The Haunted Honeymooner

More relationships might work if one partner existed only as a televised image. Certainly, millions of Americans loved Jackie Gleason, while the sum total of those who could bear being around The Great One, as the comedian called himself, could hold a meeting in Ralph Kramden's kitchen. And it probably would be an Al-Anon meeting at that. Gleason was often very funny as a comic, occasionally very effective as an actor and almost always drunk. In the throes of his addiction he could be meaner and more self-centered than most spoiled celebrities. Gleason spent so little time with his two daughters that he sometimes didn't recognize their voices on the telephone. Neil Simon called his former boss "an abusive, unappreciative s-t." Art Carney was subjected to a subtler but more bizarre brand of torture designed to keep him feeling insecure. In the mid-'70s, when a "Honeymooners" reunion special was in the works and Carney was off doing a movie, Gleason hired Julie Andrews to play the part of Ed Norton.

Five years after his death, Gleason lives on in the 39 " Honeymooners" episodes from the 1955-56 season still repeated on late-night TV-and in two new books that vary as widely in quality as the movies he made. The lesser is Jackie Gleason: An Intimate Portrait of the Great One (253 pages. Pharos. $19.95) by W. J. Weatherby, a U.S. correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. Weatherby pads his book with blah Milton Berle quotes ("He did everything") and an account of a visit to talk-show host Joe Franklin, to pose the question, " How did you place Gleason as a celebrity?" (Franklin: "Ego. Oh, yes, big ego, super-ego, braggadocio.") The Gleason book worth reading is William A. Henry III's The Great One: The Life and Legend of Jackie Gleason (326 pages. Doubleday. $22.50), a densely researched and deliciously written story of the poor Irish kid who went from Halsey Street in Brooklyn to household-word status without ever quite taming his immense talent. Herbert John Gleason, as he was officially known, made his debut in a skit put on by his own PS 30. The theme of that Depression-era show, strangely enough, was a look ahead to the promised miracle of TV. "I got a laugh," Gleason said, "and it was like, I guess, ten spoonfuls of cocaine."

Henry, the theater critic for Time, does an excellent job of assessing his subject' showbiz skills. Gleason was, the author says, "subminimal" as a standup, the kind of comic who stepped on his own laugh by saying, "That was a gag." In films, Gleason was sometimes brilliant ("The Hustler"), sometimes awful ("The Toy") but usually so willful as to be beyond direction. Sketch comedy was the one area in which he consistently excelled, and for which he stayed relatively sober. Henry deftly evokes such characters as Reginald Van Gleason, the dissolute playboy who, when a judge asked him where he was on the night of Aug. 12, 1956, replied, "Coming home from a New Year's Eve party." Tenement-dweller Ralph Kramden was not as quotable, but twice as funny for being a complete schlemiel in an era when prime time bristled with blond children and modern appliances. Henry provides some helpful "Honeymooners" analysis ("Gleason... had rooted the Kramden character... in his own half-cynical, half-slushy view of life"), but his reporting on the business aspects of Gleason's career is even better. One ex-CBS executive he found explains how the network took advantage of its star, giving him a tiny percentage of the show's profit and then charging him for production costs. One thing about drunks is, they get rolled.