Though inferior scripts may have been to blame, the last few performances of Jackie Gleason’s otherwise distinguished career were profoundly disillusioning.
His contributions to The Toy, the HBO drama Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson, and Smokey and the Bandit were the work of a second-rate character actor. What had happened to the Gleason of Requiem for a Heavyweight, The Hustler, and Soldier in the Rain — the uncommon comedian with the remarkable knack for creating complex dramatic characters out of ordinary people?
Happily, Gleason’s final role in Garry Marshall’s 1986 film, Nothing in Common , bore no resemblance to the paltry parts he’d endured in preceding years. In Max Basner the has-been salesman, Gleason once again had material worthy of his talent. What Arthur Miller failed to achieve with three dreary hours of Willy Loman, Jackie Gleason accomplished in one five-minute scene, capturing with brilliant economy all the pathos of a salesman on the skids.
Gleason was at his best when he portrayed ordinary men wrestling with fairly common problems. His characters were not the self-absorbed elites of foreign films and teen exploitation pictures. They were average Joes struggling to make a buck, longing for respect, and wondering what had happened to the romance that had briefly blossomed in their young adulthood. They made mistakes, over and over again. If they were lucky, they learned from them.
It may have been providential that Gleason made his television debut in The Life of Riley , for an obsession with the good life — seemingly just out of reach — typified his most successful roles, from Kramden to Basner. Ralph became the archetype of the American Dreamer, the little guy with big ideas, the entrepreneur with no capital, the lottery-addicted working man convinced that some day his number will come up.
Each of Gleason’s characters, from the most broadly comic to the most subtly dramatic, was a variation on this theme. Each found himself playing the lead in a Horatio Alger story that veered off course. Each was an American Tantalus, reaching for success that was forever elusive.
In many ways, Jackie Gleason was the incarnation of the American Dream. Growing up in a Brooklyn tenement, he survived the disappearance of his father and the deaths of his mother and his older brother.
At 19, he was on his own, with nothing to fall back on but an eighth-grade education. He broke into the nightclub circuit in Newark, New Jersey and was on his way. Ralph Kramden was the man he should have been, given his beginnings. Instead, he became everything that Ralph and all the Kramdens of America long to be.
In his latter years, Gleason seemed to be losing his talent, and it is richly ironic that he made a triumphant comeback playing a character facing this same crisis. In Nothing in Common, nothing obscured the greatness of the Great One. Gleason was in control again, and how sweet it was!