For Gleason, Comedy Was a Gift to Be Shared Big

Jackie Gleason was a show-business extravaganza of awesome punch lines and paunch lines, a legendary schmoozer and boozer who called people "pal." He was Ralph Kramden, the Poor Soul, Joe the Bartender and Reggie Van Gleason III roly-polied into one.

Jackie loved beautiful women, J&B; Scotch, flamboyance, 60-piece orchestras, luxury, Florida and comedy--lots and lots of comedy. He died Wednesday of cancer.

A little traveling music, please.

I interviewed him in Beverly Hills in 1986, when he was 70. You couldn't have predicted then that he would be dead little more than a year later. Impossible!

A former 300-pounder, the Great One was sometimes large enough to be renamed the Great Two. But on this afternoon he was a slenderized 215 pounds--his version of anorexia--and as swanky looking as always, the ever-present red carnation in the lapel of his white silk sports jacket. Although he emptied perhaps half a pack of cigarettes in two hours' time--the smoke continually twisting upward past his pencil mustache and thick-lidded blue eyes--he looked terrific and was tireless.

"Comedy is 10 times tougher than drama because it has an immediate critic--laughter," said Gleason, the TV legend-turned-movie actor, who was finishing "Nothing in Common" with Tom Hanks at the time.

"You go out and tell a joke, and the result had better be there. But acting is a cinch. They make a big deal over it, yet it's like the plumber who comes home with lipstick on his cheek and convinces his wife that he was bowling and a broad bent over to give him a drink and brushed him. He makes his wife believe that, so he's a great actor. Everybody acts. You notice there are actors who go to school, but there are no schools for comedians, because it's a gift."

Gleason had the gift. Boy, did he have the gift--the full, 100-proof genius.

He was less a comedian than an actor who did comedy, achieving eloquence as much with body language as with words. He gave America layers of fat and layers of laughs. He couldn't tell jokes and didn't create gags; he created characters with gags. And what characters.

It's a 1957 Reggie Van Gleason crack that lingers as a metaphor for the chain-smoking, chain-drinking Jackie. Actually, it was a setup for one of Edward R. Murrow's "Person to Person" interviews. Murrow would interview celebrities in their homes via an enormous TV screen. There was boozy playboy Reggie in his penthouse, wearing his usual silk hat and formal evening clothes, tipsy as always, proudly standing in front of a model-train display.

As Reggie lifted a shot glass, Murrow asked: "Are model trains your hobby, Reggie?"

"No, booze," replied Reggie, downing the whiskey.

Jackie's big looping signature was "The Honeymooners," the hilarious extended sketch of a series that ran in various forms on CBS in the 1950s, 1960s and briefly in 1971. "The Honeymooners" was Gleason's highest artistry, its continuing reruns granting him immortality and enabling him to leave without vanishing.

Much of the so-called "Golden Age of Television" is golden only in memory. The overwhelming bulk of programs from that era would be dated dinosaurs today, valued as history rather than as art. But Gleason's comedy is timeless. "The Honeymooners" is just as funny today as 30 years ago, the situations still as relevant, the characters eternally fresh.

Gleason chose a blue-collar setting. As an ordinary guy who wasn't making it, though, his Ralph Kramden was a struggling Mr. Everyman, frustrated, angry and very human. Everything about Ralph was big: his belly, his mouth, his dreams. Everything but his success.

If nothing else, the Kramdens made you feel wealthy. There was the drab two-room flat at 328 Chauncey St. in Brooklyn, where Ralph the uniformed bus driver and his nagging wife, Alice, lived in semi-squalor: battered ice box and stove, old chest, round table covered by a checkered table cloth. Upstairs were Ralph's best friend, sewer worker Ed Norton, and his wife, Trixie.

The cast didn't need additional props. They had each other as props. Ralph was a roaring, hot-tempered bully who menaced Alice when she pointed out his many failures: "One of these days, one of these days, POW, right on the kisser!" If another threat was needed, he could always fall back on: "BANG-ZOOOOOOM, right to the moon!"

But there would be no pows or bang-zooms, for Ralph was a phony whose threats were a bluff, his gruffness a camouflage for his insecurities. He never lowered the boom on either the guileless Norton or the caustic Alice, who inevitably got in the last wisecracking word. "If you were only my size. . . , " Ralph once threatened, waving his fist. "If I were your size," she replied, "I'd be the fat lady in a circus."

As a TV entrepreneur, Gleason was no softie. He had a reputation as a tyrannical, demanding boss who oversaw every facet of his shows. He reportedly had such disdain for his writers that he wanted no personal contact with many of them, insisting that they slip their scripts under his door. He would return them by passing them under the same door.

More than merely a wonderful performer, though, he was a shrewd performer. He realized that it was in his and his show's best interests for him to share the stage. So scene-swiping Art Carney was given scenes to swipe as Norton. And Audrey Meadows--the most famous and longest-running Alice--was given her moments, too, although Ralph's wife was a counterpuncher who rarely initiated action.

It's coincidental that Fred Astaire and Jackie Gleason should die in the same week, one a movie star who dabbled in TV in the twilight of his career, the other a pioneering TV star who later worked in movies. They were so different, yet so alike--one known for his grace, the other for his growl, but both giants whose work defined entire genres of entertainment.

On that afternoon in 1986, Gleason spoke articulately and passionately about a broad range of topics, including AIDS, Jerry Falwell, Ronald Reagan, South Africa and rock music. But the subject always returned to comedy.

"If I went to a producer today and told him I wanted to do a comedy series where there was no sexual innuendo, no jokes and one guy's a sewer worker and the other guy is a bus driver, I'd be thrown out before I got started," Gleason said, somewhat bitterly.

He was probably right, which makes us all the luckier to have "The Honeymooners" remaining in circulation--a gift to this generation and others to come--even after Jackie Gleason has left the scene. Bang zoom, straight to the moon.

Bye, pal.

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