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The Great One(s)

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I’ve been sort of half-trying to watch this Jackie Gleason made-for-TV semi-bio on CBS this evening. Somehow, I just can’t get into it; I know, I just dead-solid know, that they’re going to screw it up. And that would just break my heart. So maybe I’ll just write about him instead. Maybe that’ll help.

See, it’s like this: my whole life, or the sentient parts of it anyway, I’ve aspired to be what for lack of a better term I’ll call a Badass. I can’t say a “man’s man” because it just doesn’t work. And “guy’s guy” sounds like some sweater-wearing dweeb in a “What Sort Of Man Reads Playboy” ad, giggling inanely because he just bowled a gutter ball and his girlfriend just spilled her O’Douls down the neck of her 700-dollar shirt. So Badass it is. No, I don’t mean the sort of half-intelligent bare-knuckled man-ape generally conjured up by the word; I mean something else entirely.

I’m thinking more along the lines of the kind of man Gleason was, onstage and in life too. The kind of guy who is always having a good time, unflappable, cool as some cucumbers (as Wodehouse always said), sharp, suave, knowing, confident; the kind of man who can pull off a Brioni suit and Italian loafers or a pair of jeans and engineer boots with equal aplomb, the kind of guy who walks into a room and, as the old joke goes, the guys want to be him and the women want to do him. The kind of guy who’s humane enough to be polite to a street bum and tough enough to kick his ass if he cracks wise to the beautiful woman on his arm. The kind of guy who is equal parts elegance and earthiness, who knows both the proper way to decant a fine cognac and the proper way to sink the eight-ball in a tough joint for all the money, and who knows why that sort of knowledge matters. The kind of guy who catches everyone’s eye without ever trying, and the kind of guy nobody really resents for it. The kind of guy who always has the mot juste on the tip of his tongue and the wit to know when to say it, and when not to. The kind of guy who’s smart enough to know when it’s okay to act stupid. I always tried to be that guy, and I think I might even have been successful at it. Once, maybe twice, for no more than five minutes at a time, my whole life.

My grandfather on my mother’s side was that way, albeit in a more countryfied version. He was a jolly, happy-go-lucky sort, and nothing ever really seemed to bother him too much. The rest of my mom’s family (except for two of my uncles) are a bunch of certified nuts, running the full gamut: I have criminal cousins, hysterical manic-depressive aunts, befuddled henpecked uncles, and crack-whore nieces. In the midst of this ongoing maelstrom, this human flying circus, this anthropologist’s nightmare, my grandfather was untouchable cool personified, and the whole family looked to him for what strength it had. When he died, the whole thing just flew apart. One aunt attempted suicide. So did a cousin. At the burial, one aunt threw herself onto the coffin begging to be buried with him. If I remember right, she hadn’t even spoken to him in 20 years.

And even the way he died was cool. He had a heart attack coming home at dawn from an all-nighter at an illegal whiskey-and-gambling house in rural Cabarrus County. He was 66. I never found out, but I’d just bet he had a pint of Rock & Rye in one pocket and most of the other poker players’ cash in the other. It would have been just like him.

So that’s the kind of guy he was, and the kind of guy Gleason was too, or the Brooklyn version of it anyway. The man knew how to live, and he lived till he died. In these days, when real male role models are only just beginning to claw back up from the ground they’d been buried in by Birkenstock-clad treehugging politically-correct pseudohippies, sniveling pretentious yuppies, and hypersensitive New-Age types, Gleason’s life looks like some sort of bizarre, buck-wild anachronism. It’s a good thing he’s gone, really. I don’t think he would’ve been very thrilled with life in the no-smoking smarm of the Tofu Era.

Gleason was never the only one, either. Where have all the badasses gone? The guys like Robert Mitchum, say, or Clark Gable? Can you imagine Babe Ruth getting hired on by any modern-day MLB™ team? My God, they’d require him to go through booze-and-hot-dog rehab and a year’s worth of sensitivity training first. He’d give the patrician puppies running baseball nowadays a coronary, and it sure wouldn’t be because their arteries were clogged by too many Dodger Dogs either.

