Rare is it that a prime-time television comedian — and a huge tube star to boot — successfully makes the transition to movies as a dramatic actor of power, subtlety and versatility.
But that’s exactly what Jackie Gleason accomplished.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here to celebrate (on the 25th anniversary of his death) one of the best under-appreciated actors in recent Hollywood history.
Eddie Cantor, George Burns and Jack Benny, among many other comedians, made pictures that largely played off their funny routines. But Gleason didn’t. He took on heavyweight roles, standing toe-to-toe with such dramatic stalwarts as Paul Newman and George C. Scott.
‘The Great One’ was most definitely a Star of Television. But Gleason was also a skilled actor who started his career in vaudeville and burlesque, segued briefly into movies in the 40s, then hit his stride on TV in the 50s.
His Honeymooners series, though filmed for only one season is still in re-runs. His Variety Shows allowed him to create other memorable characters as well. He was a fixture on television from the 1950s to the 1970s.
He ended his illustrious career onscreen. He made only about 25 features but his performances in just about every one had impact, and stand up today.
Best remembered, of course, is director Robert Rossen’s 1961 drama The Hustler with Newman as a young pool hustler challenging veteran champ, Minnesota Fats, played with incisive authority by Gleason.
He received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal, which he tossed off with seeming ease, betraying none of the Method-induced acting agonies of Newman and costar Scott. (Newman won an Oscar for his interpretation of a Minnesota Fats-type character in director Martin Scorsese’s 1986 update, The Color of Money.)
A Golden Globe nomination came two years later for Gleason’s title role in Gigot, a comedy of sorts filmed in Paris about an adult mute who befriends a little girl, the daughter of a prostitute. Despite the picture’s melodramatic overtones, Gleason delivers a solid performance in the title role without speaking a word.
In Columbia’s Requiem For A Heavyweight, Rod Serling’s 1962 saga of a battered but principled boxer (Anthony Quinn) sold out by his duplicitous manager (Gleason), Jackie shines. He’s pictured below with co-star Mickey Rooney.
And who can forget how as blustery Southern sheriff Buford J. Justice he carried the three Smokey and the Bandit caper movies ?
Director Garry Marshall was able to lure Gleason out of retirement for his last film, Nothing in Common, by chiding him: “you don’t want to be remembered as Buford J. Justice, do you?”
Although today Nothing in Common is marketed as a comedy (because of names like Gleason, Marshall and Tom Hanks) it is nothing of the sort. It is a serious film about children dealing with aging and ill parents with whom they have difficulty relating. It’s a remarkable film and a great performance by Gleason. See it.
In addition to films and TV, Jackie Gleason was a Broadway star.
Gleason lived large. “How sweet it is,” was his catchphrase. One had the feeling that although a TV colossus, he never regarded himself as a big movie star. He was a working film actor, and an excellent one. Gleason died on June 24, 1987, at the age of 71.