Ralph Kramden [played by Jackie Gleason]: “Well, let me tell you something, I had some chances, too, you know, before I married you!”
Alice Kramden [played by Audrey Meadows]: “Ha ha!”
Ralph: “Don't laugh, Alice, there were plenty of girls crazy about me and you know it. Every time I went down to the beach, they used to crowd around me.”
Alice: “Sure. Sure, they crowded around you. That didn't mean they were crazy about you. They just wanted to sit in the shade!”— The Honeymooners, “Hello Mom,” Season 1, Episode 10, original air date Dec. 3, 1955, teleplay by Marvin Marx and Walter Stone, directed by Frank Satenstein
Jackie Gleason, “The Great One,” was born 100 years ago today in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The set of The Honeymooners was, in fact, based on his childhood home in the borough’s Chauncey Street.
He had the proverbial Dickensian childhood: an older brother died when Jackie was three. Six years later, his Irish-American father, an insurance auditor, left the family for good. His Irish-born mother died when he was about 19, leaving him penniless. Performing arts became his path out of misery, as he took jobs, in turn, as a stunt driver, a carnival barker, as well as working in a pool hall and in touring shows. Sheer talent helped him triumph, even over his own excesses—the taste for food (ridiculed in the above quote), women and booze.
He got his first real break in a Broadway musical, Follow the Girls (1944). It might have been appropriate, then, that he won a Tony as the ne’er-do-well, alcoholic brother-in-law in another musical, Take Me Along (1960).
At a time when much of the rest of television was turning its attention to suburban dads, Gleason found comic gold in a more gritty urban setting. Bus driver Ralph Kramden's arguments with wife Alice (which, for all his blustering about sending her “to the moon,” always ended with him shown up as stupid) often revolved around the kind of things that people who are financially hard-pressed would, such as money. Millions of TV viewers nodded even as they smiled and laughed.
Outside of The Honeymooners, Gleason demonstrated his skill as an actor in The Hustler (1961), in an Oscar-nominated role, and a particular favorite of mine, his last movie, the comedy-drama Nothing in Common, in which he played Tom Hanks’ cantankerous father.