The Life of Jackie Gleason, Star of The Honeymooners

Photograph of the cast of The Honeymooners
Jackie Gleason, left, as Ralph Kramden.  Getty Images

Jackie Gleason (born John Herbert Gleason; February 26, 1916 — June 24, 1987) was a Brooklyn-born comedian whose portrayal of Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners made him a star during the early years of television. In addition to his comic characters, which relied on physical comedy and wisecracks, Gleason occasionally dabbled in dramatic roles. He prided himself on having many talents and relished his nickname "The Great One."

Gleason's television career was mostly over by the 1960s. However, his work achieved a near-mythic status in the 1970s and beyond, when 39 half-hour episodes of "The Honeymooners" were widely syndicated on numerous television stations. 

Early Life

Gleason was born on February 26, 1916 in Brooklyn, New York to parents of Irish descent. His childhood was a difficult one. His only sibling, a brother, died in childhood, and his father eventually abandoned the family. After appearing in a school play, Gleason became determined to become a performer. He quit high school and took a job at a Brooklyn vaudeville theater's master of ceremonies, introducing acts and performing brief monologues.

His mother died when Gleason was in his late teens. He moved in briefly with a friend who was working as a comedian and soon was able to find work for himself on the vaudeville and burlesque circuit. He honed his skills entertaining in a series of small clubs throughout the 1930s.

In the early 1940s, Gleason was signed by producer as a bit player in films. After appearing in a half-dozen films, his Hollywood career seemed to stall, and he returned to New York. He was exempt from military service because of a badly healed broken arm. In New York, Gleason returned to the nightclub circuit and also appeared on radio programs.

An Early Television Star

In the late 1940s, Gleason was hired to star in a situation comedy called The Life of Riley. The program told the story of an aircraft worker in California and had already been a radio hit starring the actor William Bendix. Gleason took on the part of Chester Riley and received generally good reviews, but only lasted one year on the show.

Back in New York, Gleason was hired to perform on a television variety show, Cavalcade of Stars. He was an immediate hit on the show, and CBS signed him to perform on his own weekly program, The Jackie Gleason Show. The show became enormously popular on Saturday nights. The cast included a gifted comic actor, Art Carney, who became Gleason's perennial sidekick.

The Success of The Honeymooners

On his variety show, Gleason played characters including the hapless (and silent) Poor Soul, the loudmouth Charlie Bratton, and the inebriated heir to a fortune Reginald Van Gleason III. The character he became best known for, however, was the Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramden. 

Ralph Kramden was the opposite of many characters on television at the time. Instead of a suburban house with a white picket fence, Ralph and his wife Alice lived in a barely-furnished Brooklyn apartment.

Upstairs lived Ralph's best friend Ed Norton, a sewer worker played by Art Carney, and his wife Trixie.

Early versions of The Honeymooners, which appeared as a sketch on Gleason's variety show, were loud and raucous. The character of Ralph was easily frustrated by minor obstacles, and he often bellowed and threatened his wife. In the very first Honeymooners sketch, Ralph got so angry he threw a kitchen chair out the window of the apartment.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the rough edges, viewers took a liking to Ralph Kramden. Over time, Gleason and his writers honed the character of Ralph from a raging bully into a well-meaning blowhard who, at the end of every sketch, reconciled with his wife and whomever else he had verbally abused.

The Honeymooners became so popular that Buick offered Gleason a deal to turn the sketches into a full-fledged situation comedy.

In 1956, Gleason filmed 39 episodes. In addition to Gleason and Carney, the cast included Audrey Meadows as Ralph's wife Alice and Joyce Randolph as Ed Norton's wife Trixie.

Gleason's writers and fellow actors considered him moody and difficult to deal with. He hated rehearsing, and the demands of performing a scripted sitcom in front of a live audience led him to abandon The Honeymooners after filming those initial 39 episodes. 

Later Career and Legacy

Following his television success, Gleason tackled film and theater. He won a Tony Award in 1960 for his performance in the musical Take Me Along. He tackled a serious film role in 1961 when he played the legendary pool hustler Minnesota Fats in The Hustler, opposite Paul Newman. He received an Oscar nomination for the role.

In the late 1960s, Gleason revived The Honeymooners on a variety show alongside Art Carney. They performed each episode as a musical, with characters breaking into song. While popular at the time, it did not have the comfortable low-rent feel of the original series. Gleason's variety program stayed on the air until 1970.

After his variety show ended, Gleason retired to Florida. He occasionally returned to the screen in movie roles, like when he played southern sheriff Buford T. Justice in Smokey and the Bandit in 1977. In the 1980s, Gleason announced that recordings of "lost" episodes of "The Honeymooners" had been found in storage. The material consisted of sketches originally done on Gleason's variety show, and the "lost" Honeymooners became popular on cable TV.

 

Gleason died of cancer on June 24, 1987, at the age of 71. He remains a major figure in the history of American comedy thanks to his iconic role in The Honeymooners. At the height of its popularity, The Honeymooners attracted nearly 50% of viewing audiences each week. Gleason's portrayal of the brash but lovable Ralph Kramden captivated viewers and inspired countless future sitcom characters for decades to come.

Jackie Gleason Fast Facts

Full Name: Jackie Gleason

Given Name: John Herbert Gleason

Occupation: Actor and comedian 

Born: February 26, 1916 in Brooklyn, New York, USA

Died: June 24, 1987 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA

Education: Dropped out of high school.

Key Accomplishments: Starred in the hit sitcom The Honeymooners from 1955-56.

Spouse Name: Genevieve Halford (1936-70), Beverly McKittrick (1970-1975), Marilyn Gleason (1975-1987)

Child Name: Geraldine Gleason, Linda Miller

Famous Quotes: 

  • "Sometimes the feeling that life is great just swells up inside you and fills you with joy."
  • "It is difficult for people to appreciate their own laughter unless you show them some pathos along the way."
  • "I have no use for humility. I am a fellow with an exceptional talent."

Sources and Further Reading

  • "Gleason, Jackie." Encyclopedia of World Biography, edited by James Craddock, 2nd ed., vol. 31, Gale, 2012.
  • Bacon, James. How Sweet It Is: The Jackie Gleason Story. St Martins Press, 1986.
  • Henry, William. The Great One: The Life and Legend of Jackie Gleason. Doubleday, 1992. 
  • Kaplan, Peter. "75 'Honeymooners' Episodes Found." The New York Times, 26 Jan. 1985 Print.​
  • Margolick, David. "For Fans, The Honeymoon Is Really Over." The New York Times, 29 Aug. 1992. 
  • Pace, Eric. "Jackie Gleason Dies of Cancer; Comedian and Actor Was 71." The New York Times, 25 June 1987.
  • Simon, Ron. "The Honeymooners." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, edited by Thomas Riggs, 2nd ed., vol. 2, St. James Press, 2013.