Audrey Meadows, Alice in ‘The Honeymooners,’ Dies

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Audrey Meadows, revered as the feisty Alice Kramden opposite Jackie Gleason’s garrulous bus driver Ralph in television’s comedy classic " The Honeymooners,” has died.

Meadows died of lung cancer at 8:50 p.m. Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, hospital spokesman Ron Wise said Sunday. Relatives said she was 69.

Meadows had concealed the terminal illness for more than a year, even from her sister and brother-in-law, entertainers Jayne Meadows and Steve Allen. But her condition was revealed after she was hospitalized Jan. 24, and her sister was with her at the end.

Jayne Meadows said in a statement Sunday, “My fervent prayers are with my dear sister, Audrey, who has for months fought a brave and private battle with lung cancer.

“As her struggle has now come to an end, I hope that all of you who were touched by her beautiful work on ‘The Honeymooners’ will join our family in prayers and hold her forever in your hearts.”

Meadows was neither the first nor the last Alice but was certainly the best-known. She played the testy bus driver’s wife for five years and appeared in several reunion shows. Her work earned her an Emmy in 1954 as best supporting actress in a television series and a 1955 Sylvania award for outstanding contribution to television techniques.

She considered Alice her favorite role and recalled those barely rehearsed early television episodes as “the best time I ever had.” When she wrote her memoirs in 1994, centered on working with Gleason, the title was “Love, Alice.”

The domestic clashes of the Kramdens in their Brooklyn tenement kitchen originated as a Gleason sketch on “Cavalcade of Stars” in 1950, with actress Pert Kelton playing Alice. Meadows took over the role on Gleason’s live CBS variety program, “The Jackie Gleason Show,” in 1952.

The domestic saga expanded to a half-hour show called “The Honeymooners” for a single season, 1955-56, and those 39 immortal episodes were released on video in 1993.

Meadows was largely retired from acting during her 25-year marriage to the late Continental Airlines president Robert F. Six, but did return to television as Alice in “Honeymooners” specials in the late 1970s, 1985 and 1990.

Originally, Gleason rejected Meadows for the role of Alice, considering her too young and pretty for the housewife he would regularly threaten to send “to the moon” only to acknowledge, “Baby, you’re the greatest!”

So Meadows hired a photographer to shoot pictures of her at her contrived worst.

“I had no makeup, did my hair all funny, took an old blouse and an old apron, and posed in a kitchen with a frying pan,” she told The Times in 1993.

When Gleason saw the photos, he exclaimed, “Oh, my God! That’s Alice.” Told she was the same young, pretty actress he had rejected shortly before, he laughed and said: “Hire her. Any dame with a sense of humor like that deserves the job.”

Although the role made Meadows a household face and name, she would say later that it typecast her, seriously curbing her acting career. She remained popular as a guest on variety shows, including those of Red Skelton, Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Jack Benny, Carol Burnett and Dean Martin, but commented three years ago: “Almost all of the stuff I was offered was something in the kitchen, always in the damn kitchen.”

Meadows continued to be recognized and revered as Alice, with cabdrivers offering her free rides and concerned fans sending her aprons, potholders and curtains to dress up the drab Kramden kitchen decades after the set was struck.

In recent years, Meadows played the late Ted Knight’s bossy mother-in-law for five years on the series “Too Close for Comfort” and was a regular in the 1990 series “Uncle Buck.”

Biographical sources over the years listed the former Audrey Cotter as being born in Wu Chang, China, the youngest of four children of an Episcopal missionary. Family members, however, said Sunday that she actually was born in New York.

She changed her surname to Meadows after older sister Jayne altered her own name and persuaded Audrey to pursue acting with her.

Audrey Meadows trained as a coloratura soprano and made her singing debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall when she was 16. She later sang at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, N.J., was guest soloist with the Gordon String Quartet and sang with civil light opera companies in several cities. She also sang in nightclubs and during World War II toured with a USO show.

After performing across the country in the stage musical “High Button Shoes,” Meadows earned a Broadway leading role opposite comedian Phil Silvers in “Top Banana.”

In television’s infancy, she played all the female roles on NBC’s “Bob and Ray Show” with Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding. Next came Gleason.

After Gleason abandoned “The Honeymooners” in 1956, Meadows stayed with his variety show as the society girlfriend of Reggie Van Gleason.

Meadows later appeared on several game shows, including “Hollywood Squares,” “Name’s the Same,” “Who’ll Buy That?” and “Password.”

The actress was less familiar to movie audiences, but did have major second-lead roles in “That Touch of Mink” with Cary Grant and Doris Day in 1962, with James Stewart in “Take Her, She’s Mine” in 1963, and with Rosalind Russell in “Rosie!” in 1967.

In her private life, Meadows was a director of the Hollywood Park Racing Charities Assn., an honorary trustee of the Pearl Buck Foundation and for 11 years a director of the First National Bank of Denver.

She was married in 1956 to wealthy real estate man Randolph Rouse, humorously telegraphing Gleason: “Dear Ralph--So sorry, but I’m becoming a bigamist today, marrying Randy Rouse. Love, Alice.” The marriage ended in divorce two years later.

Meadows married Six on Aug. 24, 1961, and devoted herself to him until his death from cancer in 1986. As in her own case, she and Six kept his illness secret from friends and relatives.

Her husband of the small screen, Gleason, died in 1987.

Meadows telephoned shortly before Gleason’s death, telling him, “Jackie, it’s Audrey, it’s your Alice. I just called to tell you I loved you. . . . I never thanked you for giving me the part of Alice.”

He replied, she told The Times, “I knew what I was doing.”

“She had a passion for excellence,” said Harry Crane, head writer and creator of “The Honeymooners,” who Sunday suggested a simple epitaph for the actress: “You’re the greatest.”

Meadows is survived also by a sister-in-law, Marjorie Cotter; nephews Christopher Cotter, William Allen and Steven Cotter; and nieces Cynthia Cotter and Ellen McGoldrick.

Services will be private for family members and close friends. In lieu of flowers, the family asked for contributions to the American Red Cross or Friends of the Children.

Army Archerd, the Daily Variety columnist who was a longtime family friend, said Sunday that Jayne Meadows also would launch a public campaign against cigarette smoking, noting that her sister was a chain-smoker.

* Times staff writer Emi Endo contributed to this story.