Thanks to his hit show The Honeymooners, comedian Jackie Gleason turned into a 1950s American idol almost overnight. But Gleason’s perverse life behind the scenes would have made his fans furious.
You might think comedian Jackie Gleason earned the nickname “The Great One” thanks to his enormous legacy on sit-coms like The Honeymooners and comedy in general. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Instead, Gleason actually got this outsized reputation through much more disturbing means—a horrible temper, a bottomless penchant for partying, and some very bad bedroom behavior. If you want to know real story of “Ralph Kramden,” brace yourself and keep reading.
To be fair, Jackie Gleason got a horrific start on life. Born in Brooklyn in 1915, his parents struggled to make ends meet, and Gleason remembers his father working long nights writing insurance policies. To make matters worse, in 1919 his older brother Clement perished from meningitis, leaving Gleason as the only child in the family.
Soon though, what was left of this family would betray him.
When Jackie wasn’t even 10 years old, his father abandoned the family—and he did it in a spectacularly hurtful way. Just before Christmas in 1925, the elder Gleason threw out every family photo he was in, then quit his job and skipped town, leaving Jackie’s mother to scramble for work to support her now tiny brood. But Jackie scrambled too.
For the next years, Jackie threw himself into helping his mother, quitting school before graduating. However, before he did, he realized how much he loved the theater—or at least how much he loved people watching him. After a class play ignited his interested in performing, he got a job as a master of ceremonies at a theater and began doing jokes on amateur nights at local joints.
Even then, though, there was a very dark side to his jolly antics.
Teenaged Jackie was trying to make it in a tough business, and many of his comic sets around this time crashed and burned. Only, he was hiding a more disturbing secret. Ready to “make it” by any means necessary, there’s evidence that he full-on pilfered his jokes from more established comedians like Milton Berle.
Still, he started gaining attention all the same. But Karma has a horrible way of biting you back tenfold, as Gleason was about to learn.
When Gleason was just 19, his mother began experiencing a nasty health problem. She had a carbuncle, a boil brought on by a bacterial infection, on her neck and didn’t know what to do about it. Although the answer is “Go to a doctor,” Jackie’s mother instead asked her son to lance it for her.
It was an amateur option, if a cheap one. It led to a nightmare.
Tragically, Gleason’s stint as a dutiful medicine man was a horrific bust. The boy’s efforts ended up giving his mother sepsis, and she passed from the complications in 1935. Yes, you could say that Gleason put his own mother in the grave. Somehow, it got so much worse. With his mother gone, Gleason was completely on his own, and only had 36 cents to his name.
His desperate times called for desperate measures. They also brought about his lasting stardom.
Now, Jackie did have one person he could turn to: His first girlfriend Julie Dennehy, who offered up her own home for him to stay in. Except the stubborn Gleason didn’t want to rely on her. instead, he claimed he was going to go to the city to make it big—likely ending their relationship in the process.
For once in his life, though, luck was on Gleason’s side. After rooming with a friend, he got himself a booking agent and became a professional comedian at long last. His next move was iconic.
Eventually, Gleason began working at New York’s famous Club 18, where patrons regularly came in hoping that evening’s comedian would roast them to charred bits. For Gleason, who had begun to develop a brassy, coarse persona, it was perfect.
At one point, after spotting the ice skater Sonja Henie in the audience, he handed her an ice cube and said, “Okay, now do something.” This soon attracted the attention of all the right people.
While Gleason was working at Club 18 and making the rounds at other New York stages, none other than Jack Warner of Warner Brothers Studios saw him perform and knew he had something special on his hands. Warner quickly offered Gleason a tidy little contract at his company. Soon, Gleason was in supporting roles opposite starts like Humphrey Bogart and Ann Sheridan.
For the first time, Gleason had money and some semblance of stability. So you know he had to go blow it all up.
Around this time, Gleason’s private life was ruinous. He had become quite the partier while running around the club circuit, and he could put back more liquid than even the Hollywood crowd could believe. Even so, as one of his pals put it, he could also spend money “faster than he could soak up booze”. But that wasn’t all.
To go along with these penchants of drink and dollars, Gleason also became notorious for throwing all-night ragers—so much so that his regular hotel soundproofed the walls of his signature room to spare their other guests. It wasn’t conducive to a healthy life, but Gleason had more dysfunction in store.
Just as Gleason was hitting the big times, he fell in love with dancer Genevieve Halford. Halford was beautiful, vivacious, and could likely keep up with her hard-partying boyfriend—at least at first. After a time, Halford somewhat understandably wanted to settle down, and began pressing Gleason to marry her.
Well, she didn’t get the response she wanted.
Instead of getting down on one knee, Gleason carefully avoided the whole situation. Then his girlfriend got a manipulative revenge. Halford insisted she would simply date other men until they married, and duly followed through. One night, Gleason glimpsed her sitting with another man, front row, while he was performing at one of his shows.
