|Subject: Archive: June 24, 1987 ~ Jackie Gleason dies at 71
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Date Posted: Monday, June 24, 07:34:02am
JACKIE GLEASON DIES OF CANCER; COMEDIAN AND ACTOR WAS 71
The New York Times
June 25, 1987
Jackie Gleason, the roly-poly comedian, actor and musician who was one of the leading entertainment stars of the 1950's and 60's, died last night of cancer at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was 71 years old.
Mr. Gleason was released last Thursday from the Imperial Point Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, where he had been undergoing treatment for cancer.
His wife, Marilyn Gleason, said in announcing his death last night that he ''quietly, comfortably passed away.''
Mr. Gleason's television comedy series from the 50's, ''The Honeymooners,'' became a classic of the medium and was seen by millions year after year in reruns. His variety-comedy program, ''The Jackie Gleason Show,'' had an extraordinarily high average Nielsen audience-popularity rating of 42.4 for the 1954-55 season, which meant that 42.4 percent of the nation's households with television sets were tuned in. 'Plain Vanilla Music'
He also had parts in 15 films, ranging from a deaf-mute janitor in ''Gigot'' to a pool shark in ''The Hustler,'' for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. And his occasional theater roles spanned four decades, beginning on Broadway in 1938 with ''Hellzapoppin' '' and including the 1959 Broadway musical ''Take Me Along,'' which won him a Tony award for his portrayal of the hard-drinking Uncle Sid.
When he was not performing, Mr. Gleason was often conducting or composing mellow romantic music, ''plain vanilla music'' he called it, which was marketed in record albums with such unpretentious titles as ''Lazy Lively Love'' and ''Oooo!'' He recorded more than 35 albums with the Jackie Gleason Orchestra, and millions of the records were sold.
''Life ain't bad, pal,'' Mr. Gleason once told an interviewer. ''Everything I've wanted to do I've had a chance to do.''
Among the things he wanted to do was to enjoy himself, and he did that mightily: His huge appetite for food -he could eat five lobsters at a sitting -sometimes pushed his weight up toward 300 pounds. His thirst for glamour led him to have CBS build him a circular mansion in Peekskill, N.Y., costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And his craving for affection and attention made him a huge tipper, an impulsive gift-giver - he gave a $36,000 Rolls-Royce to charity - and a showman morning, noon and night. In 1962, he chartered a train, put a jazz band on board and barnstormed across the country, playing exhibition pool in Kansas City, Mo., mugging with monkeys at the St. Louis zoo and pitching in a Pittsburgh baseball game. Born in Brooklyn
His huge success took him far from the humble circumstances of his childhood. His real name was Herbert John Gleason, and he was born Feb. 26, 1916, in Brooklyn, the son of Herbert Gleason, a poorly paid insurance clerk, and Mae Kelly Gleason.
When he was 3, his elder brother died; his father disappeared five years later. To keep the wolf from the door, his mother then went to work as a subway change-booth attendant, a job she held until she died in 1932.
Mr. Gleason went to Public School 73 and briefly to John Adams High School and Bushwick High School. He grew up to be a broad-shouldered six-footer with flashing blue eyes, curly hair and a dimple in his left cheek.
Early in life Mr. Gleason found that humor brightened his surroundings. He became a poolroom jokester and a sidewalk observer of passers-by and their comic traits, which he later drew on for comedy routines. He began putting his comic skills to work in school plays and at church gatherings. Won Amateur-Night Prize
Then he won an amateur-night prize at the old Halsey Theater in Brooklyn and was signed up to be a master of ceremonies at another local theater, the story goes, for $3 a night. He went on to work as a barker and master of ceremonies in carnivals and resorts in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Manhattan cabaret work followed, then small comedy and melodrama parts in Hollywood in the early 40's. In the film capital, the tale has it, someone told Mr. Gleason, already hugely overweight, to slim down. By heroic dieting, he brought his weight down 100 pounds, only to be told by one producer, ''You look great, but skinny you're not funny.''
For many years, Mr. Gleason was more or less spectacularly obese, and he used to say cheerfully that as a comedian he could ''get away with more as a fat man.''
Hollywood had its disadvantages, Mr. Gleason liked to recall in later years. The pay on his Warner Brothers contract was disappointing, and he was put into gangster roles, or, as he put it, ''I only made $200 a week and I had to buy my own bullets.'' Disguised in a Wave's Uniform
Returning to New York, he began proving his versatility as a performer. He got good reviews for his part in the 1944 Broadway musical ''Follow the Girls,'' which included a scene where his 250 pounds were disguised in a Wave's uniform. He also went through valuable seasoning as a stand-up comedian.
Soon he was edging into the big time, appearing on the Sunday night Old Gold radio show on NBC and at Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe, a sumptuous nightclub of the day.
It was then, with intense and varied show-business experience, with proven talent as a comedian and with still-boundless energy at the age of 33, that Mr. Gleason entered the fledgling medium of television in the fall of 1949.
His first television role was an important one, although it was overshadowed by his later successes. He preceded William Bendix as the irascible blue-collar worker Chester Riley in the NBC situation comedy ''The Life of Riley.'' On 'Cavalcade of Stars'
After a season as Riley, Mr. Gleason moved on to the old DuMont Network's ''Cavalcade of Stars,'' which had been a training ground for other new television stars, and then to the weekly hourlong ''Jackie Gleason Show'' on CBS. The program achieved a high average Nielsen rating of 38.1 for the 1953-54 season.
