Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Jackie Gleason's Enduring Appeal

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Jackie Gleason's Enduring Appeal

Article excerpt

MORE than 40 years after he hit TV and five years after his death, people still talk about Jackie Gleason with the same urgency they do about Bill Cosby or David Letterman - as if Gleason had appeared on prime time for the first time last night. His best-known vehicle, the domestic sketch called "The Honeymooners," still airs on stations all over country and has long since become a cult, with fan clubs and published anthologies of the scripts. And now a probing and carefully considered book about the man himself has been published, "The Great One: The Life and Legend of Jackie Gleason," by William A. Henry III, a distinguised "culture critic" (don't ask me what that is) of Time magazine.

The biography is the epic of a prodigious talent who grew up in poverty and survived a tragic family life. As an adult he was a Hogarthian figure of unrestrained appetities and self-destructive excesses. But even before "The Honeymooners" he was a comic master whose broad style came to the tube just when it most needed him.

I recall his style on live TV as a frontal assault, as if he were fighting with this cool new medium. In his monologues Gleason always gave me the feeling he was grabbing you by the lapel and demanding a hearing. It was usually worth the time, but he struck me as missing the kind of gifts seen in other comic greats of the period: the innate genius of Danny Kaye, the razor-sharp delivery of Milton Berle, the manic creativity of Sid Caesar, the radical insights of Ernie Kovacs.

But when Gleason became Ralph Cramden, it was something else. The "Honeymooners" format first appeared in 1950 as a sketch on the "Cavalcade of Stars," a variety show starring Gleason as a bus driver raging at life. In Ralph, Gleason's brilliant braggadocio and volcanic personality found the meaning it always seemed to be searching for in other acts. His raucous talent was no longer just spouting jokes or creating spoofs, like the rich man Reggie Van Gleason. It was now in the service of a deeply realized allegorical character: the decent but anxiously macho American blue-collar male, made a little larger and louder than life by this fiercely bombastic comic whose tone of voice told a tale of frustration and denial. …

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