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Jackie Gleason, 'Great One' of Many Talents, Dies at 71

June 25, 1987|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Jackie Gleason, the barrel-shaped "Great One" who won television fame and riches as a blustering bus driver in "The Honeymooners," and an Oscar nomination for his film portrayal of an aging pool shark in "The Hustler," died Wednesday at his home outside Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

He was 71, and his wife, Marilyn, said cancer was the immediate cause of death. Gleason had been released only last week from Imperial Point Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, where he had been undergoing treatment.

She said his daughters, Linda Gleason Miller and Geraldine Gleason Chutuk, and his son-in-law, Jack Chutuk, had flown in from California last week to spend Father's Day with him.

"He had family and close friends in for Sunday," Mrs. Gleason said. "He was feeling in good spirits Monday and Tuesday. He quietly, comfortably passed away."

But Gleason had been in poor health for several years, surviving a series of heart bypass operations and complicating recoveries with his ongoing penchant for alcohol, cigarettes and food. He was diagnosed as diabetic three years ago.

Yet when he died--at the suburban home he had furnished with a mammoth wet bar, pool table and other amenities--the career that had commanded salaries commensurate with his girth since the infancy of television was again on the ascent. This latest rise came through reruns of "The Honeymooners"--among the three most popular domestic comedy series in TV history, along with "I Love Lucy" and "All in the Family."

It was "And Aaawaaaay We Go" all over again for Gleason.

Astute Businessman

Ever the astute businessman, he continued to collect a share of both the original 39 "Honeymooner" episodes he once owned outright and the snippets of the ongoing feud between bus driver Ralph Kramden (Gleason) and his firm but patient wife, Alice (Audrey Meadows) that had been gleaned from Gleason's variety show.

For a man who disdained his bosses, either in film or television; who drank as much and whenever he pleased to the horror of his doctors and some of his wives, and who splattered his talents across a series of questionable artistic canvases, impaling him on many critical skewers, he had not done badly.

He had written, composed music for and starred in what some ardent admirers believed was one of the most underrated motion pictures of all time ("Gigot"); had portrayed a series of characters on television ranging from the outrageously obnoxious Kramden to the mutely pathetic "Poor Soul," and had been seen in films as Minnesota Fats in "The Hustler" and Sheriff Buford T. Justice in the "Smokey and the Bandit" series co-starring Burt Reynolds and an assortment of wrecked automobiles.

Albums Sold Millions

His albums of mood music, many adorned with original Salvador Dali paintings as covers, had sold in the millions.

He was a fat man who never worried about being fat, an extrovert who excelled at pantomime and a musical conductor and composer who couldn't read a note, yet wrote a theme for his television show that once was as familiar in America as the "Star Spangled Banner."

His later work may not have justified his title as "The Great One," a sobriquet reportedly attached to him by Orson Welles, but he was always the mischievous "Entertaining One," tilting at executive windmills or traveling the nation's rails in private cars stocked with booze and budding starlets.

Not bad for a stand-up comic who had gotten himself fired the first time he stood up.

First Routine 'Was Awful'

As he told Morley Safer in a 1984 interview on CBS TV's "60 Minutes":

"I was working at this (New York City) club and had gotten through my first routine, which was awful. I was very nervous. . . . The owner brought me over to the bar and told me I was fired. I had about 15 drinks and then went out for my second and what I thought was my last show. This time I was really 'relaxed' and very funny and the audience loved me."

There followed work at the Miami Club in Newark, N.J., where he was both bouncer and master of ceremonies; a stint as a $75-a-week disc jockey in Newark, and then two fruitful years at Club 18 and Leon and Eddie's in New York City.

On the strength of his club successes, he made his Broadway debut in 1940 in a Shubert production, "Keep Off the Grass," since forgotten by all but its cast. He also was seen about that same time at Club 18 by film producer Jack Warner, who offered a one-year Hollywood contract.

Back to Broadway

"I got $250 a week for some gangster films ("All Through the Night," "Larceny Inc.") and couldn't wait to get back" to New York, Gleason said years later.

He took his 250 pounds enclosed in natty size-52 suits and brash mannerisms back to Broadway, where he landed parts in the 1943 version of "Artists and Models" and then "Follow the Girls" in 1944. It was at this time that Gleason first ignored advice to lose weight in order to further his career, telling well-meaning friends, "I can get away with more as a fat man."

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