It was on the show that Mr. Gleason polished the comedy roles that became his trademark. They included the society playboy Reginald van Gleason, Joe the Bartender, Charlie the Loudmouth and Ralph Kramden, the fumbling, blustering bus driver. In 1952 he received a TV Guide citation as the best comedian of the year. Irrepressible Vulgarity
One powerful ingredient of the enormous mass appeal of Mr. Gleason's show was its cheerful, irrepressible vulgarity. The lines of long-stemmed chorus girls, Las Vegas-like in their curvaceous glitter, were unrivaled on television. Viewers were charmed by his brashness and the stock phrases he shouted tirelessly: ''How sweet it is!'' and ''Away we go!''
The bus-driver skits proved so popular that in 1955 he expanded them into ''The Honeymooners,'' a filmed CBS series.
By 1955, Mr. Gleason, who liked to call himself ''the Great One,'' was one of television's biggest stars, and it was reported at the time that the contract for the series, which was sponsored by the Buick division of General Motors, called for him to be paid $11 million if the weekly half-hour shows ran for three years. It was said to be the biggest deal in television history.
The first program was televised on Oct. 1, 1955, with Mr. Gleason as Ralph, and Audrey Meadows playing his wife, Alice, as she had in the past. Also in the show was Art Carney in the role of a sewer worker, Ed Norton.
In the fall of 1956, Mr. Gleason switched back to the weekly live hourlong variety format. Its rating for the 1956-57 season was a very good 29.8, but it was a disappointment compared with his peak popularity.
In the spring, Mr. Gleason's manager, George (Bullets) Durgom, said the star would disband his troupe in June and had no plans. 'Manufacturing Insecurity'
Mr. Gleason waxed philosophical about it all. Asked by an interviewer whether he felt insecure, he replied: ''Everybody is insecure to a degree. My business is composed of a mass of crisis. It all adds up to the manufacturing of insecurity. Some people find escape in comfort, dames, liquor or food. But it's not enough.'' Insecure or not, he clung to the limelight. The next year, reversing his field, he went back to the half-hour series format - this time live -but it ran only a few months.
Undaunted, he went on to triumph in ''Take Me Along'' in 1959 and appeared in several films in the early 60's, including ''The Hustler'' in 1961, ''Gigot'' and ''Requiem for a Heavyweight'' in 1962 and ''Soldier in the Rain'' in 1963. 'Too Much of a Ham to Stay Away'
He was also a fixture on the television screen for much of the 60's. ''TV is what I love best, and I'm too much of a ham to stay away,'' he once explained.
CBS returned him to the air on his own weekly variety show in 1962. By then, his television stardom, his other acting assignments and his recording work had combined to make him ''the hottest performer in all show business'' in Life magazine's appraisal.
As the years passed, Mr. Gleason continued to revel in the perquisites of stardom. He had CBS provide him with facilities for producing his show in Florida. Yet after a few years, some of Mr. Gleason's admirers began to feel that he had lost interest in his work and that his show showed it. Slipping in the Ratings
''He was always out playing golf, and he didn't rehearse very much,'' one television-industry veteran recalled years later. ''The show got kind of sloppy; its standards slipped.''
Finally, after fulminations by network executives and Mr. Gleason, the show went off the air in 1970.
In 1977, Mr. Gleason did a filmed show on NBC called ''The Honeymooners' Christmas,'' playing his bus-driver role opposite the durable Mr. Carney. He played a Texas sheriff in ''Smokey and the Bandit,'' an immensely popular action film in 1977.
In 1978, Mr. Gleason was starring in a touring production of the stage comedy ''Sly Fox'' when he entered a hospital, complaining of chest pains, and had open-heart surgery. The tour was halted six months ahead of plan.
In the years that followed, Mr. Gleason received mixed notices for his acting in new movies, some made for television, while his earlier work remained enormously popular. Classic ''Honeymooners'' episodes were shown over and over. Organized ''Honeymooners'' fan activity flourished. And in 1985, Mr. Gleason was was elected to the Television Hall of Fame.
That same year Mr. Gleason disclosed that he had been preserving, in an air-conditioned vault, copies of about 75 ''Honeymooners'' episodes that had not been seen by audiences since they first appeared on television screens in the 1950's and were widely believed to have been lost. The material was then rebroadcast.
In addition, television specials honored his work, and he and Mr. Carney had a reunion of sorts during the filming of ''Izzy and Moe,'' a CBS television comedy in which they played Federal agents during Prohibition. Reviewing that 1985 film, John J. O'Connor said in The New York Times that Mr. Gleason was ''flashy, expansive, shamelessly sentimental'' and concluded that he and Mr. Carney remained ''delightful old pros.''
Another film of Mr. Gleason's last years was the 1986 movie ''Nothing in Common,'' in which he appeared with Tom Hanks, playing an over-the-hill salesman. In The Times, Walter Goodman found it largely ''sloppy stuff.''
The star had two daughters, Geraldine and Linda, with his first wife, Genevieve Halford, a dancer whom he married in 1936. They were divorced in 1971. In that year, he married Beverly McKittrick, a former secretary. They were divorced in 1974. The next year he married Marilyn Taylor Horwich, whom he had known for many years.
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