Back in 1955, Jackie Gleason turned his popular "The Honeymooners" sketch, which originated on his variety show, into a regular 30-minute sitcom called, you guessed it, The Honeymooners. The idea was that he and co-stars Art Carney, Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph would shoot 78 episodes in the first two seasons, with an option for a third season of 39 more. But following that first year, Jackie took the unexpected — and pretty much unprecedented at the time — move to cancel his own show. Believing that those episodes, collectively known now as "The Classic 39," was as good as the show could be, he decided to return to his variety show format, folding Ralph Kramden, Ed Norton and their wives back into it.
"Jackie really marched to his own beat," offers his stepson, Craig Horwich, who serves as the head of Jackie Gleason Enterprises in an exclusive interview. "Jackie saw himself as a man who was built upon his own talents and his own abilities, interests, and passions. His integrity as a man, let alone as an artist, and his integrity as a producer, stands alone in the industry. There are others that were certainly wonderful, but Jackie recognized that The Honeymooners worked because of the definition of their characters. Nowadays, in the 21st Century, we look at TV shows and writers working with their characters, intentionally looking to evolve them. I think with The Big Bang Theory, Chuck Lorre and his team have acknowledged for years that they're looking to take these young kids and give them relationships and marriages, and that's all wonderful. Today's audience expects that; we have that kind of relationship with our entertainment.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
"But Jackie saw that Ralph and Alice, their neighbors, and their world were defined, and that definition worked in what was originally five or ten minute sketches," he continues. "And then 30-minute sketches. He realized there was no telephone in their apartment, there were no kids, and he didn't want to water it down. So, without going out of the apartment, how do you move a story and bring in dialogue and characters? After basically taking the same three or four different story dynamics of something Ralph doesn't know, but everyone else does; or of Ralph's get rich quick schemes; or some devotion of love for his wife that gets misinterpreted — he believed that after 39, an audience that doesn't see that in the larger one-hour variety context would tire of it."
Jackie returned "The Honeymooners" to its roots.
The Jackie Gleason Show, he says, was a more comfortable fit, because audiences of the 1950s knew that the show was live, recognized that Jackie was going to do jokes, he would play different characters, they'd have a guest star, and the June Taylor Dancers would perform. "They knew," says Craig, "it was almost like a vaudevillian stage performance as opposed to the filmed, non-live sitcom feel that he believed he couldn't hold the audience for after 39."
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
It's not, he points out, an unreasonable feeling when you consider that Jackie, like many of his peers, had a stage background and traveled around the country. "You could," he says, "get away with the same sketch in Toledo, and then take it to Atlanta and then go to New Orleans, and all of them were different audiences. Then the phenomenon of television came along, and if you did a joke once, in one week everybody saw it and the mentality was, 'Alright, we've got to give them a completely new show.' That was the mentality at the time, and the concept today is binge watching. Can you imagine getting into a time machine to 1955 and telling somebody about binging? They couldn't imagine. In any case, Jackie had a variety of other characters, but Ralph Kramden and Alice certainly had as much meat on their bone as any of them, but it wasn't that absurd to think that those 39 had run their course with a Saturday night audience."
And providing that audience entertainment was of paramount importance to Jackie, perfectly exemplified by the DVD release of The Jackie Gleason Show: In Color, which features 12 episodes of the show that have never been released on disc before, including seven previously unreleased color Honeymooners sketches. "In the 1960s," says Craig, "about half the episodes of The Jackie Gleason Show were Honeymooners with Jackie, Sheila MacRae [as Alice], Art Carney [as Norton], and Jane Kean [as Trixie]. But the other half of the shows were truly variety shows, and these discs are a time capsule of American television entertainment. The entirety today of cable and satellite television is itself a variety show, but Jackie really was one of the last true hosts of the first generation of variety television that had grown from vaudeville and the theater. It's a slice of life of late 1960s entertainment through the eyes of The Jackie Gleason Show, which itself a decade or two beforehand really pioneered television variety production."
