Reunited for a Made-for-TV Movie, Jackie Gleason and Art Carney Savor a Wacky Second Honeymoon
The honeymoon isn't over. Now, 30 years after making The Honeymooners sketches, which still reign in rerun heaven, Jackie Gleason and Art Carney have never been better. On Sept. 23 they are together again, in a comedy, Izzy and Moe, a two-hour CBS TV movie filmed in New York this summer. They co-star as vaudevillians who become bootlegger busters during Prohibition. This month the Showtime cable network began broadcasting 52 previously unreleased Honeymooners skits that were part of Gleason's variety show. Billed as "lost," they weren't so much lost as found—in a Miami vault where Gleason had stored them all these years. Always popular in reruns, the show has attained cult status in recent years, and college students now have annual fan-club conventions. "These kids know all the moves," Gleason says with amazement.
So still do Gleason and Carney. Although they had not seen each other in seven years, since they worked on a Honeymooners special in Atlantic City, both men found that they fit together like corned beef and cabbage. "It was like old times," says Carney. "We met in the makeup room, gave each other a big hug and got to work." Agrees Gleason, "It's like we never left each other. Carney's still pitching me homers."
Over the years the two had kept in touch with each other, and with the incomparable Alice—Audrey Meadows. But, says Gleason, "Our lives had gone separate ways." Before the renewed interest in The Honeymooners, Gleason had been living in semiretirement in Ft. Lauderdale, making occasional films such as the Smokey and the Bandit series with Burt Reynolds. (After The Honeymooners, CBS paid Gleason $1.5 million over 15 years just to keep him off other networks.) Carney had worked on Broadway and in films, including his Oscar-winning Harry and Tonto in 1974.
Still, a visitor to the set in August would take them for brothers. Looking like a sharpie in his Prohibition-era pinstriped suit, pencil mustache and red carnation boutonniere, Gleason sits in the middle of movie-set chaos, impassive as a Buddha. At 69, after a high-rolling life as expansive as his gargantuan weight and talent, the Great One is thinner than in the old days, but still formidable. At Gleason's side is Carney, kindly and gray-haired at 66. Between takes, the two say only a few words to each other, lobbing one-liners for their own amusement. Comical in knickers, Carney deadpans, "Can I keep the outfit?" Gleason: "Not the shoes." Carney: "These are my shoes." Jackie's third wife, Marilyn, a daily visitor to the set, smiles indulgently at their banter. "They're having a great time," she says.
The comedians' chemistry carries over into their scenes, where they improvise impishly. Dressed in drag for one scene, Carney delicately digs for a mirror in his purse. Gleason, in character, gives his partner a withering look. Says director Jackie Cooper, the former child star, "At the end of a scene, I like to keep the cameras rolling, just to see what they'll do."
On the Izzy and Moe set, as on The Honeymooners, Gleason is the boss. He keeps to an eight-hour schedule and, abhorring rehearsals ("It ruins the spontaneity"), he does his scenes with Carney after one read-through of their lines in Gleason's trailer. Admits Cooper, "I'm glad I've had experience in vaudeville. Another director might be ready for the hospital by now."
No detail escapes the eye of Gleason, who contributed scenes to Robert Boris' script and composed three songs for the Dixieland score. Explains Gleason, "Frank Sinatra recorded my theme song—My Way. My theory has always been, let me do it my way, and I'll take the responsibility if it fails."
Gleason rejected three scripts from producer Robert (Terrible Joe Moran) Halmi before suggesting a story about two real-life Prohibition agents who assumed comical disguises in their work. "I liked the idea because it was not another version of Ralph and Ed," he says. "We'd done that."
The Honeymooners was a high-wire act for Gleason, Carney, Meadows and Joyce Randolph (Norton's wife, Trixie). A quick study, Gleason would memorize the script the day of the show. "I was too busy running a party at Toots Shor's," Gleason cracks. His spontaneous style was hard on the others. "It was chaotic," says Carney. "You couldn't worry about it, or you'd be a wreck." With no breaks except for scene changes during the performance before a studio audience, the cast relied on their wits to keep going. Once, when someone missed an entrance, Carney, alone onstage, went to the fridge, found an orange and peeled it for almost two minutes.
