The world is a more boring and less fun place since the passing of Jackie Gleason in 1987. “The Great One,” as he was known (the tag might have been created by Gleason himself, but he more than lived up to it), started with nothing (36 cents to his name, when he attempted to get his start in show business), took a $19 a week comedy job at a podunk club in Pennsylvania for which his agent had to loan him busfare, worked his way up through club and vaudeville dates, had some supporting roles in movies, and got his big break when he did the LIFE OF RILEY tv series, when the radio show’s star William Bendix was unable to do it due to film commitments. Gleason then got his own variety show, and one of the skits on the show was THE HONEYMOONERS, which he then spun off as a separate series. Beyond his TV program, Gleason was an acclaimed dramatic actor (THE HUSTLER, GIGOT), music entrepreneur (his “mood music” albums sold millions, and we’ve reviewed a number of them here at BTC), and producer. In that latter role, it was Gleason who approved the choice of Elvis Presley to perform on the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show (which he produced as a summer replacement for his own show), which was Elvis’ first national TV exposure and pretty much made him a star. Thank Jackie Gleason for that.
Gleason’s larger-than-life persona always surrounded whatever he was doing at a particular moment. He composed his own theme music, used to introduce his weekly show, and he came up with brilliant catch-phrases he could use to bring down the house. “And awaaaayyyyyy we go….” and the classic “how sweeeeeet it is” were immediately recognizable to millions. He also moved his show and his entire operation to Florida in the early 1960’s so he could golf year round, and he brought Miami Beach into millions of homes each week. His 60s TV show began with a shot from the perspective of a speedboat off the beautiful Florida Coast. And when Gleason came out every week on his variety show, he would take a sip from a coffee cup and make a face to indicate that it was spiked with some kind of alcohol. Like Dean Martin, drinking was a big part of Gleason’s persona. Gleason’s persona enjoyed THE GOOD LIFE. I could easily imagine him inhaling a plate of linguine with white clam sauce then enjoying two rare steaks and washing it all down with a quart of bourbon.
Although he never had the opportunity to go to college, Gleason was widely read and a brilliant man—creating a character as universal as Ralph Kramden on the Honeymooners showed great insight. And let’s not forget that he engaged Salvador Dali to do the cover art for one of his Capitol albums. Gleason’s albums—which created sales records that have never been beaten even today—were pioneering in their day and set the standard for “lounge” music. Having jazzman Bobby Hackett play on the trumpet/cornet dreamy melodies, slightly echoed, over a pillow of mellow, swirling sound was a genius move.
Gleason was also an admirer of silent comedy, and truly “got” the pathos of silent comedians. He created many characters which he would play in blackout sketches on his variety shows: Reginald Van Gleason III, The Poor Soul, Charlie Bratton, Rum Dum, Joe the Bartender, etc. His role in the film drama GIGOT (which he wrote and produced, and did the music for, as well as starring in it—it was directed by Gene Kelly—he’d originally wanted Orson Welles, but the studio balked at that), where his character was mute, had its roots in silent comedy.
Gleason’s standing back in the day is also clear from the fact that THE FLINTSTONES is pretty much a cartoon re-write of THE HONEYMOONERS, with Fred in the Jackie Gleason role and Barney in the Art Carney role.
Gleason stopped doing his TV show in 1970 but was still seen on TV with the occasional Honeymooners reunion and the occasional film (he was the main star of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT PART 3 (the one WITHOUT Burt Reynolds), which was a huge hit in my home with my children when they were growing up--even today, the kids and I still quote lines from the film, such as having "enough gas to get to Pittsburgh" after eating a big meal). He even acted opposite Lawrence Olivier and more than held his own.
When I was a child and then teenager, people like Gleason and Dean Martin seemed so much more “cool” and “hip” than the phony counter-culture figures the media would throw at us. I remember once some magazine had a radio ad saying they had an exclusive interview with Mick Jagger—and I thought, “who the **** cares about what Jagger has to say on any subject other than his influences in blues music.” No, the people I aspired to be like were The Great One and Dino. I imagined Gleason at the racetrack, drink in hand, holding court and making sarcastic comments, lighting a cigar with a ten-dollar bill, and ENJOYING LIFE.
With Gleason being master of all media in the 1950’s, it was inevitable that he’d have his own comic book, and he actually had TWO different ones (now, if that’s not a sign of being a superstar, I don’t know what is!). The series JACKIE GLEASON AND THE HONEYMOONERS ran at DC for 12 issues, and the JACKIE GLEASON comic at the smaller St. John imprint ran for four issues in late 1955. We are reviewing here the final issue of the St. John comic.
The issue begins with a 13-page Honeymooners story, where the two families are visiting Paris, and some French swindlers sell Ralph and Ed Norton the Eiffel Tower. The jokes are very much like a real Kramden-Norton routine, and the characters are drawn in a way that captures their essence. However, this is not just a Honeymooners comic book. Gleason’s other characters are presented too. The Poor Soul, Reginald Van Gleason, and Charlie Bratton all get their own stories, which also capture those characters well. For those who could not get enough Gleason on his weekly show, this comic book is a 151 Proof serving of The Great One.
You can find this issue for free online at comicbookplus.com, and you can purchase an attractive re-print from Golden Age Reprints. Either way, it’s a great way to bring The Great One into YOUR life. You’ll wonder how you ever got by without him!