Jackie Gleason is perhaps one of the most iconic stars of the 20th century. Whether he was taking it to the stage or inspiring belly-laughs from the television screen, he always knew how to capture everyone’s attention. He was a truly remarkable performer whose legacy hasn’t waned in the least bit in the 30+ years since his passing.
He was well known for his love of good food, top-shelf whiskey, and his strong affinity for surrounding himself with beautiful women. The parties that he used to throw were nothing short of legendary. The great actor Orson Welles once even called him ‘The Great One’ after spending a long night partying, drinking, and engaging in some good old-fashioned debauchery at his home
Most of us remember him for his variety show The Jackie Gleason Show which gave birth to the classic sitcom The Honeymooners. And although The Honeymooners was only on the air for 39 episodes, it became an unforgettable touchstone of American Culture.
But underneath his jovial persona and gentle-mannered public image, Gleason dealt with a great deal of inner conflict and turmoil. He started in this world pretty disadvantaged. He was raised in poverty, was abandoned by his father, and quite a few of his family members died young leaving him with a great deal of familial responsibility to take care of.
Gleason could be kindly and charismatic, but he was also notorious for being equally bitter, cold, and bully-like – especially towards his co-stars and crewmen. In this video, we’re going to be taking a closer look at some of the more tragic details of Jackie Gleason’s life, career, and death.
A Last-Minute Change-Up
Just one day before he died, beloved comedian and actor Jackie Gleason made some last-minute changes to his will, decreasing his wife’s share of his estate down from half to roughly a third and increasing his daughter’s and secretary’s shares substantially.
The net worth of Gleason’s estate was not listed in the will and his lawyer Brian Patchen declined to provide an estimate of its value, but it’s speculated that his net worth was roughly $10 million at the time of his death.
Gleason died of liver and colon cancer on June 24 1987 at the age of 71. A death certificate was filed with the will in Broward Probate Court that stated that his death came just two months after he was diagnosed with liver cancer, but it didn’t mention when the legendary performer learned of his colon cancer.
On June 23, Gleason instructed his attorney and business associates Richard Green and Irwin Marks that he intended to alter the document. Although he was too weak to even sign his own name, he felt like making the changes to his will would be the right – and amicable – thing to do.
Gleason proceeded to decrease his wife’s share from half to one-third in addition to increasing the bequest for his long-time secretary, Sydell Spear, from $25,000 to $100,000. The remainder of his estate was to be divided up equally between Jackie’s two daughters from his first marriage, Geraldine Chatuk of LA and Linda Miller of Santa Monica. Both ladies were only expecting to receive a quarter of his estate but with that change, they ended up receiving quite a bit more.
Gleason left nothing to his stepson from his last marriage and didn’t allocate any funds to any arts or charitable organizations.
The Honeymooners’ star left all of his personal possessions to his wife Marilyn Gleason. She was also listed as the executor of his will in the original draft that was written up in April of 1985.
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And don’t you dare think about sneaking off so soon. Stay tuned to find out why Jackie’s co-stars found him to be so difficult to work with. He may be a legend, but that doesn’t mean that everyone relished the opportunity of working by his side.
Jackie Gleason’s Father Abandoned His Family
We’re admittedly kind of going backwards in terms of chronology, but oh well.
Anyway, Jackie Gleason was Born on February 26, 1916. His father, Herbert Walter Gleason, was an insurance auditor working in Brooklyn. His mother, Mae Maisie Kelly, was an immigrant from County Cork, Ireland.
Interestingly, Even though Gleason was born Herbert John Gleason, he was baptized as John Herbert Gleason presumably to empathize his ‘Christian’ name.
He got the nickname Jackie from his mother when he was young and it just kind of stuck. Gleason was raised in Bushwick, a neighborhood in Brooklyn which was very impoverished back then.
Jackie knew that he wanted to be an actor from the age of six when his dad used to take him to the theater to see matinee silent films and vaudeville performances. Sadly, those trips to the theater would be one of the only positive memories that Gleason would have of his father. Herbert Gleason walked out on his family when Jackie was just 9.
Gleason never saw his dad again and spent most of his life hoping that he would one day run into him. He wishfully held onto the hope that his father would show up one day unannounced backstage at one of his performances, but eventually, he came to realize that wherever his father was, it would have been fairly easy for him to get in contact with his son if he really wanted to.