Now Halford got the reaction she was looking for.
Halford’s careful presentation of herself on a date at one of Gleason’s performances was a stroke of genius, and the comedian took notice. After his set ended, he went over to her table and proposed to her, right in front of the date. They ended up marrying in September 1936.
Was Halford’s plan diabolical? Yes. Did it work? You bet. But oh boy, did they live to regret it.
Although Halford and Gleason had two daughters together by the early 1940s, Geraldine and Linda, their home wasn’t the picture of domestic bliss. Maybe you guessed that already, though. See, Halford might have thought that practically forcing Gleason to become a husband would calm him down…but she was very wrong.
While Halford continued to want a home-making life, Gleason continued partying it up with his friends any chance he could, infuriating his wife. Soon enough, they were barely functioning. They separated in 1941, just after their first daughter was born, then got back together long enough to have their second daughter, and then separated again until reconciling in 1948.
It was a ridiculously unstable home life, but then again Gleason’s constant carousing was unstable too. It all began to take a toll on him.
In 1943, in the middle of WWII, the American government finally drafted Jackie Gleason into the conflict. When he reported for duty, their jaws dropped. During the medical examination, doctors discovered numerous health problems, including a broken arm that had never healed properly and presented nerve damage; a cyst near his spine; and nearly 100 extra pounds on his waistline.
He was so unhealthy, they rejected him from service. Gleason hardly took this as a wakeup call.
By the 1950s, even Gleason’s friends were calling him “The Fat Man”—but such was Gleason’s mystique that it only added to his charm. In fact, the peak of his partying also signaled the peak of his career. Impressed with his tipsy nightclub performances, the DuMont Television Network invited Jackie to host their variety show Cavalcade of Stars.
This would be the start of Gleason as everyone knew him, but his reaction to the news was typically crass.
Gleason grew up poor enough to know the value of a dollar and the value of his own wits, and DuMont’s initial offer wasn’t much to sneeze at. They wanted to have rotating hosts on the show, with Gleason set to appear for only two weeks. His reply was legendary. He told the company this wasn’t worth the trip to New York, and they extended his stay to a month.
Then they made him an even better offer.
Gleason’s work on Cavalcade of Stars impressed the network so much, they eventually offered him a permanent position on the show in 1952, renaming it The Jackie Gleason Show to boot. It became a total sensation, with the lumbering Gleason introducing various intricate dance numbers and working overtime developing various comedic characters to play on the show.
But behind the scenes, trouble was brewing.
I doubt you’ll be surprised to hear it, but Gleason’s marriage to Genevieve Halford never got better. In 1951, it exploded. That year, they separated again, and this time Gleason wasted no time reveling in his semi-single life. Shortly after, he began dating a woman named Honey Merrill—and their time together was particularly scandalous for one reason.
It wasn’t just that Gleason was still technically married when he was seeing Merrill…it was also that she had started out as his secretary. Yeah, gross. Then again, payback always had a way of hitting Jackie Gleason for his worst offenses. After years together with Gleason still married to another woman, Merrill dumped him and found a real husband.
As always, Gleason ended up crawling back to Halford. But his worst romantic entanglement was just around the corner.
As time went on, The Jackie Gleason Show got more and more popular, and Gleason began working with the June Taylor Dancers to help perform complex numbers for the opening of the show. Through them, Gleason met Marilyn Taylor—sister to June—and struck up a romance with her right under his wife’s nose.
It was probably nothing he hadn’t done before. This time, though, his naughty ways had a big backlash.
One day while filming his variety show, Gleason got into an accident and broke his leg and ankle. His injuries were so bad, the show not only paused for weeks, but Gleason also had to go into the hospital to recover. While there, his wife Genevieve Halford popped in one day to see how her husband was doing. That’s when she made a blood-curdling discovery.
Halford had been down a long and rocky road with Gleason, but nothing prepared her for walking into his hospital room, hoping to comfort him—and finding his new lover there. Apparently, Marilyn had the exact same idea, and Halford stumbled in on the two of them canoodling.
It was finally all but the end of Gleason’s relationship to Halford, and she formally filed for a separation in 1954—the first time any of these separations had been formal. But she also got her revenge.
One of the reasons that Halford and Gleason kept separating and then getting back together was because Halford, as a devout Catholic, didn’t believe in divorce and refused to grant Gleason one. Now she used that piety for cruelty. While there’s some indication that Gleason would have married Marilyn Taylor, his wife—despite knowing she wanted nothing more to do with him—still insisted on staying married.
Though, can you blame her? Unfortunately, her gloating was probably short-lived.
