Ralph Kramden told his wife Alice that this latest get-rich-quick scheme of his was "the biggest thing I ever got into." Alice, not in the least impressed, looked him straight in the eye and shot back, "The biggest thing you ever got into was your pants."
The biggest thing Jackie Gleason ever got into was television. He was one of the raucous, reckless pioneers who made it even bigger. He didn't make it what it is today; he made it better than it is today.
His death, on Wednesday, at the age of 71, seems to seal even tighter the vault on the Golden Age.
Gleason bestrode TV's Golden Age like a colossus but he also charged through it like a bull. In his long-running CBS variety show and his classic situation comedy "The Honeymooners," Gleason made himself not only a national star but also a populist mythic hero. He hadn't left his impoverished Brooklyn background behind; he had brought it with him, and made from it riches both literal and comic.
In a statement issued yesterday, William S. Paley, founder and former chairman of CBS Inc., said, "Television and Jackie Gleason were simply made for each other. He flooded the screen with talent. His career at CBS spanned almost 25 years, and he was an original from start to finish. Behind all those wonderful characters was a warm and generous person. His work seems as fresh as ever today. Happily, that part of him will be with us forever."
Jackie Gleason's personal flamboyance off the screen became as celebrated as the characters he played on it. In a 1985 interview with Morley Safer for "60 Minutes," recently rebroadcast, Gleason recalled attending a negotiating session with Paley and other executives at which the star's goal was an $11 million contract. Having freely imbibed the night before, a weary Gleason dozed off during the meeting, and Paley, witnessing this audacious nap, is said to have remarked, "Well if that's the way he feels, give it to him."
Audrey Meadows, who played the long-suffering but never-defeated Alice Kramden, appeared on several news and talk shows to reminisce about Gleason yesterday. On CNN, she said, "He was bigger than life, larger than life, kind, sensitive, a dear man, and I shall miss him terribly." On the CBS "Morning Program," she said, "He lived life to the fullest, and I think he did everything he wanted to do." And on NBC's "Today" show she said of working with Gleason on the "Honeymooners" episodes, "It was the most fun I ever had. It was just joyous."
As there were celebrated kitchen-sink dramas on live TV in the '50s -- "Marty" being the most famous -- "The Honeymooners" was a kitchen-sink comedy. The only one. The saga of blustering bus driver Ralph, proud, tenacious Alice and their childless, tenement marriage was played out against the barest and bleakest of sets, worthy of Brechtian angst. In much of its comedy, there was noticeable pain. For all of Ralph's bombastic conniptions, the show's emotional resonance was far greater than that of most other comedies, before or since.
Gleason went to his Brooklyn roots in creating the couple, as well as Kramden's loyal but terminally pixilated friend, sewer worker Ed Norton (Art Carney). At a 1985 press conference to celebrate the rediscovery and release of "Honeymooners" shows previously thought lost, Gleason recalled of his youth, "There were a thousand Ralphs living in my neighborhood when I was a kid. And a hundred Nortons."
This was part of what gave "The Honeymooners" its pungent authenticity, and its timelessness. It was not so much the ring of truth as the shout of truth. Ralph and Alice were addictively combative, but most episodes ended with a lusty clinch and a mutually forgiving kiss. The bond was sealed for another week. Now it is sealed forever.
Gleason played many other characters on his CBS variety show, including Joe the Bartender, a cheerfully garrulous tavern proprietor who spoke to a subjective camera that represented a regular customer; the Poor Soul, a Chaplinesque tramp on whom life never tired of visiting iniquities; and Reginald van Gleason III, the riotous parody of a gin-swilling playboy that also seemed a ferocious sendup of the obliviously rich.
As rich as Gleason got -- CBS was already paying him $8,000 a week in 1952 -- he never seemed to lose his identity with the audience. It was as if he never could completely discard Ralph Kramden's noble blue collar. Gleason once told an interviewer about riding in a limousine early in his fame. The limo almost struck a derelict, who then spewed abuse at the wealthy swells inside. Gleason said he never felt comfortable in a limousine again after that.
