Saturday, May 9, 2020

And Away He Go!

John Herbert Gleason was born to Irish immigrants in Brooklyn on February 26, 1916.  To say that he had a rough childhood would be an understatement.  He was only three years old when his older brother died of meningitis.  A few years later, Gleason’s father abandoned the family, and young Jackie turned to pool hustling as a way to support his mother.  She in turn died a few years later of sepsis, and by 19, Gleason was on his own.

During his high school years, Gleason took an interest in acting after appearing in a school play.  He dropped out right before graduation and took a job as master of ceremonies at a local theatre.  At the same time, he formed his first professional act with a close friend, and the two performed regularly at Brooklyn’s Halsey Theatre.  

By his early 20s, Gleason had a stand-up routine and performed regularly at Club 18, a New York comedy cabana where patrons often served as comedic fodder.  During one such appearance, he was noticed by studio head Jack Warner, who later signed Gleason to his first film contract.  

Gleason's first films included Navy Blues with Martha Raye and All Through the Night with Humphrey Bogart.  Click on those titles to see their respective theatrical trailers.  The films didn't advance his career much, and it wasn't until he appeared on Broadway in 1944 that his career really started to take off.  

By 1950, Gleason had appeared on a number of TV series.  That year, he was asked to host the variety series Cavalcade of StarsHere's an episode in its entirety, brought to you by the Druggists of America.  If nothing else, at least listen to the jingle.

He proved so popular that the series was later renamed The Jackie Gleason Show.  It was during this run that he developed many of the sketch characters he would use throughout his career, including his most famous, fellow Brooklynite Ralph Kramden.  The Honeymooners first appeared as a sketch on the show, but by 1955, Gleason had enough confidence in it to turn it into a series.  Although it only lasted for one season, those "Classic 39" episodes have been rerun ever since.  

Gleason with future profilee
Audrey Meadows.
Gleason appeared in a number of films in the 1960s, with varying degrees of success.  He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1961's The Hustler, starring Paul Newman.  Conversely, he wrote, produced and starred in 1962's Gigot, which proved to be a cinematic flop.  Due to its poor reception, Gleason would later be denied the role of Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, a part for which Gene Hackman would win an Academy Award.  Curious?  You can watch Gigot in its entirety here.

Gleason would finally reclaim cinematic success in 1977, when he accepted the role of Sheriff Buford T. Justice in Smokey and the Bandit.  Director Hal Needham gave Gleason free reign to ad lib, which Gleason took full advantage of.  He also improvised a number scenes throughout the film, most notably where his character unknowingly runs into the Bandit at a “choke and puke.”  You can watch that scene here.

Smokey and the Bandit was an unexpected hit at the box office that year, second only to Star Wars.  That pretty much mandated a sequel, which was released in 1980.  The entire cast returned for Smokey and the Bandit Part 2, but it was clear that the series was already running on fumes.

Despite that, 1983 saw the release of Smokey and the Bandit Part 3, a film that is mired in controversy.  Although Gleason agreed to revive his role in the film, series regulars Burt Reynolds, Sally Field and Jerry Reed all refused to appear.  What happened next is the subject of great debate.

As originally shot, Gleason played both title roles, Smokey AND the Bandit.  The film's original trailer even advertised the title as Smokey IS The Bandit Part 3.  You can watch that trailer here, although YouTube has a tendency to remove it.

Gleason as the Bandit?
The story goes, and take this with a grain of salt, that test audiences were utterly confused by Gleason’s dual performance, so at the 11th hour, Jerry Reed was coaxed into re-shooting all of the Bandit’s scenes.  Indeed, that’s how the film was finally released.  Other than the trailer, it’s difficult to find any evidence of the film’s original intent, and no footage of Gleason as the Bandit has ever surfaced, although this photo has.  If it exists, the original footage is probably entombed with Gleason.

A few years later, Gleason appeared in his final film, Nothing in Common, co-starring Tom Hanks.  During production, he was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer, which ultimately took his life on June 24, 1987.  He was 71 years old.

Gleason was laid to rest at Miami’s Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Cemetery.  His final resting place could be mistaken for a Greek temple.  It’s one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen and it’s quite easy to find.  It rests atop a lonely hill overlooking the cemetery.

Rest in peace to the Great One.

  • Gleason grew up at 328 Chauncey Street in Brooklyn, the same address he later gave the Kramdens.

  • Gleason was drafted in 1943, but was classified as 4-F upon reporting to induction.  Doctors discovered a plethora of disqualifiers, including an incorrectly healed left arm and a cyst on his coccyx.  He was also more than 100 pounds overweight.

  • Gleason  had a photographic memory, which he often used as a way to get out of rehearsals.

  • Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Gleason had a secondary career as a musician and released several albums.  His first one, entitled "Music for Lovers Only," holds the record for the longest stay on the Billboard Top Ten Chart at 153 weeks.  Seriously.  Not even Elvis or the Beatles beat it.  Pick up a copy here.

  • Gleason was well known for his interest in the paranormal and UFOs.  He even owned a home in upstate New York that was shaped as a flying saucer.  Author Larry Halcombe reports that this interest led President Richard Nixon to publicly disclose some government information on UFOs.

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