The life of the late actor Jackie Gleason, a stage performer who blossomed as a working class hero on the early-TV sitcom, "The Honeymooners," gets a biopic Oct. 13 on CBS-TV.
Although he will forever be associated with the classic television show, "The Honeymooners," Jackie Gleason lit up the Broadway stage as well. The Brooklyn-born comedian-actor made his professional debut as an amatuer-night emcee in Brooklyn, and appeared in the Broadway's Hellzapoppin (1938), Keep Off the Grass (1940), Artists and Models (1943), Follow the Girls (1944) and Along Fifth Avenue (1949), but it was for his performance in Take Me Along (1959), as drunken Uncle Sid, for which the actor received a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical.
In his biography of Gleason, "The Great One: The Life and Legend of Jackie Gleason" (Doubleday), William A. Henry III spoke with several people associated with Take Me Along, which was based on Eugene O'Neill's play Ah, Wilderness!. Publicist Harvey Sabinson had this to say about Gleason's "overpowering presence": "The only other times I ever felt that way were with Lucille Ball in Wildcat and Lena Horne in Jamaica. I admit, when push came to shove, it was still Jackie Gleason onstage. He wasn't playing the Poor Soul or Ralph Kramden, but there was still this added layer that he was playing it through the filter of Jackie Gleason — it was 'Jackie Gleason as Uncle Sid.' He would even break character to wink and nod to the audience. Yet he was still very much in keeping with the character. And he had enormous technical gifts, even if underdeveloped. He wasn't a trained dancer, but he danced beautifully. He wasn't a trained singer but he sang beautifully."
Charles Blackwell, who was a stage manager for Take Me Along, put it this way: "He performed the role in a big way but his emotional immediacy was equally enormous. He did not sentimentalize to get the audience's sympathy. There was a drunk scene, his most important emotionally, that he played beautifully — except on the nights when he had had a little too much to drink offstage. Then, ironically, he wasn't as sharp or as touching. I admired the fact that he didn't cheat. The scene had to leave you feeling sorry for him, but also a little disappointed and even angry with him for the way he had destroyed his own life and that of the woman he loved. He didn't wink at the audience to make them like him, to say, 'I'm really not such a bad fellow.' He did it right, and with bravery."
All wasn't as rosy, however, backstage. Gleason had a legendary feud with the show's producer, David Merrick, and his relationship with co-star Robert Morse was equally chilly. William A. Henry III writes, "During the actual run, Gleason felt Morse was beginning to impinge, getting too fidgety and antic while Gleason was supposed to be the center of attention. So in the pivotal scene between them, Gleason kept blowing smoke from a lit cigar directly into Morse's face. The younger actor choked, his eyes teared up and he had vocal trouble the rest of the night. As they met offstage minutes later, Gleason stared at Morse and snarled, 'Don't ever f*** with The Great One.'" Brad Garrett, the Emmy-winning co-star of "Everybody Loves Raymond," will star as The Great One in the TV film, and he will be joined by Terry Farrell (Marilyn Gleason), Kristen Dalton (Audrey Meadows/Alice), Michael Chieffo (Art Carney/Ed) and Johanna Nutter (Joyce Randolph, Trixie). Jake Brockman plays Gleason as a young boy whose father (Jack Langedijk) was a drunkard that abused his mother (Paula Jean Hixson).
The film chronicles the creation of the perennial favorite – and legendary TV hit — "The Honeymooners" and explores the backstage drama that paralleled Gleason's real life. Written by Rick Podell and Michael Preminger and directed by Howard Deutch, "Gleason" airs at 9 PM ET on CBS. Check local listings.
Brad Garrett, who stands 6-feet-8-1/2 inches tall, was the first $100,000 grand champion winner in the comedy category of the original "Star Search" series. That win led to his first appearance on "The Tonight Show" as well as opening spots for such concert legends as Liza Minnelli and Diana Ross. A host of TV and film roles followed — including "Suicide Kings" and "Sweet and Lowdown" — but it is his role as Robert Charles Barone on the award winning "Everybody Loves Raymond" that has brought the actor/comedian the most acclaim. Garrett was scheduled to join the Broadway company of Chicago earlier this year, but he canceled those plans in order to film "Gleason."
—By Andrew Gans