Worked With:

Tom Hanks


Valerie Perrine


Maureen O'Hara


Burt Reynolds


Jerry Reed


Carol Channing

Jackie Gleason Biography


Home > Actors > G > Gleason, Jackie > Biography


Birth Name: Jackie Gleason
Born: 02/26/1916
Birth Place: Brooklyn, New York, USA
Death Place: Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA
Died: 06/24/1987


Born Herbert Walton Gleason, Jr. on Feb. 26, 1916 in Brooklyn, NY, he was later baptized as John Herbert Gleason, but affectionately referred to as "Jackie" by his mother, Mae. Young Jackie's early years were filled with heartbreak and uncertainly after his older brother, Clemence, died from spinal meningitis when Jackie was three years old and his father, Herbert, an insurance salesman, abandoned the nine-year-old and his mother in 1925. Forced to earn a meager living as a toll booth attendant, Mae did her best to keep her precocious son on the straight and narrow until her death in 1935 when Jackie was only 19. By then, Gleason had already begun his performing career, first in a school play and later emceeing at various local theaters. Following his mother's death, a destitute Gleason moved into the city, where he lived with friends and found his first professional gigs as a comedian. By the late 1930s, he had made it to Broadway in vaudeville-burlesque revues like "Keep Off the Grass" and become a frequent presence at various Manhattan nightclubs, such as the popular Club 18. It was during one of his routines at the latter club that Gleason was spotted by film studio executive Jack L. Warner, who was impressed enough by the rotund funny man to sign him to a contract with Warner Bros. in 1940.

Temporarily relocated to Los Angeles, with a wife and two small children still in New York, Gleason found himself somewhat adrift in Hollywood. With his substantial girth and unpolished exterior, he was considered ill-suited for leading man roles, resulting in him most often being cast a gangster or tough guy. Several forgettable appearances - including "Navy Blues" (1941) with Ann Sheridan, "All Through the Night" (1941) with Humphrey Bogart, and "Larceny, Inc." (1942) opposite Edward G. Robinson - made up a portion of his unremarkable filmography at the time. Underutilized by the studio and frequently bored, Gleason developed a stage act and performed at several L.A. supper clubs and night spots like Slapsy Maxie's. That, and a near constant schedule of carousing and hosting late-night parties in his hotel room filled the hours throughout Gleason's initial stay on the West Coast. When Warner Bros. chose not to renew his contract, he happily returned to New York in 1942. It was during this time that he made a name for himself as a Broadway performer, appearing in productions like "Artists and Models" (1943), "Follow the Girls" (1944) and "Along Fifth Avenue" (1949), in which he introduced the playboy persona that later evolved into Reginald Van Gleason III.

With the advent of television, Gleason was one of the first to take a chance on the new medium. He was signed to star in "The Life of Riley" (NBC, 1949-1950), as the titular husband and father, bumbling his way through daily events. Although the show proved moderately successful, Gleason soon left the series (replaced by William Bendix) and returned to NYC where he assumed hosting and performing duties on the variety show "Cavalcade of Stars" (DuMont, 1949-52). It was during his tenure on "Cavalcade" that Gleason first worked with Art Carney and June Taylor, along with six chorus girls dubbed the "June Taylor Dancers." One popular sketch featured Carney as a nervous photographer and Gleason as the wealthy Reggie Van Gleason. Another bit introduced a bickering couple who lived in a Brooklyn tenement - the forerunners of Ralph and Alice Kramden. Two years later, Gleason had been signed to a two-year, multi-million dollar contract by CBS to host "The Jackie Gleason Show" (CBS, 1952-59).

