To Neil Simon, who worked for the Great One in the 1950s, he was an inspiration, the motivating force behind Simon’s determination to make it as a playwright: ”I did not want to get to be a middle-aged man waiting for the phone to ring so I could go to work writing gags for some abusive, unappreciative s— like Jackie Gleason.” To Arthur Penn, who directed Gleason in a doomed tour of Sly Fox in the 1970s, he was ”this fat old man in his bathrobe watching for extraterrestrials.” To millions of fans, he was a merry, flamboyant presence. But to most of his colleagues, Gleason was angry and morose, overbearing and unreasonable, a nasty drunk and, according to a new biography, ”one of the laziest men alive.”
No doubt about it. William A. Henry III, a Pulitzer Prize-winning TV reviewer and a culture critic for Time, has in The Great One: The Life and Legend of Jackie Gleason brought together an impressive, dispiriting collection of anecdotes and accusations to prove How Sweet It Wasn’t — how Gleason, despite all his good fortune, managed to make himself (and many of those around him) good and miserable. Not surprisingly, Henry finds a wretchedly unhappy childhood at the root of things. Growing up in a Brooklyn tenement, Gleason was 3 when his older brother died, 9 when his father deserted him and his penniless, neurotic mother. His escape route? The seedy nightclubs of mid-1930s Brooklyn, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, where teenager Jackie bombed in stand-up (with jokes stolen from Milton Berle) but scored as a table-hopping comic, eventually attracting the attention that led to small movie parts, flashier roles in slapstick Broadway musicals, and — at 34 — his own TV variety show.
Gleason’s rough beginnings left him with a core of rage, despair, and insecurity. He self-destructed with booze and gluttony, compulsively spent his huge income on gross displays of extravagance, and frittered away much of his talent by looking for the easiest way to make big bucks — from the tired formulas of his 1960s TV shows to Smokey and the Bandit III. He also developed a ”casual relationship with the literal truth,” as Henry says, refusing to give proper credit to his early writers (who invented many of Gleason’s signature characters) and wildly exaggerating his role in the actual creation of all those mood-music albums attributed to him.
Still, though Henry unrolls all the horror stories with unmistakable relish, The Great One is no mere hatchet job. There are a few testimonials — from loyalist Audrey Meadows, dancer Mercedes Ellington (whom Gleason hired and protected when blacks were a rare prime-time sight), and even Art Carney, whose efforts to shine on his own were sabotaged by Gleason. More important, there’s the work itself. Henry salutes the bona fide comic genius on view in those ”genuinely timeless” sketches featuring Reginald Van Gleason III and the Poor Soul, and in The Honeymooners — a critical and commercial disappointment when it first aired, now a landmark. Less predictably, Henry has just as much admiration for Gleason’s fierce, subtle, intuitive dramatic acting, from TV’s Golden Age to the big screen (The Hustler, Nothing in Common) to his duo with Laurence Olivier in Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson.
Henry offers less history-of-television perspective here than you might expect from a former TV critic. And, since none of Gleason’s three wives or two daughters apparently agreed to be interviewed, the discussion of his private life remains largely speculative. But on all other counts, this is a smoothly assembled, juicily satisfying show-biz biography — annihilating the legend, honoring the monumental talent. B+