Born Herbert John Gleason on Feb. 26, 1916 (his mother always called him "Jackie") in the Brooklyn neighborhood he has immortalized on The Honeymooners. His father, who was an insurance clerk, had abandoned the family then Jackie was eight years old. His mother worked as a token booth attendant in a subway. When he was a young man, Jackie never stopped to ponder over what he would be when he grew up. At the age of fifteen he won the amateur-night contest at Brooklyn's Halsey Theater, and was hired that same night, by the manager, to work as emcee for three dollars a week. Next he worked at Brooklyn's Folly Theater. Before long, he was emceeing for small theaters all over New York's five boroughs. When he wasn't doing stage shows, he worked as a master of ceremonies for touring carnivals, a radio disc jockey, a daredevil driver, and an exhibition diver in the water follies.
When he began to work in more famous nightclubs, he acquired a reputatation for brash humor and fast ad libs. While he was working at Club 18 in New York, he was discovered by movie head Jack Warner who signed him to a contract. He made five films in Hollywood, then returned to New York for Broadway musicals including 'Hellzapoppin' and 'Along Fifth Avenue.' He made his television debut on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town. After that, in 1949, he played Chester A. Riley in the series The Life of Riley. From there, he returned to stage shows and nightclubs until, in 1950, a brief engagement on DuMont's Cavalcade of Stars made him an overnight TV sensation. He remained on Cavalcade of Stars for two years, creating most of his famous characterizations (Ralph Kramden, Joe the Bartender, Charlie Bratton, The Poor Soul, and Reggie Van Gleason III.)
Gleason left Cavalcade and the DuMont network in 1952 to sign one big contract after another with CBS, and later, with NBC and ABC. He returned to Broadway to star in Take Me Along in 1959 for which he won a Tony Award. He also starred in such pictures as Gigot (1961), The Hustler, for which he received an Academy Award nomination (1962), Papa's Delicate Condition (1963), How To Commit Marriage (1969), and Don't Drink the Water (1969).
He has achieved success in the field of popular music with his immensely popular records, such as 'Music for Lovers Only', and as composer of the theme songs for The Honeymooners ("You're My Greatest Love"), The Jackie Gleason Show ("Melancholy Serenade"), and the poem/ballet Tawny (1953). As early as 1954 he had the idea of freezing special dieters' TV dinners with the exact number of calories printed on the label. He had an interest in occult phenomena and parapsychology. In the early 1970's, he launched the richest seventy-two-hole golf tournament in the United States, the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic. He has been called "The Great One," and the "Noel Coward of Toots Shor's," yet for all his achievements in over half a century, he is doubtlessly best known from 20.5 hours of syndicated situation comedy -- the 'classic' thirty-nine episodes of The Honeymooners. So why did the syndicated shows come to a halt after just one season? Jackie explains, "The excellence of the material could not be maintained, and I had too much fondness for the show to cheapen it." Jackie Gleason passed away on June 24th, 1987 at the age of 71.
A loyal fan who has visited Mr. Gleason's grave site at St. Mary's Cemetery in Florida describes it as follows...
"There is nothing sad about his monument. It is a small Neo-Roman temple. Four steps lead up to a dais on which, between four pillars, rest two stone representations of Roman couches. On the head of the couches is inscribed the names of Jackie and his wife. The only other inscription is on the front of the last step. It reads 'And Away We Go'. "
- Jim Hutchinson