Just a year after Gleason’s formal separation from his wife, his career took off in a way history had almost never seen before. For years on both Cavalcade of Stars and then The Jackie Gleason Show, Gleason had been developing the married, working-class characters Ralph and Alice Kramden in sketches the CBS show called “The Honeymooners”.
These skits were such a success, in 1955 The Honeymooners replaced the variety show entirely as a new series. It took right off. Gleason was now more famous than ever…but his co-stars had big reasons to despise him.
As Gleason’s star rose, so did his ego—and he began developing infuriating habits. Claiming he had a photographic memory, he would never rehearse. Instead, he would read the script a single time, watch his co-stars rehearse with his stand-in, and then perform live later that day. He even had the audacity to say this would make his co-stars’ reactions to him more natural. Then, when he inevitably messed up, he’d simply blame the cue-cards.
But this had consequences on more than just his performances.
Gleason’s two other co-stars during the series run were Audrey Meadows, who played Ralph’s wife Alice, and Art Carney, who took up the position as his best friend Ed. When Meadows went up for her first day on the job, she was shocked that Gleason was nowhere to be found, and that he expected her to perform live without any rehearsal to speak of.
As she recalled, that day was “the most difficult day of my life. The tears just started streaming down my face”. Luckily, she got through it and managed to deal with Gleason from then on…but Art Carney had a much worse time.
Art Carney is fantastic in The Honeymooners as Ralph’s hapless best friend Ed. But behind the scenes, the story was much different. Gleason was intensely jealous of Carney’s talent and reportedly tried to undercut Carney’s work whenever he could, even calling Carney his “subordinate”.
He also once told Orson Welles that whenever the audience laughed at Carney, “I smile on the outside, but you should see my insides”. Spoiler: This didn’t get better.
As the creator of The Honeymooners, Gleason held immense control and he wasn’t afraid to wield it. He even initially wanted to reject Audrey Meadows’ application to be Alice Kramden. Why? Because he thought she was too attractive. To convince him, Meadows had to jump through hoops, hiring a photographer to come to her place and snap her wearing no makeup and a ratty housecoat.
Still, next to Gleason’s other demands and eccentricities on set, this was child’s play.
Eventually, The Honeymooners grew so big that Gleason felt he had the right to ridiculously high salary demands. He also made sure he got the longest limo to drive him around town while his co-stars, well, didn’t. Yes, this was not a man universally beloved on his own set. Only, it got darker than all that.
Gleason had always been a drinker, but during these years his thirst seemed unquenchable. He even began coming to set already half in his cups, with plans to drink even more throughout the day. More than that, Gleason was not a happy drinker, and frequently subjected everyone around him to abrupt mood swings.
However, “abrupt” doesn’t even begin to describe the next event of Gleason’s life.
The Honeymooners is one of the most legendary sitcoms of all time, but its canonical run shockingly only lasted for one season of 39 episodes. By 1956, Gleason felt that they had gone through most of their original ideas and—in a move that many showrunners today could heed—decided to end the show, saying, "The excellence of the material could not be maintained, and I had too much fondness for the show to cheapen it”.
Instead, Gleason reverted to The Jackie Gleason Show, though he still performed Honeymooners sketches on the variety show. It could have worked…but it didn’t.
Gleason went from top of the world to near forgotten in the space of 12 months. Although The Jackie Gleason Show went back on air after The Honeymooners, the ratings plummeted, and Gleason—never one to hang around losers—quickly abandoned the show with only small encouragement from the studio.
For the next decade, Gleason dipped in and out of television series and various Honeymooners revivals, until in 1970 he left CBS for good. Of course, by then he was in some very hot water indeed.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Jackie Gleason’s estranged wife Genevieve Halford had incredibly held on to their marriage contract, still staunchly refusing to set him free with a divorce. Then everything changed. In 1970, just as Gleason’s popularity dipped to an all-time low, she finally granted him one…and Gleason knew just how to react.
Gleason ran out of his marriage to Halford and right into another union. Two years earlier, he’d met Beverly McKittrick—another secretary, though this time not his own—at a country club, and just 10 days after the official divorce, he married her in a small ceremony in England. But Gleason’s second shot at matrimony had a twist ending.
After decades spent ball-and-chained to Genevieve Halford, Gleason’s marriage to McKittrick was stunningly short. In 1974, after just four years of marriage, he filed for divorce from her, despite McKittrick begging him to reconsider and asking the judge for a reconciliation. But Gleason was ice cold and didn’t change his mind. His reasons were utterly scandalous.
See, in 1974, Gleason met an old flame he never expected to see again: Marilyn Taylor, the old dancer on his show who he’d wanted to marry. She was out of show business, but not out of love with Gleason, nor he with her. He instantly began those divorce proceedings, and ended up marrying Taylor less than a month after they were officially through in 1975.
Only, this wasn’t Jackie Gleason’s final act. Not even close.