People speak of Gleason's dramatic work in films, especially his portrayal of Minnesota Fats in 1961's "The Hustler," as if this were a major departure for him, but Ralph Kramden was a solid dramatic role, a man who could go from bellow to tenderness, and the Poor Soul was eloquent mime. However unwieldy his girth, Gleason remained an inspired physical clown as well. In "The Hustler," Paul Newman, as Fast Eddie Felson, looks Gleason over and says, "He's great, that old fat man. Look at the way he moves -- like a dancer."
That he was great no one could persuasively dispute, and to make it more plain, he earned the title of The Great One. Actually, The Great One was thrust upon him, Gleason said in a 1976 interview, by Orson Welles during a nightclubbing evening's stop at the Stork Club.
Gleason had alighted in Washington in '76 not to give interviews but to wait for his wife Marilyn, whom he had then only recently married, so the two of them could take the Concorde to London. One rumor about Gleason was that he always refused to fly. "Well that's a legend, pal," Gleason said then. "And you don't fight the legends."
Had he ever gone faster than the speed of sound before? "Only a couple of times at Toots Shor's," Gleason said, as a waiter appeared with a bottle of Beaujolais that had been sent up to Gleason's suite. His instructions to the waiter as he poured the wine might well have been the Gleason credo. He said, "Go all the way."
The night before, when Gleason arrived, he had turned on the TV set and discovered himself 20 years younger in a "Honeymooners" rerun. He bemoaned the cuts that had been made to accommodate commercials, and when asked if he'd laughed at the show anyway, he said, "I never laugh at me. But I die at what Carney does. That man is gorgeous."
Gleason's versatility was practically all consuming. He conducted an orchestra on romantic instrumental albums. He wrote, scored and starred in the movie "Gigot," the sentimental story of a Parisian hobo. And he composed much of the music heard on his TV programs, including the sweeping main theme, which he called "Melancholy Serenade," and a "Honeymooners" theme titled "You're My Greatest Love." He couldn't read music, but that didn't stop melodies from materializing in his head.
For all his contributions to television and the entertainment industry, Gleason was consistently ignored by the Emmy awards, and though nominated for an Oscar for "The Hustler," he was overlooked by the academy two years ago for an even finer performance in the film "Nothing in Common."
Because it looks down snobbishly on television as some sort of lesser creature, the committee that apportions the Kennedy Center Honors missed the opportunity to give Gleason one of its prizes during his lifetime. The omission seems inexcusable, but it was the public's adulation that Gleason clearly prized. During this latest comeback, it seemed genuinely to cheer him.
Not everything was a success. A disastrous '60s game show, "You're in the Picture," was scrubbed immediately upon its premiere, but Gleason, the host, returned the following week to tell the viewing audience, "Last week we did a show called 'You're in the Picture' that laid, without a doubt, the biggest bomb in television."
Being Gleason, he probably wouldn't have wanted to be associated with merely the second-biggest bomb. Only the biggest would do.
In his later years, Gleason sported a mustache that made him look devilish and dapper. A bright red carnation usually blossomed from his lapel. He prided himself on resplendent attire. Asked in 1976 if there were any worlds he still wanted to conquer, he said, "I've been fortunate. I've done 'em all, and they all turned out pretty good."
In 10 years, 20 years, maybe in a hundred, people will still be turning on television sets, or whatever they'll be calling them then, and finding Jackie Gleason there, full of life and warmth and brio, still threatening to send his wife "to the moon," or declaring of his circumstance "how sweet it is," or telling a colleague he's "a dan-dan-dandy" or a studio audience, "Mmm, you're a good group."
To those of the future who watch, and laugh, it will probably still be readily apparent: That was a legend, pal. That man was gorgeous.