THE ENTERTAINER, THE PRESIDENT, AND THE ALIENS
Have you heard the one about 1950s sitcom star Jackie Gleason, Richard Nixon, and the dead aliens? It’s not the set-up for a joke but the ‘true story’ of an encounter between a famous entertainer and the corpses of several ET entities, all arranged by a later-disgraced US President. BRIAN J ROBB tells all...
Have you heard the one about 1950s sitcom star Jackie Gleason, US President Richard Nixon, and the dead aliens? It’s not the set-up for a joke but the ‘true story’ of an encounter between a famous entertainer and the corpses of several extraterrestrial entities, all arranged by a later-disgraced US President. BRIAN J ROBB tells all.
Born in the middle of the First World War, Jackie Gleason grew up in Brooklyn, New York. The first strange event in Gleason’s young life happened before he was even 10 years old. Shortly before Christmas in 1925, his father, Herbert, destroyed all the family photos in which he appeared, collected his pay check from the insurance office where he worked, and promptly vanished, never to be seen again.
Once it was clear this was no temporary vanishing act, Gleason’s mother, Mae, got a job to help support her and her son, while young Jackie drifted into life as a junior member of a local gang. He quickly developed some skill as a pool hustler (skills that came in handy in his dramatic role as Minnesota Fats in the 1961 Paul Newman movie The Hustler) and dropped out of school. The teenage Gleason secured work front of house at a local theatre before putting together a knockabout comedy act with some friends.
A decade after her husband vanished, Mae Gleason died. Aged only 19, Jackie Gleason now had no home and no parents. He shacked up with some comedian friends in an overcrowded, low-rent New York hotel room. Soon his fortunes changed, as he started scoring work in New York’s club scene, where his shtick quickly came to be insulting the paying clientele. Soon, he was signed up to a movie contract with Warner Bros at $250 per week, more money than the young performer could ever imagine earning on stage.
Many films followed during the years of the Second World War, often pairing Gleason with established Warners gangster stars such as Humphrey Bogart ( All Through the Night, 1941) and Edward G Robinson ( Larceny, Inc., 1942). A badly-healed broken left arm kept Gleason out of war service. Instead, he entertained off-duty troops, developing a raucous nightclub act that ran in tandem with his slow-burn film career.
It was, however, in the post-war world of television that Jackie Gleason won nationwide fame. He featured in the first
series of long-running sitcom The Life of Riley in 1949-1950, before bringing his nightclub act to television as host of the variety format The Jackie Gleason Show. It was, however, with his role as blowhard bus driver Ralph Kramden in the sitcom The Honeymooners that Gleason really made his mark. The show found wide appeal through its depiction of an average American urban household of the 1950s, tinged with an aspirational edge as Gleason’s Ralph sought the American dream. The show’s classic status owes much to Gleason’s foresight in having it recorded, allowing for constant reruns over the years. After The Honeymooners, his film career continued, from The Hustler right through to the trio of Smokey and the Bandit movies in the late-1970s and early-1980s. His fame secure, Gleason died in 1987, aged 71.
However, a little-known part of this very public showman’s life was his deep interest in the paranormal and the unexplained, covering the entire gamut of what we might now regard as fortean topics. According to biographer William A Henry in The Great One: The Life and Legend of Jackie Gleason, the entertainer had “a lifelong fascination with the supernatural. He would spend small fortunes on everything from financing psychic research to buying a sealed box said to contain actual ectoplasm, the spirit of life itself. He would contact everyone from backalley charlatans to serious researchers like JB Rhine of Duke University and, disdaining
He had a littleknown interest in the paranormal and unexplained
LEFT: Jackie Gleason with fellow cast members Art Carney and Audrey Meadows in The Honeymooners.