Gleason's honeymoon with fans is not over yet

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It was hard to tell the movie extras in their 1920s costumes from the locals at the corner of Bleecker Street and the Bowery. CBS was shooting scenes in New York City for a made-for-TV movie with Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, titled ``Izzy and Moe.'' The area is a strange mixture of human jetsam from local flophouses, Yuppies from gentrified brownstones, and longtime blue-collar residents. Now, there were striped awnings and clotheslines crowded with underdrawers added by the scene designers to hide intrusive air conditioners.

Jackie Cooper, ``The Kid'' grown up, was directing a trimmed-down Jackie Gleason, nattily dressed in a double-breasted gray pin-striped suit with a red carnation in his lapel and a straw hat.

With four powerful lights and a Panavision camera trained on him, Jackie started his inimitable stroll down the sidewalk, doffing his hat to a passing lady, patting the head of a young boy playing in the street, skipping just a bit to the rhythm of the music (which he had composed) till he reached a door marked ``Moe's Tavern.'' The director shouted ``cut,'' the camera stopped rolling, the music was cut off abruptly, and Jackie removed his hat and sauntered over to an air-conditioned trailer parked on the corner.

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Off the set, pin-striped suit coat tossed aside, suspenders exposed, weariness surfacing, the star of '50s television, '60s films, '70s reruns, and '80s out-of-retirement one-shot projects talks about his life, his work, his various mediums.

How does he feel about the ongoing Gleason revival? Even the Museum of Broadcasting is having an exhibition of 17 sketches from his now-classic TV series, ``The Honeymooners.''

``What revival?'' he asks with a chuckle. ``For 30 years they've been repeating those 39 `Honeymooners' episodes. Each generation catches on to them. The kids like it now. So can you call it a revival?''

Is Jackie Gleason ready for a new series on TV? What if an executive came along right now and offered him a new series?

``First, I would punch him in the nose, then pick him up and say, `No.' ''

Why?

``Listen. I live in Lauderhill, right near Fort Lauderdale in Florida. We play golf every day. Lots of friends come by to visit. Who needs to work?''

The fact is that Jackie Gleason has come out of Florida five times in the last four years to make films . . . the last two being ``Smokey III'' and ``The Sting II.''

Does he watch television there?

``Only sporting events, documentaries, and some shows on public television like `Masterpiece Theatre.' ''

No sitcoms?

``I can't bear to watch sitcoms. Those laugh tracks make me throw up. A guy says `Hello' and he gets a scream. I remember when I said `Hello' . . . I never got a scream. Audrey [Meadows] put it best: `We got laughs the old-fashioned way. . . . We earned them.' ''

One show he does like -- ``The Cosby Show.'' ``Very good. No jokes. All these new black shows coming up are going after Cosby and they're never going to catch him. It's the attitude of his show, the attitude of each of the people in the show toward each other. They like each other and you like them for it. That's very important. Once you get the audience to like the people, you're halfway home.

`` `The Honeymooners' has lasted because, first, it is funny. And second, because the audiences like the people. Alice and Ralph really love each other. Everybody has a Norton and a Kramden in the family.

``You know, there's no real love between the characters in most sitcoms today. Everybody is going for a laugh, and the reality falls apart.''

Jackie is also perturbed by the amount of vulgarity in comedy today. ``When you watch comedians like Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor doing concerts full of four-letter words and worse, that's not comedy. Anybody can get a laugh from kids by saying those things. It's worse than letting your pants fall down for a laugh. And then you put Murphy and Pryor in movies and they're very good. Neither of them needs the smutty material.''

Might Jackie Gleason be persuaded to do a variety show, since TV is especially lacking in that kind of entertainment?

``Variety shows cannot exist now because they depend upon acts. When I did my variety show I did four different characters every week. Nobody can go on for an hour every week, be himself, and expect to entertain people. I did characters and sketches, and that is very difficult. To get all that material together, including a monologue, is terrible work. That kind of thing is all over.''

He believes that Broadway musical theater is dying. ``Broadway has to change its whole approach. In time to come, critics won't be allowed to review a show until it's been open two months and given a chance to find its audience appeal.

``The only other way shows will exist is if they work out a system by which you can order a show to be shown live on your TV set by a computerized phone call. Cameras could be hidden in the theater. If you want to see it live, you go there. If you want to see it at home, you pay for it by computer.''

Why did Jackie Gleason choose to do ``Izzy and Moe''?

``For the last couple of years people have been sending me scripts, trying to get Art Carney and me together again. Every script, when you get right down to it, turned out to be a variation of `The Honeymooners.' So Izzy and Moe were real federal Prohibition agents back in the 1920s, and I thought if we play real people, nobody will accuse us of playing Ralph and Ed again.''

Jackie says he prefers playing drama rather than comedy. ``Drama is a cinch. Comedy is tougher. In drama you've got an hour and a half to impress an audience. In comedy you have an instant critic -- laughter. As soon as you do a bit, the laughs gotta come or you begin to bomb.''

``The Honeymooners,'' which first ran in the 1950s, went off the air between 1957 and 1964, then was revived through the early 1970s. Jackie retired from the series and moved to his palatial home in Florida, interrupting his golfing every now and then to make a movie. All the while ``The Honeymooners'' sequences, repeated over and over again in syndication, have become popular with viewers of all ages. A few months ago Jackie dug out a group of episodes that have never been repeated, put together an NBC special, and sold some of them to cable's pay-TV ``Showtime'' for airing before they, too, go into syndication next year.

``I'm so grateful,'' Gleason says as we wrap up the chat, ``that whenever I did something in my career I did it the best I could. Who would have thought `The Honeymooners' would still be shown 30 years later. How happy I am now that I did shows that way. I can look at them and not be embarrassed.''

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