As Ralph Kramden, the brash, blustering, uncouth and bumbling fool in “The Honeymooners”, Jackie Gleason was probably the most famous television character of his day. He portrayed similar personality disorders in movies with characters such as Minnesota Fats in the "The Hustler" and Buford T. Justice in the "Smokey and the Bandit" series.
Although his public image was that of a buffoon, he was very smart with money. He came from severe poverty but he made incredible amounts of money from just about everything he did. The 39 episodes of “The Honeymooners” ran live on television for only two years, 1955 and 1956, but supplied him and his heirs with many millions of dollars from reruns that are still shown today. He couldn't read or write a note of music, but he would hum tunes to seasoned musicians who would write them down and sell his songs that still bring royalties.
Early Life and Career The characters he played on the screen used many of the same personality traits he developed early in life. He was born in Brooklyn NY, to a mother who immigrated from Ireland and an Irish-American father. When Jackie was nine years old, his father left with every picture of himself, everything he owned and his paycheck, and never returned. His mother supported the family by working for the transit system. Jackie spent his youth hanging out with a local gang and playing pool. He never finished high school. He supported himself by telling jokes in a theater for four dollars a night, and working in pool halls and carnivals. His mother died when he was 19. He got jobs as a comedian in night clubs and he spent money as fast as he made it. When he was 24, Jack Warner of Warner Brothers saw his comedy routine m at a night club and offered him his first movie role.
At age 33, he became Chester A. Riley in the television production "The Life of Riley". At age 36, he starred in "The Jackie Gleason Show" as a series of characters who screamed instead of speaking, and were unable to speak correct English. At age 49, he took the role of Ralph Kramden, a bus driver who was married to Alice in the "Honeymooners". He bullied her and they fought in every show. He was so mean that it was funny, and they always made up at the end of every show. Today a life-size statue of bus driver Ralph Kramden stands in the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City.
Three Marriages At age 20, Jackie wed a vaudeville dancer, Genevieve Halford, but they had a very stormy marriage because he refused to come home after his night club jobs. He must have come home at least twice because they had two daughters. They separated in 1941, but got back together in 1948, and separated again in 1951. In 1954, while he was still married , he broke his leg. His wife came to visit him in the hospital and found Marilyn Taylor, a dancer on his television show, in his room. Everyone in the entire hospital got to hear them fight, after which she filed for divorce. It took 16 years for the divorce to become final.
In 1970, ten days after his divorce from his first wife, Gleason married Beverly McKittrick a secretary whom he had met two years earlier. Four years later, while he was still married to Beverly, he went back to seeing Marilyn Taylor, who was now a widow with a young son. He filed for divorce from his second wife, married Taylor and stayed with her for the rest of his life.
Destructive Habits and Health Problems His lifestyle was so self-destructive that it is amazing that he lived to be as old as 71. He was morbidly obese, often weighing in at close to 300 pounds. He was famous for being able to drink every other actor under the table, and smoked more than four packs of Marlboro cigarettes a day. His favorite food was red meat, he loved rich desserts and hated vegetables. He did not exercise, even after he moved to Miami where his home had an exercise room that was larger and better-equipped than many commercial gyms.
His lifestyle caused horrible diseases and prevented him from really enjoying his fame and financial successes. In 1978, At age 62, he had chest pains while playing the lead role in the play "Sly Fox" and was treated and released from the hospital. The following week his pain was so bad that he could not perform and had to have triple-bypass surgery.
In 1986, at age 70, while he was acting in his last film, "Nothing in Common", he was diagnosed with colon cancer that had spread to his liver. He was also diagnosed with diabetes, from which he had probably suffered for many years. If that wasn't enough, he was afflicted with very painful clotted hemorrhoids. During the filming, he told his daughter: "I won’t be around much longer.” In 1987, he died at his beautiful Miami mansion. On the base of the statue at his grave are the words “And Away We Go.”
What You Can Learn from this Sad Story The same lifestyle factors that increase risk for heart attacks also increase risk for diabetes, dementia, impotence, and several types of cancer. Jackie Gleason’s lifestyle increased his risk for colon cancer, metastatic cancer to his liver, diabetes, heart attacks and a young death. There is a stronger association between red meat and colon cancer than with any other cancer; see my report on Cancer of the Colon.
At any age, you can reduce your risk for these diseases by changing your lifestyle. Cancer survivors have been shown to live longer when they adopt a healthful lifestyle, and many heart attack patients and diabetics can reverse much of the damage they have caused when they eat healthfully and get plenty of exercise.
Jackie Gleason February 26, 1916–June 24, 1987
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