05/04/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
Jackie Gleason's fat was his fortune. "When he has a stomachicache," one witsnapper snorted, "it's like a giraffe I having a sore throat." Reporters labeled him the Abdominal Showman, the Prince of Whales, a refrigerator in a sports-jacket, a marshmallow dipped in Vitalis. "Jackie Gleason," Milton Berle cracked, "is my two favorite comedians," and a wag added, "Oral and Lardy, I presume." But inside the Large One dwelt the Great One, the Babe Ruth of comedy, an untutored titan with more God-given talent than a medium-size country. Of all the great TV funnymen, Gleason projected the most powerful presence, a golden effulgence that beamed into millions of homes a largess universal like the sun. And like the sun his humor touched us with warmth. Behind the boozy bravado lived a tenderhearted Irishman whose gift for feeling what others feel quickened in him an actor as well as a buffoon. He was the last of the grand old Irish clowns who could make us laugh till we cried at what fools we mortals be—and then make us cry till we laughed at how sweet it is to be alive.
Gleason could zing one-liners when he had to ("Sex for a fat man is much ado about puffing"), but his genius really ignited when he cooked up a character. Remember Reggie Van Gleason III, the pub-crawling aristocrock whose hiccups could wilt an aspidistra? Joe the Bartender, the pint-pot foolosopher who served his customers beer by the glass and bull by the hour? The Poor Soul, an eternal victim who somehow always encountered a heel to step on him? Hilarious all, but Gleason's supreme creation was Ralph Kramden, the lovable lunkhead of The Honeymooners, a blustering Brooklyn bus driver who dreamed of hitting life's jackpot but always wound up with small change. He had a pea-brained pal named Ed Norton who buzzed around him like a hopeful mosquito, and a sensible wife named Alice who loyally punctured his balloons. Ralph: "This is probably the biggest thing I ever got into!" Alice: "The biggest thing you ever got into was your pants!" Whereupon Ralph brandished a meaty fist and roared: "One of these days, Alice. POW! Right in the kisser!" or "Bang! Zoom! To the moon, Alice!"—empty threats that passed into the language. The Honeymooners itself has passed into the culture. Groucho Marx called it TV's "only real classic."
The best of these skits are painfully, beautifully true to the life of urban poverty they parody—a life Gleason knew well. Born in back-street Brooklyn, he was abandoned at 9 by his hard-drinking dad. Mother Mae found work in a subway booth, and Jackie filled the void with calories and street-corner acclaim. At 15 he dropped out of school and emceed an amateur show for $4 a night; at 19 he was trading insults ("Is that your face, sir, or did your pants fall down?") with beer-maddened brutes in a joint so unsavory "the rats went next door to eat." But in 1952, when The Jackie Gleason Show captured Saturday night for CBS, the slum bunny was suddenly the hottest Jack-in-the-box—a risky perch that only hyped his anxieties and his. appetites. Gleason regularly smoked six packs of cigarettes a day, gobbled four steaks at a sitting, guzzled six Scotches with lunch and six more with dinner, partied till dawn and night after night split the sheets with a different "broad"—a habit that did not amuse his wife. But he worked as hard as he played, and in 1961 he gave Minnesota Fats in The Hustler a cool dash of cologne that won him an Oscar nomination and a 25-year second career in the movies.
Then in the '80s, amazingly, Gleason's TV career took off again. Flattered that Honeymooners reruns had acquired a cult, he released 70 episodes he had squirreled away. Millions watched them every day, and the old showman basked in his glory's afterglow. He died at 71 in the arms of his third wife, Marilyn. "Almost everything I wanted to do, I've been able to do," he said not long before the end, "and most of it turned out pretty good." For the Great One, that was an uncharacteristic understatement.