Movies: The Big Hustler Jackie Gleason

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Time of Decision. But the year off seems to have been a time of decision for Gleason. Late in 1958, he took on a role as a serious actor — in a television produc tion of Saroyan's The Time of Your Life. To nearly everybody's astonishment, he was enormously impressive. Then Producer David Merrick asked him to play the blissfully besotted Uncle Sid in Take Me Along-the musical version of Eugene O'Neill's Ah! Wilderness. His collision with Merrick, whose ego matches his. was Homeric. "What's the highest straight salary ever paid to a Broad way actor?" asked Gleason. Merrick said he thought it was $5,000 a week. Gleason demanded and got $5,050. He also insisted on an extra dressing room and a chauffeur-driven car. Once rehearsals be gan. Merrick grumbles, "he'd say if he couldn't have his way on this or that, 'I'll get sick.' " Temperamentally unsuited to the night-in-night-out routine of Broadway. Gleason was bored with the show when it was still in Boston, but— bursting onstage saying "Get a load of all the bottle babies," and dancing as lightly as a weather balloon in the stratosphere—he won unreserved praise from such alto-brows as New Yorker Critic Kenneth Tynan and Sir Laurence Olivier. He also won the Antoinette Perry award as the season's outstanding actor in a musical.

Divided Family. In Paris last spring for the filming of Gigot (in which he plays a deaf-mute). Gleason was asked by an A.P. reporter what he thought of French girls. He refused to comment, saying: "I just happen to be a one-girl guy." The one girl at the moment is Honey Merrill, a bright, pretty, former showgirl who helps in Gleason's office and has loved him devotedly for five years. Before that. Gleason's steady companion was Marilyn Taylor, dancer and younger sister of his choreographer on The Jackie Gleason Show. She eventually left him because it was clear that Jackie would never be free to marry her.

In 1936 Gleason had married Genevieve Halford, a dancer. Over the years. Gleason was home-again-gone-again. They got a legal separation in 1954. He takes all the blame. His two daughters are now adults (one is married and the other is finishing college at Washington's Catholic University), and there is no chance that their parents will reunite. Nor is there any chance of a divorce. Although Jackie does not practice Roman Catholicism, as his friend Jack Haley says, "he believes in it."

Question of Faith. He not only believes in it, he thinks about it to a degree that would amaze all the people whose impression of Gleason goes no deeper than what they read in the work of Broadway columnists. "Whenever I hear someone say that religion is their own personal affair, I'm irritated," he says. ''Religion can't be called personal. The health of your religion determines the compassion, sympathy, forgiveness, and tolerance you give to your fellow man. I have studied different religions to see if there was one more attractive for me. I only discovered I was seeking a religion that was more compatible to my way of living. I remained a Catholic. It wasn't comfortable, but what religion is to a sinner? While I might not carry out my obligations in any manner to be commended, at least I know where I stand."

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