Jackie Gleason, the self-styled "Great One" who turned his patented, pomaded portrayal of a hustler to star effect both in comedy -- TV's beloved "The Honeymooners" -- and drama -- winning an Academy Award nomination as the king of the pool sharks in "The Hustler" -- died of cancer at his Fort Lauderdale home yesterday. He was 71.
A family spokesman said Gleason was released from a hospital last Thursday after undergoing treatment for cancer. "He was feeling in good spirits Monday and Tuesday," his wife Marilyn said in a statement. "He quietly, comfortably passed away."
Gleason, whose girth and gusto made him a bona fide celebrity as well as a star, created a host of characters, including the hoity-toity Reggie van Gleason III, the wistful Poor Soul, and the philosophical Joe the Bartender, professor of the school of hard knocks. In recent years, he made a series of "Smokey and the Bandit" movies with Burt Reynolds, playing the unthinkable, unsinkable Sheriff Buford T. Justice.
His best-known alter ego was Ralph Kramden, the Brooklyn bus driver who spent most of his time concocting get-rich-quick schemes behind the back of his long-suffering wife Alice, played by Audrey Meadows. Their weekly squabbles and his simultaneously sleazy and sentimental relationship with best friend Ed Norton (Art Carney) made "The Honeymooners" a '50s precursor of "All in the Family."
What many of his characters had in common was a talent for self-delusion, a blissfully ignorant egocentricity that audiences found ridiculous and yet touching. "One of these days, Alice," he would threaten, but the bluster always ended with a buss.
Gleason himself was his greatest creation, and he understood that very well, often succeeding with a combination of bluff and brains. He hated to rehearse, placing his faith in his own spontaneity; many of "The Honeymooners" scripts were partly ad-libbed. Unable to read music, he composed a number of popular melodies, including "Melancholy Serenade," his theme, and conducted the Jackie Gleason Orchestra in about 20 album recordings.
He also dressed, drank and ate in true star style. Producer David Susskind said Gleason could "put away more scotch per square hour than any man alive," and his recent commercials for a credit card played off his proclivity for going first-class.
His hard-drinking, hard-partying style became so notorious that he often spoofed himself: In a regular spot in his television variety shows, one of the June Taylor dancers would bring him a coffee cup full of, as the audience believed, straight scotch. "How sweeeet it is!" he would intone . . . "and awwaaay we go!"
He admitted to smoking six packs of cigarettes daily, scarcely slowing down even after undergoing triple coronary bypass in 1978. In 1983, he had artery bypass surgery on his legs, and he suffered from diabetes and emphysema. "You only live once," he used to say. "Let's live it up."
Herbert John Gleason was born Feb. 26, 1916, in a Brooklyn cold-water flat. His father abandoned him and his mother when he was 8. He quit high school after only a few weeks, hustling at a pool hall, among other things.
At 16 he became the emcee at Brooklyn's Folly Theatre, and later worked as a carnival barker. Beginning in the mid-1930s, he worked steadily in clubs in and around New York City, moonlighting as a disc jockey, and made his Broadway debut in 1940.
For the next several years, he moved back and forth between Hollywood and Broadway, playing mostly small feature parts that played off his already impressive profile: He weighed about 250, and boasted he could "get away with more as a fat man." His stint in "Follow the Girls," disguised as a WAVE of tidal proportions, is credited with keeping that musical comedy afloat.
His first TV hit was the 1949 "Life of Riley," in which he gave face to the befuddled Everyman of radio. In 1952, he inaugurated the hourlong variety showcase that earned him the nickname "Mr. Saturday Night." "The Jackie Gleason Show" ran until 1959 and from 1962 to 1970.
Gleason was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Minnesota Fats, the uncrowned king of the cues who faces newcomer Paul Newman in the 1961 film "The Hustler."