CBS' `Gleason': How sweet it isn't

TV Preview

October 12, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Network television does nothing quite as horribly as programs about its own past.

Whether it is a make-you-want-to-gag anniversary salute like the one NBC threw on-air for itself to mark 75 years in May, or a television biography like the one CBS is doing tomorrow night on Jackie Gleason, if networks aren't getting it all wrong because they don't even understand their own history, they are lying through their teeth because they do understand it all too well.

Gleason, starring recent Emmy winner Brad Garrett (Everybody Loves Raymond), is a combination of both. The producers seem to have no idea what made Jackie Gleason or The Jackie Gleason Show on CBS so popular. (By 1954, it was the second-highest-rated program on television behind I Love Lucy, and it stayed in the Top 25 until 1967.) As for the lies, when it comes to Gleason's dealings with William Paley, the founder of CBS, the rewriting of history in this made-for-TV movie is stunning.

Gleason is most remembered for his work in The Honeymooners as Ralph Kramden, the always-scheming and eternally frustrated New York City bus driver, living in a drab tenement with his wife, Alice, and barely a stick of furniture. Kramden is a landmark television creation if for no other reason than his clear identification as a working-class character. Quick, name one other working-class character besides Roseanne.

But The Honeymooners started out as only one of several recurring sketches in The Jackie Gleason Show, a big, bright, shining variety show that premiered on CBS in 1952 after two years on the struggling DuMont network. Think Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theatre but with a larger and more glamorous chorus line of women and less cross-dressing by the star.

To understand how Gleason came to be called "The Great One," you have to understand him and the variety show. How exciting it was to turn on this new electronic box in your living room and have all this energy, bright lights and exuberance come flooding into your home from a faraway kingdom called Broadway, where people dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns and sang and danced and told jokes.

At the center of it was this heavyset guy who could be living right down the street he looked so common. And there he was joking and dancing with all those beautiful women until even he couldn't take such joy anymore and he just had to yell his trademark call, "How sweet it is!"

There is almost none of that in Gleason. The restagings of The Jackie Gleason Show included here are small enough that they could have been filmed in the bathroom of my bungalow in Hamilton. And, because Garrett tries to mimic Gleason in voice and look rather than capture the spirit of the man, we get none of the manic energy or surprising physical grace that made Gleason such a delight to behold on The Jackie Gleason Show.

Then there's one of the film's biggest scenes, with Paley brilliantly seeing Gleason's potential and offering him $5.5 million a year in 1952 to leave DuMont and come to CBS. Not only wasn't Paley the person who recruited Gleason, he didn't even know who the entertainer was after Gleason had joined CBS. Frank Stanton, the No. 2 man at CBS in those days, signed Gleason when Paley was out of town. And Paley berated Stanton for being so "stupid" as to sign such an unknown for so much money, according to Sally Bedell Smith in her biography of Paley, In All His Glory.

That's the real William Paley, and you won't find him in Gleason. But I guess that's as it should be, since you won't find anything resembling the real Jackie Gleason either in this dark, boring, ignorant little film.

Gleason

When: Tomorrow night at 9

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

In brief: One of television's bigger stars given small thought and superficial treatment in a made-for-TV movie.

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