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Jackie Gleason was a pioneer of television comedy. "The Honeymooners" and "The Jackie Gleason Show" have been audience favorites for more than half a century.
Actress-Director Rain Pryor talks about how her father Richard Pryor was a comedy pioneer with his raw stand-up performances and honest critiques of race.
Actress-Director Rain Pryor talks about her father Richard Pryor's comedic influences including Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Gleason and Bill Cosby and the comedians who have been inspired by him like Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Steve Harvey.
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In 1941, the film mogul Jack Warner caught Gleason's act at the Club 18. Responding to the comedian's loudmouthed, off-color performance, Warner signed him to a contract on the spot. At age 25, Gleason pulled up stakes and headed for Hollywood.
This early encounter with the movies proved disappointing. Warner could not even remember who the 250-pound comic was, attributing his signature on Gleason's contract to drunkenness. During a year as a studio player at Warner Brothers,
Gleason was cast in minor roles in three films: Navy Blues (1941), Larceny, Inc. (1942), and All Through the Night (1942). His option was not renewed. Signing on with Twentieth Century Fox, he appeared in Springtime in the Rockies and Orchestra Wives during 1942 but was again let go. This bitter experience in Los Angeles was never quite forgotten. Gleason would prefer to live and work on the East Coast, first in New York and later in Florida, for the balance of his career.
Returning to nightclub work, he took whatever stage roles he could get, and also tried his hand at radio, several times substituting for host Bob Crosby on the Old Gold Hour, a National Broadcasting Company variety program. Broadway appearances included Artists and Models (1943) and Follow the Girls (1944). In the latter he won some notice for his drag impersonation of a Navy Wave. He nonetheless found himself unable to gain a starring role on Broadway, and though he worked regularly at Manhattan cabarets, his career had reached a kind of plateau. As the New York Mirror columnist Jim Bishop wrote, "He was not big enough for the $5,000-a-week places."
In 1948, George ("Bullets") Durgom took over management of Gleason's career, thus beginning a mutually profitable long-term association. Within a year he had placed Gleason in a featured role with Nancy Walker in the musical Along Fifth Avenue (1949). But Durgom was looking beyond Broadway. At a time when many show business pundits had doubts about television, he saw the medium, with its overabundance of close-ups, as a natural showcase for the comic's extravagant mugging and gesturing.
Gleason's first encounter with television, however, was less than auspicious. In 1949, he was cast in the title role of the TV adaptation of a popular radio situation comedy, The Life of Riley. The Riley character was something of a kindhearted blockhead, a role very much out of character for the quick-witted smooth talker. The show received poor notices and the series was quickly canceled, marking another West Coast failure. (It was later revived successfully with its radio star, William Bendix, in the title role.)
A far more advantageous genre for the display of Gleason's talents was the comedy-variety format. Vaudevillians and nightclub stand-ups, such as Milton Berle, Jack Carter, and Eddie Cantor, were achieving spectacular TV successes with this type of programming. Gleason got a key break in 1950 when he was signed by the Dumont Network as summer host of Cavalcade of Stars.
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Originally called Toast of the Town, The Ed Sullivan Show ran from 1948-1971 on CBS and was an American staple in the 50s and 60s. The American variety show featured the Who's Who of celebritydom over the decades, including Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Tony Bennett, Carol Channing, Lucille Ball, The Jackson 5, and The Doors.
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