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actor, songwriter, arranger, conductor
Herbert John Gleason was born into a poor family in Brooklyn, New York, on February 26, 1916. After his alcoholic father abandoned the family when he was nine, his over-protective mother all but locked the youngster in the house and kept him on a very short leash. He dropped out of school at about the age of 12 in order to help support his mother financially. At age 15 he became a vaudeville emcee at the Halsey Theater in Brooklyn, where, as "Jumpin' Jack" Gleason, he became known for his spirited exchanges with hecklers. He spent the next several years supporting himself as a pool hustler, carnival barker, stand-up comic, and even professional boxer. He even did a brief stint as a contract player at Warner Brothers.
Gleason's professional career began in 1949, when he was signed to play the title role in the television adaptation of the popular radio series The Life of Riley. Unfortunately, the moralistic tone of the sitcom's plots was unsuited to Gleason's style, and the show was not renewed for another season.
In 1950, Gleason replaced Jerry Lester as host of DuMont's Cavalcade of Stars, a comedy-variety show that featured comic monologues interspersed with short comedy sketches and musical numbers. It was on this show that Gleason first debuted some of his most notable characters, including Reginald Van Gleason III, the Bachelor, Joe the Bartender, and Ralph Kramden. It also marked the beginning of what became a life-long association with Art Carney, a member of the show's regular cast.
In 1952, Gleason was lured away from DuMont to CBS with the promise that he could have complete control over his own television show. The Jackie Gleason Show debuted on CBS that same year, and by 1954 he was second only to Lucille Ball in ratings.
The Honeymooners, the television show for which Gleason is best remembered, actually began as a series of skits on Cavalcade of Stars and The Jackie Gleason Show. Wanting to get away from the variety show format, Gleason repackaged those skits and replaced the first half-hour of The Jackie Gleason Show with The Honeymooners; he contracted with the Dorsey Brothers for a big-band musical program for the second half of his alloted time slot. A total of thirty-nine episodes were filmed and aired between 1955 and 1956. The show's characters were based on people from his real-life childhood, and the set was an almost exact replica of the apartment in which he grew up. Although the show was very popular in its day, and continues to be shown in syndication around the world, Gleason never won an Emmy for The Honeymooners.
Gleason's subsequent televsion career was a series of short-lived variety shows, a one-episode game show the concept of which proved so bad that he personally apologized to his viewers for having aired it, and an equally-ill-conceived one-on-one talk show. His movie and music careers, however, more than made up for his television failures.
Of his many movie roles, Gleason is probably best remembered for his portrayal of Minnesota Fats in The Hustler, for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1961. His pool shark role was also featured in The Sting and The Sting II. Other fans undoubtedly remember him as Sheriff Bufford T. Pusser in the Smokey and the Bandit movie series.
Although Gleason couldn't read music, he was also an accomplished songwriter, arranger and conductor. In 1952, he cut a deal with Capitol Records in which he agreed to cover any losses if his first album sold less than 60,000 copies, a seemingly unreachable goal in those days. Capitol never had to take Gleason up on his promise, however, since more than 500,000 copies of Music for Lovers Only were sold. Gleason went on to release more than 20 albums between 1953 and 1969. He also wrote the theme songs for The Honeymooners ("You're My Greatest Love") and The Jackie Gleason Show ("Melancholy Serenade"), and even scored the musical Gigot.
Jackie Gleason died of colon and liver cancer on June 24, 1987, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Genevieve Halford, 1936-1971 (divorce)
-- two children, Geraldine and Linda
Navy Blue (1941)
Life of Riley (1949-1950)
Music For Lovers Only (1952)
Antoinette Perry Awards (Tonys)
Laurel Awards (Golden Laurel)
National Board of Review, USA
This page was last updated on 02/26/2017.