Movies: The Big Hustler Jackie Gleason

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Art & Oxygen. Then in 1949 he began the TV parlay that soon made him television's No. 1 star. He started with Cavalcade of Starpon the old Dumont network, a variety show during the course of which he developed the Gleason characters that were to become as nationally familiar as the face on the $1 bill: Reggie Van Gleason, the patrician sot; Charlie Bratton, the loudmouth; the Poor Soul, who always got into trouble trying to do things for other people; Joe the Bartender, the 3¢ philosopher—all played by Gleason and all representing some aspect of Gleason himself.

But no skit on the show caught on like The Honeymooners, the ironically titled description of a Brooklyn couple who had been married for ten years and fighting for nine years and twelve months. It was broad, low-median but honest humor, perhaps the best situation comedy that has ever been on television. As Ralph Kramden. husband and bus driver. Gleason stared with massive malevolence at his mother-in-law and pounded the kitchen table, a big man with big gestures under a half-acre of black curls. He looked like a big basset hound who had just eaten W. C. Fields, his expression a melange of smugness, mischievousness, humility, humor, guilt, pride, warmth, confidence, perplexity, and orotund, bug-eyed naivete.

"Jackie Gleason is an artist of the first rank," wrote Novelist John O'Hara. "An artist puts his own personal stamp on all of his mature work, making his handling of his material uniquely his own. Millions of people who don't give a damn about art have been quick to recognize a creation. Ralph Kramden is a character that we might be getting from Mr. Dickens if he were writing for TV."

With Art Carney as Ed Norton, the sewer worker. Joyce Randolph as Norton's wife and Audrey Meadows as Alice Kramden, Gleason carried The Honeymooners out of Cavalcade and into the major leagues on CBS's The Jackie Gleason Show, always running nearly every aspect of the production himself, from set designing to bit-part bookings. He worked so hard that he sometimes had to be given oxygen on the set. In 1954 he broke his leg and ankle during a performance.

Money & Cologne. In 1955 he set The Honeymooners up on their own as a half-hour show. Buick signed him up with one of the largest contracts in the history of TV—$11 million for three seasons. At that moment, Gleason was the biggest thing in show business. But, as an accomplished catnapper, he fell asleep at the signing table and had to be awakened to scratch his signature on the contract.

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