Jackie Gleason was the most famous television actor of his time and he was so hilarious that reruns of his shows and movies are still popular today.
• At age 33, he became Chester A. Riley in the television production of "The Life of Riley."
• At age 36, he starred in "The Jackie Gleason Show" as a series of characters who yelled a lot and murdered the English language.
• One of his most popular characters was Ralph Kramden, a brash, blustering, bumbling bus driver who always bullied his wife, Alice. These sketches became Gleason's most popular show, "The Honeymooners." Ralph and Alice fought in every show and he was so mean that it was ridiculous, but 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.
• He was also one of the most famous movie stars of his time, portraying similar personality disorders in characters such as Minnesota Fats in the "The Hustler" and Buford T. Justice in the "Smokey and the Bandit" series.
A Brilliant Money Manager Who Came from Severe Poverty
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. 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.
From Real Life to His Spectacular Career
The characters he played on the screen used many of the same personality traits he observed and 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 the house and took everything he owned and his paycheck with him. He never returned and had taken every picture of himself, so his son never knew what his father even looked like. His mother supported the family by working for the transit system. Of course this affected Jackie, as he spent his youth hanging out with a local gang, playing pool, and 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 supported himself with jobs such 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 at a night club and offered him his first movie role.
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 during that marriage 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 more 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 most commercial gyms.
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.”
The same lifestyle factors that increase risk for heart attacks also increase risk for diabetes, dementia, impotence, and several types of cancer, particularly colon cancer. Jackie Gleason’s lifestyle increased his risk for colon cancer, metastatic cancer to his liver, diabetes, heart attacks and premature 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.
February 26, 1916–June 24, 1987