Biography reveals Jackie Gleason's many flaws

July 19, 1992|By Christina Stoehr

JTC THE GREAT ONE: THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF JACKIE GLEASON.

William Henry III.

Doubleday.

321 pages. $22.50. When Jackie Gleason died on June 24, 1987, the TV networks scrambled to put together late-night video obituaries of his work and life. They came up with a lot of TV and movie clips but few people to speak fondly of him.

"The Great One: The Life and Legend of Jackie Gleason" reveals why. Gleason had to be one of the most reviled stars ever -- and with good reason, according to biographer William Henry III.

Gleason was a mean-spirited drunk; a petty, insecure man who typically spent a half-hour on Christmas Day with his wife and daughters before going off to party with drinking companions; a drinker who thought it was hilarious to throw up on people; a man who once paid a woman to copulate with a snake; and someone who routinely short-changed, emotionally and financially, the people who were closest to him.

While Gleason's public image was that of a comic genius who liked the good life and indulged in it, in Mr. Henry's telling Gleason never gave credit and in fact showed disdain to the real creators of much of his work -- including his signature character, Ralph Kramden of "The Honeymooners."

Neil Simon, who wrote for one of the almost infinite number of Gleason's variety shows in the '50s, said he left TV for play-writing because "I did not want to become a middle-aged man waiting for the phone to ring so I could go to work writing gags for some abusive, unappreciative s--- like Jackie Gleason. It was my personal vision of hell."

Gleason's second career as a composer and conductor of almost 40 albums of mood music was "the Great One's great lie," Mr. Henry writes. Not only couldn't he compose or conduct or arrange, but Gleason paid Bobby Hackett, the trumpet player who did most of the composing, conducting and arranging, only union scale. Gleason, meanwhile, made millions.

No one who has seen "The Hustler" or "The Honeymooners" or "Requiem for a Heavyweight " could say this was a performer without talent, timing and courage. His range from sketch comedy in TV in the early '50s to the menace of Minnesota Fats in "The Hustler" to the pathetic father in "Nothing in Common" in the '80s is startling. But when Jackie Gleason was brilliant, it was, in part, because he had brilliant people around him writing, producing and directing.

The trouble with Gleason, Mr. Henry suggests, is that he almost always wanted to be in charge of the whole show. And have the whole budget at his command. And supervise everyone. On the other hand, he hated to rehearse, usually did not read the script until the day of the show and would give it to his co-stars only hours before air time, drank before and sometimes during stage performances, and sometimes showed up at the theater drunk.

The surprise with Jackie Gleason isn't that he didn't make more wonderful movies or TV shows but that anybody of any merit put up with him at all.

After he spent more than 40 years in show business, the only "star" to attend his funeral was Audrey Meadows, who played Alice Kramden.

Gleason's salary and perquisite demands were, of course, legendary.

He had to have the longest limousine in the world. He bragged that he sent one back to the plant to be disassembled and two more inches put on to make the claim authentic.

He demanded CBS move him and his show to Miami Beach, building him his own broadcast facilities because he could golf year-round.

But Gleason could spend it, too: He once had three limousines waiting to pick him up outside a recording studio so he'd have a car at whatever exit he decided to use.

As terrific as these tidbits are to read, they make for a fact-filled but brittle biography. There are major and minor flaws with this book.

Minor, but a constant irritant, is Mr. Henry's overwriting. The theater critic for Time, he can write superbly, as in the book's prologue, but he also can turn out clunkers such as: "Like a schmaltzy diminuendo ending to one of the Dixieland pieces he loved so well, this cheerful wave for this seemingly ordinary trip was little sound and no fury, yet signifying everything." Say what?

Readers will also find the book filled with what could most politely be called quaint expressions of yesteryear, like "blonde beauty" and showgirls of "easy virtue" whom the married Gleason seduced.

Mr. Henry also practices a kind of dime-store psychology on Gleason and the actor's long-dead parents, reading their minds on occasion and explaining everything from why Gleason smoked too much, drank too much, ate too much, spent too much and destroyed almost every personal and professional relationship he had as caused by his father's leaving the family and his mother's overprotectiveness.

What cripples the work ultimately is that while Mr. Henry seems to have interviewed almost everyone who worked with Gleason, he struck out with Gleason's family: his first wife and two daughters and his third and last wife, Marilyn, with whom he had had a three-decades-plus romance. Any feeling of intimacy with Gleason is absent. Mr. Henry dishes plenty of dirt, but the feeling of the book is that it's a long-shot biography; the subject is being viewed through a telephoto lens.

The Great One is here in his great mistakes and flaws. But the private man is very much missing.

Ms. Stoehr, a former TV critic for the Detroit Free Press, is a writer living in Baltimore.

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