18 fascinating facts about Jackie Gleason
The Great One had a round house, soundproofed hotel rooms, a fear of flying, and the most successful pop album of all time.
Top image: AP Photo/John Rooney
He was called The Great One, rightfully. John Herbert Gleason was born in Brooklyn, New York. "Jackie" had a rough adolescence, filled with abandonment, tragedy, street gangs and low-wage work. Once Gleason got his break, few believed the fast-living funnyman would make it last. Yet with his entertainment savvy, drive and charm, he would become one of the titans of 20th-century pop.
Let's salute the television pioneer and remember how sweet he still is.
1. His home address was the same as the Kramdens.
Gleason grew up at 328 Chauncey Street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. That was the same address of the Kramden home on The Honeymooners, though it was said in the series that they lived in Bensonhurst.
Image: Google Maps
2. He had 36¢ to his name at the age of 19 after his mother died.
Gleason's father abandoned the family, and his mother passed away just as he reached adulthood. His girlfriend's parents offered to take him in, but Gleason refused and found a roommate in the city and a gig in Reading, Pennsylvania that would pay him nearly 20 bucks.
3. His hotel suite was soundproofed because he partied so hard.
In the early 1940s, Gleason was working in the show New 1943 Hellzapoppin, and the after-party would run all night in his room. This cover story from The Sydney Sun-Herald in 1954 tells of how the hotel would insulate his room so as not to disturb the other guests.
4. He had a photographic memory.
Gleason was notorious for not wanting to rehearse. The rest of the cast would run through scenes without him. He once said he could look at a script once and know every line.
5. When you see him pat his stomach on The Honeymooners, it's because he forgot a line.
Well, perhaps it wasn't 100% photographic. The sitcom was filmed live, so there were no do-overs.
6. The original Alice Kramden was let go due to the communism scare.
The Honeymooners began as a segment on the DuMont network's Cavalcade of Stars, hosted by Gleason. In an early skit, Art Carney appeared as a cop, not Norton. Pert Kelton played the first, darker iteration of Alice. When The Honeymooners moved to CBS, Kelton was removed from the cast, as her name was blacklisted in the communist-hunting book Red Channels. Gleason covered for her by spreading misinformation that she left due to heart trouble.
7. The Honeymooners only placed 19th in the ratings in its single season.
Some classics take time to reach their immortality. Take box office dud It's a Wonderful Life, for example. In lone season of The Honeymooners, in 1955, the source of the "Classic 39" episodes, the show barely cracked the top 20, beaten by now-obscurities like December Bride and Private Secretary. But there is a reason it endured, and it is surprisingly technical.
8. Gleason's choice of camera helped build the Honeymooners' legacy.
A sizable chunk of early television, which consisted largely of live broadcasts, remains lost to time. Some of it, like much of the output of DuMont, was foolishly destroyed. Most TV was captured using Kinescope, a process of filming the picture of the video monitor. Gleason used a cutting edge camera called the Electronicam to capture The Honeymooners, which preserved a higher quality image and allowed the episodes to be rerun on broadcast television years later. It was those reruns that built the legacy.
9. The line "Pow! Right in the kisser!" was said only once in the original episodes.
It's fascinating to see how rarely his catchphrases were uttered. "Baby, you're the greatest!" was only said in nine of the original 39 episodes. "Right in the kisser" came once, near the end of the season. Gleason improvised every time he said "Bang! Zoom!". The line was never in any of the scripts.
10. He hosted a game show that lasted one episode — and he apologized for it on air.
They can't all be winners. On the evening of JFK's inauguration, Gleason hosted the first episode of his game show You're in the Picture. It was a rating flop. The following week, Gleason appeared on the screen in a bare studio and apologized for putting out such a dud. The show was immediately transformed into a talk show, The Jackie Gleason Show. Who else had the power to completely retool a show in a week and stay on the air?
11. His debut album still holds the record for most consecutive weeks in the Billboard top ten — a whopping 153.
Gleason was a massive music star. In a way, he was a forerunner of ambient pioneer Brian Eno, in that he wished to craft records of what he called "musical wallpaper." His easy listening instruments, especially Lonesome Echo, remain cult favorites. His first album, 1952's Music for Lovers Only, spent a mind-boggling three years near the top ten. To put that in perspective, Thriller only managed 78.
12. His character Buford T. Justice was based on Burt Reynolds' dad.
Gleason based the character on the elder Burton Reynolds, who was a Chief of Police in South Florida. Oh, and there was a real-life man named Buford T. Justice, too. He was a colleague of Chief Reynolds.
13. He borrowed $200 from a hardware store for a train ticket because he was afraid of flying.
Flying was his biggest phobia. Why? In one cross-country flight, the plane was forced down due to mechanical failures. Gleason found himself in the middle of Oklahoma, needing to get to New York, but unwilling to step in an aircraft after his harrowing ordeal. He walked into a hardware store and asked for $200 to cover train tickets to the Big Apple. This was early in his career, before he was well-known. The store owner needed proof of his fame, so Gleason and the owner went to see his latest picture in the theater. Gleason finally appeared onscreen an hour into the film, and the owner lent him the cash.
14. He believed in aliens.
Gleason studied the paranormal and UFOs. It is rumored that President Nixon shared secret information about UFOs with the Hollywood star.
15. He hired Swedish carpenters to build him a round house with a disco in the basement.
Perhaps it was his love of flying saucers that spurred his imagination. Gleason constructed a home in Peekskill, N.Y., bringing over an ace construction crew from Scandinavia to build the futuristic house in which everything was round. There was a projection theater and a disco in the basement.
Image: Modern Mechanix
16. He was once a pool hustler, long before he was in 'The Hustler.'
Gleason likely needed no training for his role as Minnesota Fats in The Hustler. In his youth, he was a denizen of pool halls and known to be a hustler.
Image: AP Photo
17. There is a statue of him in Midtown Manhattan.
The eight-foot Ralph Kramden greets travelers outside Midtown Manhattan's Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
18. His final movie was with Tom Hanks, and we can thank Garry Marshall for that.
Gleason, in poor health, was reluctant to do Nothing in Common, the 1986 dramatic comedy co-starring Tom Hanks. Director Garry Marshall coerced him into taking the role by reminding him that if he did not appear in this movie, the final item on his filmography would have been Smokey and the Bandit III. That was enough to get Gleason back in action one last time. You can't go out on Smokey and the Bandit III.