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His audiences these days are dead -- nothing like the ones in Miami Beach

Just sick about it
Just sick about it
Charles Paolino

The one-and-only Jackie Gleason died on this day in 1987. Gleason was born in 1916. When he was three years old, his dad walked out, saying he was going down the street for a pack of smokes, and never came back. The young Gleason naturally turned to…comedy.

He grew up in Brooklyn, the setting for “The Honeymooners,” in which Gleason played the most famous bus driver ever, Ralph Kramden. (A statue of Gleason as Kramden stands outside the Port Authority bus terminal in New York.) Only 39 major episodes were made, and Gleason eschewed rehearsals, maybe because they cut into his drinking time. He was a fixture at Toots Shor’s restaurant and lounge; when his pal Toots Shor died in 1977, Gleason sent roses and a note: “Save a table for 2.”

He could do drama as well as comedy; he gained the sobriquet, “The Great One,” supposedly hung on him by Orson Welles. A whole new generation was introduced to Gleason as Sheriff Buford T. Justice in “Smokey and the Bandit.”

Gleason was a smoker as well as a drinker, with a five-packs-a-day habit. He died at home, of colon and liver cancer. He donated his huge collection of books, many on the subject of life after death and the occult, to the University of Miami.

In an episode of “The Honeymooners” called “A Matter of Life and Death,” Ralph is convinced he’s dying, having mixed up his medical report with that of his mother-in-law’s dog. “Yeah, Norton,” he tells his pal Ed Norton (the great Art Carney), “my life’s been no bed of roses. Forty years ago I came into this world with a pair of strong lungs, pink cheeks, and a lot of big ideas. And what’ll I have to show for it when I’m leavin’? A blue tongue, a bald head, and a saucer of milk with a pill in it.” (Norton wipes a tear and blows his nose.)

Ralph decides to sell his “story” to a magazine so that his widow, Alice, will have money to live on. When he discovers his mistake, he has his pal Ed Norton pose as a doctor to help him get out of his deal with the magazine. (“Don’t touch me – I’m sterile,” Norton warns.) The publisher realizes Dr. Norton is a fake, and that his part of the story is a hoax. He blows up.

“Abba, abba, abba,” Kramden stutters, his signature response when he gets nervous. But then the publisher fingers Norton only, still believing Ralph has a fatal illness. He threatens Norton with lifetime in jail for taking advantage of poor Ralph. Norton goes to pieces, and Ralph steps in and confesses. They get out with only a tap on the wrist.

Jackie Gleason’s epitaph: “And a-way we go!”

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