Memories of The Great One

There could have only been one Jackie Gleason – and no matter how old you are, you know this great performer whether you were alive during his time or not. Even young people today, who never witnessed “The Honeymooners” or “The Jackie Gleason Show” back in the day know who this man was.

Boomers remember and love “The Great One” for the entertainment he provided at the dawn of television. Gleason also exhibited his greatness on the big screen in a wide variety of diverse roles. Gleason’s very soul and creativity came right out of his Brooklyn, New York roots. He was a street wise city kid who learned the ropes early. He grew up without a father under the love and tutorage of his mother. He understood hard times and learned via raw tenacity how to forge his way to the top.

Gleason understood working class New York and modeled his many characters after the people he grew up with on the streets of Brooklyn. Gleason was Ralph Kramden and Ralph Kramden was Jackie Gleason. Gleason dropped “The Honeymooners” after just 39 episodes because he knew it was time for him to move on.

Most memorable was “The Jackie Gleason Show” developed from The Honeymooners from the late 1950s well into the 1970s. Gleason was Mr. Saturday Night for decades. The show endured well beyond its time as a variety show because we just couldn’t get enough of The Great One. The Gleason show originated from New York’s Park Sheraton Hotel before moving south to Miami Beach in 1964.

Johnny Olson opened the show every Saturday night on CBS with, “Live from Miami Beach, it’s The Jackie Gleason Show!” and boy didn’t we know it. Gleason didn’t do anything low octane. His monologues have kept us laughing as did his many characters for decades. My personal favorite was Joe the Bartender. He did Joe so well we’d forget he was Jackie Gleason. Frank Fontaine would wander in and strike up a conversation after Joe stuck his finger in the middle of his beer foam.

We laughed hysterically at Reginold Van Gleason III and his antics in the world of fantasy with a smattering of reality. The Poor Soul was vintage Gleason. We felt such great empathy for this Gleason character. Sometimes, we wept. On the big screen, Gleason moved us with a wide variety of characters. Minnesota Fats up against blue-eyed Paul Newman in “The Hustler.” Requiem For a Heavyweight” was another memorable Gleason flick.

Who could forget Gleason’s “Gigot” film where he played a Parisian custodian and laborer, a mute, a simple man with a big heart who was the butt of jokes by society who didn’t understand him. Gigot was a sweet tender man embraced by a prostitute and her daughter. He took them in, gave them shelter, and they became something of a family though perhaps short-lived.

Gleason is probably remembered best for his “Smokey and the Bandit” role as Buford T. Justice, a hysterical character in hot pursuit of Burt Reynolds and Sally Field in a hot Trans Am. Though certainly not Gleason’s greatest role, he made us laugh.

Gleason had a secondary career in his “Music for Lovers” franchise in the 1950s and 1960s. Many a life was conceived to his soft mood music on the turntable. “Music For Lovers Only” remained on the Billboard Top Ten Charts for 153 weeks, with his first 10 LPs selling over a million copies each. He was not a musician, nor did he even know how to read music. He knew how to convey a mood and he understood how to unite lovers with his work. I can still see his Capitol Records labels on my father’s Hi-Fi while my mother prepared dinner.

Gleason’s final wrap-up was the obscure 1986 Garry Marshall film “Nothing in Common” with Ton Hanks, Bess Armstrong, Eva Marie Saint, Hector Elizondo, and Barry Corbin. “Nothing In Common” was a great tribute to Gleason and his work. With the debut of “Nothing in Common” we said goodbye and “so long” to The Great One, who was very sick with stomach and colon cancer who, despite how sick he was, never failed to deliver a great performance.

One thought on “Memories of The Great One”

  1. Watched a random UFO conspiracy show on some streaming channel where Gleason knew somebody who knew somebody and got in to see the aliens from Roswell or someplace and it shook him to his core. Or so they say.


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