Jackie Gleason’s Family Died Young
Sadly, Herbert Gleason’s abandonment of his family wasn’t the only tragedy that would strike the Gleason family.
Jackie had an older brother named Clement who was always pretty sickly as a child. Clement ended up dying of spinal meningitis when Jackie was just 3 years old. After Herbert walked out on his family, Jackie’s mom, Maisie, became especially protective of her son seeing as he was the only one she still had left.
She would confine him inside at all times. She wouldn’t dare let him out of her sight. After losing her eldest child and her husband, she couldn’t bear to lose anyone else.
Jackie wasn’t allowed to go outside and play with the neighborhood kids. He used to just sit and watch them as they played with his face pressed firmly against his bedroom window.
When Gleason was just 19, his mother died at the age of 50, leaving him homeless and completely broke. From then on out he had to fend for himself if he wanted to survive.
Jackie Started Working In Shady Nightclubs
Jackie’s family had always been poor. In fact, the set of The Honeymooners was inspired by the Brooklyn slum that he grew up in. But after Gleason’s mother passed away, Jackie was left completely destitute. He needed to find a way to support himself and he needed to do so quickly if he didn’t want to become just another beggar on the street corner. Gleason’s girlfriend at the time offered for him to come live with her parents, but Gleason turned that offer down.
He somehow managed to find a roommate in the city and started working odd jobs to pay the bills and fill his belly. At first, he worked as a carnival attendant before finding work as a stunt driver. He then found work as an emcee in a Brooklyn nightclub.
He also started performing at some of the seedier nightclubs around the New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania areas. Gleason apparently failed miserably as a stand-up comic and some even accused him of stealing his jokes from Milton Berle, but he did much better as a table-hopping comic which allowed him to interact with the audience directly.
These club gigs, despite being pretty low-key, eventually attracted the attention of talent scouts who helped him score small roles in films and Broadway musicals. When he was 34 years old, he was given his own television variety show, The Jackie Gleason Show.
Gleason Was A Morbid Alcoholic
Jackie always liked to party but eventually, his lifestyle started to take a toll on his health and well-being.
Gleason’s high-energy parties oftentimes got out of hand. Eventually, he invested in a soundproof suite so that his other guests wouldn’t be disturbed by his raucous revelry.
And when he would get drunk, he wouldn’t be the sweet, chatty, life-of-the-party, kind of drunk, rather he was often described as being especially mean-spirited, nasty, and cruel whenever he hit the bottle – which mind you was quite regularly.
Gleason was also notorious for always drinking while on the job. Regardless of what set he was on, his go-to drink of choice was always coffee and whiskey.
Jackie’s drinking problem only got worse as he got older. It’s reported that he would rarely even spend time with his family during the holidays. Allegedly, he would spend our or so with his wife and daughters on Christmas before going out all night to get wrecked with his drinking buddies.
His drinking was certainly one of the major reasons why his first marriage to Genevieve Halford fell apart.
Jackie Was Unpredictable On Set
No one can really deny Jackie’s genius as a performer but it’s worth noting that a lot of his former co-stars remember him being particularly problematic to work with. Gleason was always demanding super-high salaries and his endless list of ridiculous demands only became more and more absurd. At one point he demanded that he was given the longest limousine so that everyone would know just how important he was.
He infamously even insisted that CBS move his show to Miami, Florida so that he could keep up with his golf game year-round.
Jackie was well-known for being a particularly difficult person to work with on set as well. He hated rehearsing, insisting on doing everything improvised instead. While he thrived under those conditions, his co-stars hated his methods. They even ended up having to rehearse their lines behind his back.
Gleason’s drinking was also a pretty big issue when he was on set. Everyone expected him to show up to work either drunk or openly drinking. As such, no one knew what his temperament might be from one day to the next.
His alcoholism made him prone to abrupt mood swings. He could be kind and pleasant one minute and hostile and aggressive the next. Everyone in his circle had to constantly walk on eggshells to not invoke his rage.
Well, that’s about all the time we’ve got for this video. Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed going on this little journey with us. Jackie Gleason may not have been the most affable individual in Hollywood’s history but he certainly left his mark on the industry. It’s pretty clear that he was one of the most influential comics to ever grace the small screen.
Now’s your turn to let your voice be heard. In the comments section below let us know what your favorite Jackie Gleason show was between The Honeymooners and The Jackie Gleason Show.
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