Gleason generously gives Carney "90 percent of the credit" for the success of the show. "He has exquisite timing—and the best body language in the world." Says Carney, "I drew Ed's gestures from my father, who used to make elaborate flourishes over signing my report card when I was a kid."
Born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., Carney, like Gleason, had no formal acting training. After doing dialect comedy on radio, he was cast in the first Honeymooners sketch in 1950 on The Cavalcade of Stars. Carney devised Norton's "wardrobe" using a hat he bought in high school. (He still has the hat, which he keeps on a shelf at his waterside home in Westbrook, Conn.)
Gleason created The Honeymooners from his experiences growing up in Brooklyn. "I knew thousands of Nortons, millions of Kramdens," says Gleason, drawing on a cigarette in his trailer. "Everybody has dreams, only Ralph's are more fantastic. He's always trying to make it, but he misses."
Gleason's own childhood was no sitcom. "I had a tough life," he says. "My father disappeared when I was 9, and my mother died when I was 19." Mrs. Gleason, a subway toll collector, kept young Herbert John (his mom called him Jackie) out of school until he was 8. "My older brother had died, and she didn't want to let me out of her sight."
A born comic, Jackie "started in front of the candy store." But he is no jolly fat man. "I'm very unfunny and boring when I'm not onstage." Observes Carney, "I have great affection for Jackie, as he has for me. But I've always felt closest to him when we're working."
The 39 classic half-hour episodes of The Honeymooners that are so popular come from one season, 1955-56. "They offered me $11 million for three seasons," says Gleason, "but there wasn't enough material for that." In the late 1960s there was a revival of The Honeymooners with Sheila MacRae and Jane Kean as the wives, but it didn't have that old black-and-white magic. Though Gleason snagged an Oscar nomination for 1961 's The Hustler, he never won an Emmy for The Honeymooners, his most innovative work.
Carney, the second banana, was perhaps better able to separate himself from his Honeymooners persona. Yet, although he has been praised as a brilliant comedian, Carney remains somewhat insecure about his talent. "I never thought I was as good as some of the things that were said about me." An introvert, he confides, "I always wanted to be like Ed Norton. Ed was friendly and outgoing, and nothing seemed to bother him. For me, that was all acting."
In 1965, suffering from depression and a drinking problem, Carney suddenly withdrew from The Odd Couple, his hit show on Broadway. "I checked myself into a Connecticut hospital to straighten myself out," he explains. At that time he was separated from his wife of 26 years and having difficulty with the play. He started drinking to ease the pain. "Suddenly, the cocktail hour becomes 2 in the afternoon," he says. "I couldn't handle it." While he was in the hospital, he got a call from Gleason to join the Honeymooners revival. "I got permission from my doctors to go." Today he says, "I'm on the straight and narrow. I don't touch booze, wine, beer—anything at all."
A stabilizing influence for Carney is his wife, Jean, whom he re-wed in 1979. "I just showed up for dinner one night," he says, smiling. The couple dote on six grandchildren, four of whom live nearby. "I'm back where I belong," he says.
Gleason also found his real-life Alice. He and wife Marilyn met many years ago when she was a dancer with the June Taylor troupe on The Cavalcade of Stars. (Choreographer June Taylor is her sister.) "We were in love, but I couldn't get a divorce," says Gleason, a Catholic. He was married to his first wife, Genevieve, from 1936 to 1970, although they were separated for 16 years. His second marriage, to Beverly McKittrick, a former secretary, lasted four years. Marilyn, married and widowed, had moved to Miami after her husband's death. "We just ran into each other one day," says Gleason. "We had that Warner Brothers finish."
The couple, married in 1975, frequently holds hands. Says one associate, "He's happiest when she's here." At home, the Gleasons enjoy playing golf almost every day at the Inverrary Golf Club, where Gleason's contemporary-style mansion is located. Says Marilyn, "He's Ralph sometimes, in his temper and vivacity. He's always saying, 'I've got an idea.' "
Doing Izzy and Moe sounds like one of his best. There is little doubt that Gleason and Carney still know how to make magic. The camera rolls, and Carney follows Gleason down the New York street in a happy, sideways dance that has touches of Gleason's famous "away we go" strut. The crowd applauds, and Gleason and Carney go off arm in arm.
How sweet it is.
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