by William A. Henry III

by W.J. Weatherby

Ralph Kramden, as every couch potato knows, is a lovable bully, equal parts dreamer, blowhard and big-hearted buffoon. When he trips over his own foibles, as inevitably he does, he turns into an abashed puppy, his saving grace. Now subtract the lovable, big-hearted puppy. What you get, it seems, is Kramden's creator.

This is the insecure Gleason of Henry's book (Doubleday, $22.50), the better written and more moving of the two biographies, both of which deliver the basic story of the outsize comedian who rose to fame from scrappy blue-collar roots. Herbert John (Jackie) Gleason was born in New York City in 1916 to Mae and Herb Gleason, a hard-drinking life insurance clerk who deserted the family when his son was 9 years old, never to be heard from again. Gleason began as a stand-up comic, did stunt dives from the Steel Pier in Atlantic City and tried pro boxing, four-round bouts with a $2 guarantee. But by the mid-'40s he was again doing stand-up, this time at Broadway clubs, where he occasionally got as much as $3,000 a week. A 1949-50 TV stint on NBC's The Life of Riley led to stardom on the smaller DuMont network's Cavalcade of Stars. There he met Art Carney. And there, with Gleason portraying the boisterous bus driver Ralph Kramden and Carney the sewer worker Ed Norton, The Honeymooners was hatched. In 1955, CBS launched the series that would make Gleason wealthy and a rerun immortal.

Weatherby, a biographer also of James Baldwin and Salman Rushdie, assures us repeatedly that Gleason was a wondrously energetic, hard-drinking, free-spending comedy genius, but his Intimate Portrait (Pharos Books, $19.95) bogs down in trivia. Example: For a TV appearance with Frank Sinatra, Gleason was awarded a Cadillac, "bottle green, according to legend, but black according to the records of the Cadillac agency."

Henry, culture critic for TIME magazine and twice a Pulitzer prizewinner (once for TV criticism), offers a harsher but far more persuasive study: Gleason as an insecure bully seeking always to dominate, a boozer, a glutton, a rotten father, an uncertain friend.

A telling number of associates speak against him. Gene Wolsk, manager of the 1978 Gleason tour of Larry Gelbart's play Sly Fox: "The worst person I ever worked with in 40 years in show business." Mike Dann, longtime programming chief at CBS: "A true depressive...the most self-destructive performer I ever knew." Neil Simon, explaining what kept him laboring over Come Blow Your Horn, his first stage hit: "I did not want to get to be a middle-aged man...writing gags for some abusive, unappreciative shit like Jackie Gleason."

As a husband, he was also no Great One. Jackie had three wives: Genevieve, a devout Catholic, bore him two daughters and for years wrangled with him over their divorce proceedings; Beverly he parted from after four years; Marilyn, sister of June Taylor, his TV show choreographer, kept him content until his death (com cancer, at 71, in 1987.

Yet even those who loathed Gleason acknowledge his extraordinary talent, which Henry's biography so successfully recalls, as it recalls also the quixotic flashes of generosity and tenderness that belied the gross behavior. We mourn, it seems, a Gleason we did not know; Ralph Kramden is the man we really miss.

by Susan Crosland

A well-connected and respected London-based journalist and widow of a British Foreign Secretary, Crosland has been described as "the thinking reader's Jackie Collins." To get through Dangerous Games, the thinking reader must not think too much.

A political thriller, Dangerous Games has an obvious plot and is staffed with characters who are self-important or self-deluded. Georgie Chase and Hugo Carroll are the paradigmatic American power couple. She's the glamorous editor of a weekly newsmagazine; he's a charismatic, highly decorated newspaper columnist. Their lives are thrown into disarray by a stubby-fingered lobbyist and his beautiful assistant. Georgie becomes intrigued with the lobbyist; Hugo becomes infatuated with the ambitious assistant, who spreads her charms to England and the in-trouble-with-the-IRA cabinet minister husband of Georgie's best friend.

Crosland knows how the corridors of power are decorated. But such insider knowledge does nothing to strip the book of its by-the-numbers quality. The writing ranges from the offensive (a room is "large enough to house a-dozen ghetto families") to the banal: "He had to exorcise the brute ugliness that had burst from his core on Saturday night." Jackie Collins, come home. All is forgiven. (Random House, $20)

by Erich Segal

It's easy to take cheap shots at Segal—author, lest anyone forget, of the phenomenal 1970 best-seller Love Story. For instance, what can you say about a book that stultifies? That it's protracted, predictable and pretentious. Better to borrow from 19th-century critic Ambrose Bierce and note that the covers of Acts of Faith are too far apart.

These 525 pages center on Tim Hogan, an Irish Catholic one-time juvenile delinquent, and Daniel and Deborah Luria, a brother and sister whose father comes from a long line of Orthodox rabbis. That Daniel will follow in Dad's footsteps is as certain as sunrise, sunset. Deborah and Tim fall madly in love. That would be fine were her father in another profession and Tim not studying for the priesthood. As the action swings from New York City to the Holy Land to the Vatican, they undergo numerous agonizing crises ("Could his feelings for Deborah be even stronger than his love for Christ?"). To get through them all—now there's an act of faith. (Bantam, $23)

>ROLL OVER, SHAKESPEARE

SONG TITLES AND LYRICS FROM I'VE Got Tears in My Ears from Lyin' on My Back in My Bed While I Cry Over You: Country Music's Best (and Funniest) Lines, compiled by Paula Schwed (Andrews and McMeel, $6.95)

•"I'm the Only Hell Mama Ever Raised"—Bobby Borchers, Wayne Kemp and Mack Vickery, 1975

•"If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body, Would You Hold It Against Me?"—David M. Bellamy, 1979

•"Worst You Ever Gave Me Was the Best I Ever Had"—Daniel D. Hice and Ruby F. Hice, 1976

•"You can eat crackers in my bed anytime"—from "Crackers," Kye Fleming and Dennis W. Morgan, 1980

•"Not Tonight, I've Got a Heartache"—Walt Aldridge and Tom Brasfield, 1977

•"Loving Here, Living There and Lying in Between"—Eugene Dobbins, Tony Austin and Johnny A. Wilson, 1977

•"If the Phone Doesn't Ring, It's Me"—Jimmy Buffett, Waylon Jennings and Michael E. Utley, 1985

•"You're Out Doing What I'm Here Doing Without"—Allen Frizzell and Anthony Roberts, 1983

•"My tears have washed 'I love you' from the blackboard of my heart"—from "Blackboard of My Heart," Hank Thompson, Lyle Gaston, 1956

•"I only miss you on days that end in 'Y' "—from "Days That End in 'Y,' " Jim Malloy and Even Stevens, 1975

•"Thank God and Greyhound you're gone"—from "Thank God and Greyhound," Larry Kingston and Ed Nix, 1970

•"Drop kick me, Jesus, through the goalposts of life"—from "Drop Kick Me, Jesus" Paul Craft, 1976

•"I Don't Know Whether to Kill Myself or Go Bowling"—from "I Don't Know Whether to Kill Myself," Thomas J. Sharp, 1978

  • Contributors:
  • Jeff Brown,
  • Joanne Kaufman.