In 1977, Jackie Gleason was in his 60s, but he was about to star in one of his most lasting films ever. That year, Gleason starred as Sheriff Buford T Justice in the Burt Reynolds and Sally Field hit Smokey and the Bandit. The film allowed Gleason to sharpen his comedic chops even further and became a complete smash hit.
Still, like most everything Gleason got his hands on, the set was almost a total disaster.
The screenplay for Smokey and the Bandit was extremely bare bones. The writer had scrawled the first draft of it on legal pads, and Sally Field remembered coming to set and never having any actual lines to say. But there was a twist. This, of course, made it perfect for Gleason, who still hated rehearsing as much as ever and preferred improv anyway.
The directors trusted his instincts, and they allowed him to ad-lib his way through most of his scenes. It led to some moments of true brilliance.
Gleason’s improv skills were nothing to sneeze at, even in his late middle age. When he got on set, he came up with several iconic lines and moments from the film, including the scene in the diner where his Sheriff unknowingly meets the Bandit, and the memorable insult line “choke and puke”.
Of course, with Gleason, there was always a downside. Faced with this success, he had to go and ruin it once more.
From his marriages to his drinking, Jackie Gleason never really knew when to stop. When producers came to him in 1980 to do a Smokey sequel, he agreed, and the film was a modest success. But three years later, he did yet another Smokey, this time with no involvement from the original director and with only a cameo from Burt Reynolds.
What the film did have was a lot of Jackie Gleason. The entire plot of Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 revolved around his character…and it was an absolute box office bomb. Unfortunately, Gleason would have to wear this legacy. After all, he had very little time left to redeem it.
During his famous years and into his old age, Gleason got a reputation for being something of an eccentric. He was a firm believer in UFOs and the paranormal, and after one of the planes he was flying in had to make an emergency landing, he also developed an enormous fear of flying and refused to fly for a long while. This particular phobia led to a very interesting moment.
When that ill-fated plane touched down, the crew tried to arrange another flight for the passengers, but Gleason was having none of it. Instead of boarding, he walked to a nearby hardware store and asked the owner to lend him $200 for a train ticket to his destination. After the man balked at lending a stranger that much money, Gleason took him down to the cinema to watch his latest film and prove he was famous and good for the loan.
It’s hard to overstate the impact The Honeymooners had on pop culture. Sure, you may never have heard of the show—but you’ve heard it before. Gleason’s sitcom made phrases like “Homina homina homina” and “Baby, you’re the greatest” common parlance, and Gleason’s own catchphrase on his variety shows, “How sweet it is!” got the same coverage.
The influence of The Honeymooners is probably most notable in shows like The Flintstones, which also focuses on two hapless husbands and their much smarter wives. The comparison wasn’t lost on Gleason, either—he once confessed that he very nearly sued the cartoon, but pulled back because he didn’t want to be "the guy who yanked Fred Flintstone off the air”.
The Honeymooners was also ground-breaking for another reason. Whereas most sitcoms of the 1950s featured comfortable middle-class families, the Kramdens were resolutely working class, and lived in a run-down Brooklyn apartment. This has a heartbreaking side. Gleason didn’t just draw from his impoverished childhood to create the story, he actively paid homage to it.
The Kramdens’ address at 328 Chauncey Street is the same as the address where Gleason grew up.
By the mid 1980s, Gleason was only in his late 60s—but his health was failing fast. Years of hard drinking, partying, and eating had taken its toll, and Gleason had been suffering from a plethora of medical issues for at least a year. In 1986, he even confessed to one of his daughters, “I won’t be around much longer”.
He was tragically right: On June 24, 1987, Gleason passed at just 71. But his legacy is not pristine.
Gleason was a titan of 1950s television, and fans wanted to see him as a loveable uncle figure with a genius for creating memorable characters. But that’s not the whole story. In a biography about Gleason, William A Henry III claims that Gleason continued to shamelessly steal from other comedians as he made his way to the top.
Henry says that Gleason far underplayed the contributions of other writers when it came to his variety show characters, among them personas from The Honeymooners. Only, that’s not all.
Believe it or not, Gleason also had a successful career in the 1950s and 60s with “mood music” albums—pale jazzy numbers that he described as “musical wallpaper”. The thing was, Gleason couldn’t read or write music, and though he claimed to hear melodies in his head and got others to write them down, Henry also insists that in this, too, Gleason was taking credit for the work of others.
One of his frequent musical collaborators, Bobby Hackett, once got asked what exactly Gleason brought to their recording sessions. His response? “He brought the checks”.
Jackie Gleason is famous as “The Great One,” but the origins of this nickname are scandalous. His friend Orson Welles reportedly gave it to the comedian, and not out of respect for his craft. Welles coined it after seeing how much Gleason could put back while partying. Not the illustrious moniker you might hope for.
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