That approach was something Jackie took from the time he had switched over from the (now defunct) DuMont Television Network to CBS in 1952, enjoying a run that lasted until 1970. It was his approach to, wherever possible, take a project that came his way and "absorb, control and have as much input as resonable."
"He was a man," Craig points out, "who was able to talk the talk and walk the walk, whether it was a golf tournament in South Florida in the '70s and '80s as the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic, which he was thoroughly and profoundly involved with; to music recordings, composing, and working with arrangers for his own music and albums. He really created the themed album. We think of themed albums as from the 1960s with The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper, but a decade before that, in the '50s, Jackie had created themed albums for romance with Music for Lovers Only, and things of that nature. Again, he composed quite a bit of the music, but what he didn't compose, he worked with arrangers and his own orchestra on, and he had his own TV show on which he could perform and conduct that music. So he truly was able to produce and exhibit a soup-to-nuts array of his own talents.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images; Jackie Gleason Enterprises)
"When he came in with his show and said, 'Okay, I'll own it, I'll produce it, I know how I want it done,' CBS was almost grateful. Like, 'Great, this is what you do, you can do it.' So it wasn't that unheard of to come in on your own and say this is going to be my production, but to end up walking the walk throughout that decade, the next decade, and the following decade was different," he continues. "And here we are over 60 years later still talking about it."
What Jackie Gleason was like off-camera.
What people aren't necessarily talking about is Jackie Gleason beyond Ralph Kramden; the man he was when he wasn't standing on a stage in front of the cameras. Craig describes him as being extremely comfortable in his own skin, knowing where he wanted to be, the people he wanted to be around, what he wanted for dinner, or what he would want to do for an endeavor. Confident, he says, is the word that comes to mind, and certainly represents the man he had come to know. In 1975, Jackie had married his mother, Marilyn Taylor (sister of June, whose dancing troupe had been so integral a part of The Jackie Gleason Show) when Craig was about 12.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
"Certainly from when I was around, but even well into earlier in his life, he enjoyed being gregarious, and when he was gregarious he wanted to be around the most gregarious," he recalls. "He wanted to be at the head of the table with as many people and all the wonderful food and fun that came with it. But then he also had a great pleasure of reading and listening to music, and solitude. He wrote, he thought, he composed, and a lot of these endeavors were done individually. So he could sit and be quiet, probably more so than most people, just as his gregariousness and his lifestyle on the other end of the spectrum was more than most people. So he covered a wide variety of behavior, but always with great confidence, great acumen, and if you just respected and worked with him, and did what he wanted, he would return the same personality and same engagement with you."
As to his homelife with Jackie and his mother, Craig offers, "It was wonderful. He was very much in love with my mom and had been for years before. They had a very loving, complementary relationship, and that was very much the basis of my relationship with him. My mom had been around with Jackie back in the '40s and '50s, and was there before everything became enormous with great success. They were able to share things without having to acknowledge, because that had been part of the long arc of their lives. With that as a foundation, it gave a lot of serneity to my home life. He gave my mom a lot of latitude to provide her motherly relationship with me, and he enaged as often and as well as he could with his life in a paternal relationship with me. He was a little older by this time, he was well into his '50s and, then '60s, and he was limited in his own lifestyle. Also, with his celebrityhood, to go to the movies… well, we did go to the movies, but it may not have been as normal as most everyone else's relationship with their fathers."
(Marilyn and Jackie Gleason; Photo Credit: Jackie Gleason Enterprises)
It's obvious that Craig keeps the memory of Jackie, who passed away on June 24, 1987, very much alive in his mind and heart. But on top of that, he's doing his best to keep Jackie Gleason's name relevant in a rapidly-changing world where people oftentimes seem to have the attention span of a gnat.
"His film and TV characters, his association with golf and pool, his bon vivant lifestyle, are inbred in the zeitgeist of American culture," Craig muses. "And it really ebbs and flows on an enormous scale, like the current of an ocean. Some parts of our culture are living in the moment and they've got no rear view mirror; they're in the present and this is going to be their yesterday, and that's fine. But it's great that there are people out there with their own knowledge or curiosity. A lot of them look in the rear view mirror to really appreciate what's ahead."