Among the skits regularly featured on "The Jackie Gleason Show" was an ongoing routine focusing on bus driver Ralph Kramden, his wife Alice (initially played by Pert Kelton, later by Audrey Meadows) and their neighbors Ed and Trixie Norton (Carney and Joyce Randolph). "The Honeymooners" segments typically consisted of comical marital discord and get-rich schemes, but always ended with Ralph assuring Alice that he loved her. In 1955, Gleason tired of the hour-long format and spent one season concentrating on "The Honeymooners" (CBS, 1955-56) exclusively as a sitcom. While only 39 episodes were produced before the network persuaded Gleason to return to the hour-long variety format, the show lived on for decades in syndication, becoming one of the all-time classics of early television. Gleason's love of music also played a large role in his career at this time. Although he played no instrument himself, Gleason arranged and produced a series of popular jazz-influenced "mood music" albums throughout the decade. His first release, Music for Lovers Only, broke records after spending 153 weeks on Billboard's Top 200.

After ending his show in 1959, Gleason returned to Broadway where he triumphed as the star of the genteel musical "Take Me Along," based on Eugene O'Neill's play "Ah, Wilderness!" Leading a cast that also included Walter Pidgeon, Robert Morse and Eileen Herlie, he took home the Tony Award as Best Actor in a Musical in 1960. Gleason returned to his former home on the small screen as host of the infamously short-lived game show "You're in the Picture" (CBS, 1961). So terrible was the program - in which celebrity contestants put their heads through holes in life-sized paintings and tried to guess what famous tableau they were in - that it lasted only a single episode. The following week, a recalcitrant Gleason reappeared on a stripped down set and delivered a now historic 30-minute apology for what he described as "the biggest bomb in history." In order to complete his commitment to the network, he finished the season as the host of the hastily renamed "The Jackie Gleason Show," which had been retrofitted as a more traditional talk-variety program. Gleason would return to the variety format in the mid-'60s, once again reviving "The Honeymooners" with Carney returning as Norton, but this time with Sheila MacRae as Alice and Jane Kean as Trixie. With entertainment tastes changing at the end of the decade and his ratings in decline, Gleason left his long-running show and with the exception of the occasional reunion special, was finished with regular television.

Instead, Gleason, now based in Florida, concentrated on his film career. In the early 1960s, at the height of his popularity, he attempted to make the crossover to the big screen. He earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his spot-on performance as Minnesota Fats in "The Hustler" (1961) opposite Paul Newman. The following year, in what he considered his finest screen performance, Gleason portrayed a kind-hearted mute, the eponymous "Gigot" (1962), in a drama based on a story by Gleason and directed by Gene Kelly. Although "Gigot" was not embraced by critics, Gleason garnered far more respect for another dramatic role that same year, essaying a corrupt boxing manager in the Rod Serling-penned "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (1962). Other notable films of the decade included the family comedy "Papa's Delicate Condition" (1963) in which he debuted his famous catchphrase of "How sweet it is!" as well as a turn as a reluctant tourist in the Woody Allen-scripted "Don't Drink the Water" (1969).

Largely unknown to the younger generation, Gleason gained millions of new fans as Burt Reynolds' arch nemesis, the profanely hilarious Sheriff Buford T. Justice, in the mega-hit action-comedy "Smokey and the Bandit" (1977) and its two sequels. Enjoying his newfound screen popularity, Gleason later took on roles as a billionaire father who hires Richard Pryor as his son's playmate in "The Toy" (1982) and as an ersatz version of Paul Newman's original con man character in "The Sting II" (1983). On the small screen, Gleason fulfilled a long-held dream of working with Laurence Olivier in "Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson" (HBO, 1983), playing the latter, a man who had loved Olivier's character's deceased wife for decades. He and Carney reteamed one last time for "Izzy and Moe" (CBS, 1984), a based-on-fact tale about two retired vaudevillians who become prohibition agents in the 1920s. Diagnosed with diabetes and phlebitis, an ailing Gleason offered one more poignant turn as Tom Hanks' irascible father in his final film, "Nothing in Common" (1986). The comedic actor died of complications due to colon cancer at his Florida home at the age of 71 on June 24, 1987. At the base of Gleason's interment site was a plaque inscribed with another of his most famous catchphrases - "And away we go!"

By Bryce Coleman