The good Lord made carnations so that Jackie Gleason would have something to put in his lapels. Of all the things the late baby boomers missed in early television, it may be sadder that they missed the golden age of Gleason than that they missed the golden age of live drama.
Gleason was live drama as well as live comedy; he once slipped on dry ice just offstage and broke his leg near the end of a strenuous vaudeville routine on one of his variety shows. Even little kids, however, can know the Gleason of "The Honeymooners," because this classic about the roly-poly prole is still in reruns somewhere, all the time. There are only 39 half-hour "Honeymooners" shows, though a few kinescopes of the sketch versions, from the variety programs, were recently rediscovered and may eventually turn up on the air.
What began as a dream assignment for a deserving Morley Safer turned into a dream segment for tomorrow night's edition of "60 Minutes": spend a little time with The Great One, the enormous yet agile gifted natural whose television art has rarely been recognized with awards, but who found a way to synthesize social realism and broad burlesque into some of the most inspired comic creations in all of 20th-century fantasy: Ralph Kramden, the Willy Loman of bus drivers and now an American icon, the Poor Soul, Reginald Van Gleason III, and so on.
No character surpasses the man who created them, however -- a man whose life has been devoted to a Herculean pursuit of excess. In close-up during the interview segments with Safer, taped at Gleason's Florida digs, Gleason with his pencil-thin mustache and slightly sagging cheeks looks a bit like Brando made up as "The Godfather" -- a monarch, a spoiled kid.
No one should ever begrudge Gleason the good time he's had being alive because, first of all, somebody has to have a good time, and second of all, God, did he spread it around. There has never in TV history before or since been anything to equal the sound of the cheers and roars of the Gleason studio audiences. These people were being entertained within inches of their lives, yes, but they also felt that this inspired man, this rich man, was the kind who never pulled free of his roots, and this is the same man talking to Safer on "60 Minutes."
Indeed, when discussing the way the network (CBS, the same one that airs "60 Minutes") used to jerk him around, with what Gleason calls "threats to your security and kudos to your ego," he says he learned how to handle that kind of thing way back on the streets of Brooklyn where he grew up. Much of Gleason's early life among poor Irish and other immigrants resurfaced later in what Safer calls "comedy rooted if not in tragedy, then in poverty." The hard cold edge of those "Honeymooners" scenarios survives in the old films to this day; there is an anger beneath the buffoonery, beneath tubby Ralph telling Alice of a new harebrained scheme ("This is probably the biggest thing I ever got into") and Alice scowling back, "The biggest thing you ever got into was your pants."
"I never thought I was fat," Gleason tells Safer as the report begins. "I never walked like I was a fat guy. I never worried about it." Some fat men have grandeur. Gleason has it to spare. Orson Welles first nicknamed him "The Great One," and these two men are similar in the breadth of their gifts and their devotion to extravagance.
Looking back on Gleason's career and life, you would say this of him: He got to call the shots. Safer and Gleason recall how he got to call them after having been humiliated by CBS executives who coaxed him into hosting a ringer of a game show. Gleason rose from its ashes the next week to look into the camera and tell viewers, "Last week we did a show called 'You're in the Picture' that laid, without a doubt, the biggest bomb in the history of television." Other mementos from Gleason's larger-than-life life turn up: his splendid, heart-of-a-lush performance in the "Playhouse 90" production of William Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life" (Safer says this proved Gleason could act; no, he proved that on television every week for years and years), strains of the Gleason-composed theme song revealingly titled "Melancholy Serenade," and the famous Gleason-chartered train ride down the East Coast, with bevies of showgirls on board, when there still were showgirls and they came by the bevy, and not one but two Dixieland bands serenading the sybaritic potentate. The network indulged him because, Gleason says, they indulged you anything if you were first in the ratings, and Safer sorrowfully informs him that it isn't that way any more.
There won't be another Gleason. There won't be another Great One. This report is short and of necessity incomplete, but more satisfying as an impression than the five-part series with mumbling David Hartman on "Good Morning America" a few years ago. The "60 Minutes" segment was produced by Alan Weisman, and it came about, executive producer Don Hewitt says, simply because Weisman is a religious Gleason fan. No more like him, no. How sweet it was.