, this is your lucky day. I just got a new TV show, and you’re our bass player. Show up at the studio on Monday morning.”
Milt thanked him, but when he entered the studio, the orchestra contractor asked who he was. When Milt told me this story, I thought it was strange, since Milt was famous all the years he played with Cab Calloway. Obviously, the contractor was not a music fan. The contractor told Milt that he wouldn’t be needing him, since he already had a bassist. Milt could see that the entire orchestra was white. No one had broken the color barrier in TV. All he could do was tell the contractor that Jackie personally hired him. The contractor walked over to Jackie, and told him that he had already hired a bassist, to which Jackie responded, “No Milt; no me.” Those four words broke the color barrier and opened the door for all the other great Black musicians to work in the New York studios.
There was a dark side to The Great One. When he was eight or nine years old, he father unceremoniously deserted the family, never to be heard from again. Gleason had nothing but hatred toward his father. When Jackie became a big star on TV, his father showed up one day. The meeting did not go well. That was the last time the two saw each other. Ironically, shortly after that, Jackie abandoned his wife and two young daughters. No matter how much kids detest their parents’ behavior, the urge to repeat it is often uncannily irresistible.
Although most people think of Gleason as a comedian, he was equally gifted in serious roles. His many movie and TV special performances show a wide range of emotion. He could be horribly cruel, charming, sophisticated, pitiful and heart wrenching—and always convincing. Throughout all his performances, I am always struck by the beautiful way he moves and his perfect rhythm.
With all the great work he did, we shall always remember him as Ralph Kramden, the moax of a Madison Avenue bus driver who lived in Brooklyn on Chauncey Street above the Hong Kong Gardens Chinese restaurant. After the Classic 39 episodes were produced from 1955-56, Gleason refused to make more of them. Later on, he relented and would return time and again to Ralph, Alice, Norton and Trixie, but it never worked. The magic was gone. Everything has its time and place. You can’t go home again.
Thank God we have those wonderful 39 episodes, which may be the greatest sitcom of all-time. I take it back. It is the greatest sitcom of all-time. I’ve seen each episode dozens of times. Whenever I am channel surfing and come across one, I think, “I’ve seen this so many times, I’ll watch something else.” I watch for a few seconds and start to laugh, and then I’m hooked. I always stay right through the credits. I don’t want to miss one second of that magical theme music. “How sweet it is!”