Fats Waller was another one. Fats played in the clubs half the night, then spent the rest of it playing some more at whatever house party was going on in Harlem, a jug of whiskey at his feet, a cigar between his teeth, and a platter of fried chicken on top of the piano. Everybody knew Fats, and everybody loved him. The joint was never jumpin’ until Fats was in the house. By the time the sun came up, the jug was dry, the plate was empty, the cigar was a forgotten stub, but Fats kept right on swinging. I saw an interview with his son a few years back on TV, and he claimed he hardly knew his dad when he was little because he was usually asleep during the day after being out all night making the music he’ll be forever remembered for. When he got a little older, Fats would take him around some, and the great thing about it all is that his son didn’t seem to resent the whole near-absentee-father thing at all. He didn’t spend a moment grinding any of those “I’m neurotic because I was neglected” axes; he flat-out said that he realized his father belonged to the whole world, and he actually felt privileged to have had as much of him as he did. If the Waller phenomenon had happened in the modern era, not that it possibly could anyway, the kid would be singing in some poor-pitiful-me whiny-assed emo band by now. Or he’d maybe be suing somebody, or both.

Oh God, the guy playing Gleason just attempted a “Bang, Zoom!” It was pitiful. But I suppose it isn’t really his fault. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes for anything. Trying to play Gleason for this actor must be like me trying to be Elvis; not mimic Elvis or mock Elvis, but actually be what he was. Today’s actors have spent so much time trying to “internalize” their characters, to “submerge themselves” in their roles, to “play small,” they’ve Method-acted their way out of any ability to understand what Larger Than Life means. Can you imagine Keanu Reeves trying to play Charlton Heston, or Charlie Sheen trying on Spencer Tracy? The poor schlemiel is simply in over his head.

Johnny Cash is another one. I had the pleasure of actually performing onstage with the man. He showed up at one of my band’s shows and, when I dedicated a tune to “the Man in Black” (not realizing that he had written the damned thing), he strolled up to the stage and stuck out his hand. I took it, stammering who-knows-what silly-assed babble. He said, in that inimitable voice, “Ya sound real good, son.” I swear to God he was at least 7 feet tall, I know he was. I saw him years later in New York performing at The Ritz (not the old one, the one uptown). The crowd actually booed him when he asked for a round of applause for the flavor-of-the-month from the Nashville Hat Squad who opened the show, and who he was bringing up onstage for the grand finale. I was initially pretty pissed at New York for that, but eventually I realized that they weren’t booing Johnny so much as they were booing the very idea of Johnny taking a moment of his valuable time to try to stand this dwarf up on his shoulders. It was kind and considerate of Johnny, but it was also wasted effort. I can’t even remember the guy’s name, and I’d bet that nobody else who was there that night does either. He was in over his head too.

A great Gleason story: once in the early goings of The Honeymooners (a show I’d still rather watch than just about anything else on TV now), Gleason and the rest of the cast got handed a script which was just simply not good enough. Since Gleason never bothered with rehearsals, he, Art Carney, and a couple of the writers decided in the hour and a half or so they had before airtime to head back to The Great One’s apartment and write a new script. They sat around for a good while scratching their heads and coming up with exactly zippo. Finally Gleason decided that maybe they’d come up with something if they were sitting in a bar rather than around his kitchen table. Needless to say, they ended up sloshed. They got back to the studio and drunkenly improvised the whole segment, start to finish. On national TV. Gleason was sure he’d be fired immediately. The whole cast was looking at the want ads for work before the klieg lights had even cooled off.

The episode was hailed as one of their best ever. I’ve seen it, and you know what? It is.

Now that’s badass.

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About Mike Hendrix

  • Oh yeah, McQueen too for sure. And Martin. Didn’t forget ’em, really, but I’m thinking now that this piece could have been a little bit longer, eh? And maybe I should’ve included a pic of my knuckles, which have “Bang/Zoom” tattooed on ’em… 😉

  • Rich Cook

    Got Gleasons music on CD. Besides being a genuine badass and actor he also had multiple albums on the charts as a musician. You forgot one other genuine badass, the last real actor–Steve McQueen.

  • Eric Olsen

    So badass as to be nationwide. Don’t forget Dean Martin.