30 August 2002 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Jackie Gleason's dramatic roles
"Studio One" was one of the many excellent anthology series from the golden age of television. It usually featured original hour-long dramas, occasionally adapting famous works or biographical material. Many big-name actors of the period guested on this prestigious series.
This posting relates specifically to Jackie Gleason's appearances on "Studio One". Gleason guest-starred in four episodes, three of which I have seen. "The Show-Off" (1954) is an abridged version of the comedy play by George Kelly (Grace Kelly's uncle). Gleason stars as Aubrey Piper, a blowhard who marries his way into the respectable Fisher family, brings the family to the brink of ruin, and then makes good at the end. Gleason's performance here is a bit too similar to Ralph Kramden, but less sympathetic. It's unfortunate that the ingenue role in "The Show-Off" is named Amy Fisher, as this name now provokes laughs for the wrong reason. (Remember the Long Island Lolita case?)
"Short Cut" (1954) is a stolid drama, starring Gleason in a dead-serious role as a crusading attorney-general who grimly learns that there's no short cut to justice. Gleason's dramatic performance is excellent, but the material is weak. He's abetted by a dull actor named Lin McCarthy and by Priscilla Gillette, a repertory actress who appeared in many episodes of "Studio One".
"The Laugh Maker" (1953) is an intriguing drama about a comedian, starring Jackie Gleason and Art Carney. Gleason plays Jerry Giles (note the same initials), a popular TV comedian who is apparently based on Gleason himself. We never see Giles doing his act, but at one point he appears in costume ... and he's wearing the same outfit Gleason wore on his Admiral TV series as Fenwick Babbitt, one of his early recurring characters who got phased out in favour of the more popular Ralph Kramden. Carney plays a reporter who is assigned to get "the real story" on the beloved comedian Giles. No big surprise: Carney interviews the people who know Giles, and he discovers that the funny man isn't so jolly in private life.
The best performance in "The Laugh Maker" is given by Marian Seldes as Giles's (Gleason's) sister. This is strange casting, as Seldes was broomstick-thin in those days and Gleason was already quite hefty. Seldes and Gleason have no scenes together, which makes the casting a bit more plausible.
Viewers who have seen "The Hustler" or "Gigot" already know that Jackie Gleason was a gifted dramatic actor, but these episodes are a revelation. Gleason's performance in "The Laugh Maker" is superb, but he's let down by a trite script.