Movies: The Big Hustler Jackie Gleason

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In one sense, Gleason's sudden achievements should not be as surprising as they seem. For unlike such masters of the oneline gag as Bob Hope and Mort Sahl, he bases his humor on the creation of comic characters—most of them acted by himself. And as the late James Thurber liked to remark, such comedy may be amusing, but it is also serious commentary on human life. "Gleason has gorgeous creative juices," says Requiem's Producer David Susskind with purple accuracy. "He is a thundering talent—the kind of raw, brilliant talent that has gone out of style, with as much instinct in drama as in comedy."

On the Requiem set last week—in the locker-room area under the grandstands at Randalls Island stadium—Gleason was finding out that moviemaking on location can be spartan. Against freezing temperatures, heat came from charcoal briquettes in braziers. Cast and crew were breathing contrails. Gleason sat, like a huge frostbitten gourd, in a camp chair labeled THE GREAT ONE.

It was enough to make a penguin take to the bottle; but Gleason, dieting, munched his Ry-Krisp without benefit of sauce. Although he can, as Susskind says, "put away more Scotch per square hour than any man alive," he rarely drinks on the job. The Gleason legend has much to float on, but he proudly insists that he has never missed a show because of drinking. "I'm a heavy drinker when I drink," Gleason generalizes, "because I can put away a bundle of booze before the lights go out. I like it. Some people like to climb mountains. I'm glad I'm not one of them. I'm happy knowing the only thing in danger when I'm getting my kicks is my elbow. There is nothing to fear about drinking if you're honest with yourself as to why you drink. I have never taken a drink to improve my appetite, ward off a cold, or get a good night's sleep. I drink with the honorable intention of getting bagged."

Bagged he gets. He is the national open champion at something called The Challenge, a game of classic simplicity wherein the contestants see who can swallow the greatest quantity of booze before falling over, heels in the air. Dressed in red ties and baseball hats, Gleason and Actor Paul Douglas once got ready for a major league battle, but Gleason said. "Let's fungo a few first." The preliminary rounds were so numerous that the contest never started; both Gleason and Douglas were beaned by the fungoes.

Triple Wardrobe. As for his eating, most horses would be embarrassed. Gleason orders pizzas by the stack, has put down five stuffed lobsters at a sitting. He says he has pica, which Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary describes as "craving for unnatural food, as chalk, ashes. etc."; but what Gleason really has is merely an unnatural craving. Often—and with great will power—he diets, cutting down his intake to 1,200 calories a day. He once took off 100 Ibs.

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