Thursday, March 4, 2021

Paul Gleason: A Man of Principals


"I went into acting because I had nothing more sensible to do.  However, once I began acting classes with Lee Strasberg at the Actor's Studio in New York, I found it stimulating and rewarding."
  -- Paul Gleason

Paul Xavier Gleason was born in Jersey City, New Jersey on May 4, 1939.  His father boasted a variety of occupations, including boxer, restaurateur and roofing manufacturer.  His mother was a nurse.  When Paul was very young, the family relocated to Miami Beach.  As a teenager, he'd often work at his father's construction sites, but more on this later.

Although you remember him as an actor, Paul had his sights set on professional baseball.  To that end, he left home at 16 and hitchhiked across the east coast.  After a few years, he was signed to the Cleveland Indians, but never played professionally, instead playing in the minors during the 1959 and 1960 seasons.

During his second season, Gleason traveled with his team to the west coast, where he had a chance encounter with Ozzie Nelson, star of the hit sit-com Ozzie and Harriett.  Nelson was known was for hiring athletes for guest appearances on the series and Gleason was no exception.  It would have a lifelong impact on Gleason.  With his career in a slump, he decided to turn in his glove and take up acting professionally.  He moved to New York City and joined The Actors Studio, where he studied for four years.

After completing his studies, Gleason put in guest appearances on many popular series of the 1960s, including Petticoat JunctionThe Invaders and The Green Hornet.  His first major role was on the daytime soap opera All My Children, on which he portrayed Dr. David Thornton from 1976 to 1978. 

The big screen was calling, and Gleason's first big theatrical role was in the 1983 comedy Trading Places.  Here's a clip from the film (coarse language advisory).

Two years later, Gleason appeared in what is widely regarded as his signature role, that of Principal Richard Vernon in the John Hughes' classic The Breakfast Club.  Here's an on-set interview.  The role proved so iconic for Gleason that he was invited to reprise it in the 2001 spoof Not Another Teen Movie.  Click on each title to see both versions.  Viewer discretion is advised.

Gleason had a knack for playing blowhards, and as such was perfectly cast as Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson in Die Hard (1988).  

Gleason returned to television in the 1990s, appearing on such series as Boy Meets WorldNash Bridges and Diagnosis: Murder.  He also appeared in a number of direct-to-video movies in the Van Wilder comedy series.

In May 2006, Gleason was diagnosed with a form of lung cancer known as pleural mesothelioma, the same thing you see lawyers talking about during daytime television.  It is a condition common to construction workers exposed to asbestos, as Gleason frequently was during his teenage years.  Fifty years after his exposure to it, Paul Gleason died on May 27, 2006.  He was 67 years old.

He was buried at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village in Los Angeles.

Rest in peace, Paul.

  • While attending Florida State University, Gleason played on the football team alongside fellow students Burt Reynolds and Robert Urich.

  • Was Gleason a good baseball player?  Check out his stats here.

  • Gleason was good friends with weirdo author Jack Kerouac, who inspired his friend to become an actor.

  • Like most actors, Gleason had a demo reel, highlighting key roles from his career.  You can watch it on YouTube.

  • Gleason appeared in the 1985 made-for-TV movie Ewoks: The Battle for Endor

    Gleason as Star Wars villain Jeremitt Towani.
  • Gleason was an avid golfer who participated in many charity tournaments, where he was known to be cordial and friendly with his fans.

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