Jackie Gleason: From Pool Hustler To Smokey and the Bandit

Jackie Gleason was best known for portraying Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners but also appeared on the big screen from 1941-1986.

Jackie Gleason grew up in Brooklyn, New York and didn’t have much of a childhood, with his father abandoning the family, when Gleason was eight years old. His mother died when he was 16. His brother Clemence had died when he was three, so Jackie was an only child during most of his childhood.

Behind the counter it's Jackie Gleason
Jackie Gleason as he appeared in Larceny Inc. movie in 1942 at the age of 26.

Gleason’s first foray into the movies lasted only two years, but he appeared in nine movies in those two years, including Orchestra Wives and Larceny, Inc. Then he performed in nightclubs and appeared in some Broadway plays till he received his first television starring role in Life of Riley, portraying the title character. He was not really suited well for the role and it was cancelled, but revived when William Bendix, the voice of Riley on radio became the star of the show.

Jackie Gleason Orchestra Formed

Jackie Gleason saw there was a place for romantic music and formed the Jackie Gleason Orchestra. I have read that there was never an actual traveling Jackie Gleason Orchestra but this article proves that assumption is incorrect, since this review of a performance with Gleason proves they did travel to different venues. Music showed there was a serious side to Jackie Gleason. I was surprised to read that Gleason actually was conducting the orchestra. Bobby Hackett is the one playing the trumpet solos on most, if not all of his albums.


Music For Lovers, the debut album for the orchestra was a tremendous hit and showed their was a market for romantic music:

Gleason’s first album, Music for Lovers Only, still holds the record for the album staying the longest in the Billboard Top Ten Charts (153 weeks), and his first ten albums all sold over one million copies.[19]

I have his Best of Jackie Gleason and His Orchestra album and it includes these songs:


The now defunct Dumont Television network hired Gleason as summer host of Cavalcade of Stars. He handled the hosting duties so well, that he was named permanent host. He introduced his Ralph Kramden character during the series and the sketches would evolve into The Honeymooners in 1955.

Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows in a scene from The Honeymooners television series 1955-1956.

There is no doubt that The Honeymooners television series is what made Jackie Gleason a household word. The show centered around his character Ralph Kramden and the show was clearly focused on whatever hare-brained scheme, that he was planning at the time.

The Jackie Gleason Show was telecast from 1952-1957 and then revived again to run from 1966-1970. In between he also hosted the Jackie Gleason: American Scene Magazine from 1962-1966.

You’re In The Picture Bombs

Jackie Gleason did have one colossal failure, when he was the host of a new game show named You’re In The Picture in 1961. This article details the failure of the show the first week and how Gleason came back the second week with a new format:


1961 would see Gleason also have one of his biggest triumphs on the big screen in The Hustler. He played Minnesota Fats the pool hustler and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor but did not win. It was an awesome achievement, considering that he hadn’t appeared in a movie, since appearing in Desert Hawk in 1950.

He is seen with Paul Newman in this pool room scene from The Hustler:


The next year Gleason would return in Gigot, in which he played a mute and would be nominated for a Golden Globes Award as best actor. Gleason wrote the screenplay, starred and wrote the music for Gigot. Gleason was the only recognizable name in the entire cast of this movie.  He is seen in this clip from Gigot:


Gleason also appeared in Requiem For A Heavyweight in 1962. He acted well in the movie, but failed to garner any nominations or awards, for his performance.


He appeared in Papa’s Delicate Condition and Soldier in the Rain in 1963 and wouldn’t appear in another movie, till he appeared in Skidoo in 1968. It is strange that he appeared in so many successful movies, than stopped his movie career for the next five years. He could be that filming his American Scene Magazine television show and appearing in movies was too much for him.

Next he appeared in How To Commit Marriage and Don’t Drink The Water in 1969, then took an eight year hiatus from making movies till 1977.  He appeared in Mr. Billion and Smokey and the Bandit in 1977.  I was going to include some clips of Gleason portraying Sheriff Buford T. Justice, but the dialogue was filled with so much bad language, that I decided not to use it, in case some kids were to watch it. He would go on to appear in Part II and Part III of the Smokey and the Bandit movies in 1980 and 1983.

Gleason also appeared in The Toy in 1982 and The Sting II in 1983, before appearing Nothing In Common in 1986, which would be his last movie. His movie career spanned 45 years from 1941-1986.

It is ironic that Gleason only won a Tony Award in his long career for Take Me Along, while never winning a Emmy, Grammy or Academy Award.

Jackie Gleason died of cancer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on June 24, 1987 at the age of 71. Gleason left his mark on Broadway, in the movies, on television and music. He truly was an entertainer of the first magnitude.

His obituary from the New York Times:


A road sign with his famous catch phrase:

The burial place of Jackie Gleason in Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Cemetery in Miami, Florida.
Jackie Gleason kept his sense of humor in death with his famous catchphrase.

Author: Andrew Godfrey

Retired from newspaper work after 38 years. Had served in the Army in Hawaii and Vietnam in the 60's. Am now retired and living in Sulphur, Louisiana.

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