Jackie Gleason played golf the way he lived life, with bluster, laughter and scotch

Jackie Gleason played golf the way he lived life, with bluster, laughter and scotch

Arnold Palmer was one of Jackie Gleason's many golf buddies.
Courtesy of the Gleason family

By 1960, Arnold Palmer was accustomed to being the most famous man on every golf course he played. Along with the young President John F. Kennedy, Palmer helped define a new vigorous ideal of masculinity for American men. He’d won the Masters twice and the U.S. Open once and even made the cover of Time Magazine, about as potent an emblem of mainstream success in 1961 as you could find. At age 30, Palmer was at the height of his fame and powers, but on a fall day in 1960, Palmer wasn’t the most famous guy at Shawnee Country Club in northeastern Pennsylvania, not by a long shot. The big star was his opponent, the large and larger-than-life Jackie Gleason, who by virtue of his oversized appetites and reputation as a raconteur was as Dickensian as his most beloved television characters.

Gleason was 45 and a show-business legend. A novice to golf—in the Brooklyn neighborhood where he was raised the games were turnstile jumping and hustling pool—Gleason had hosted one of the most successful TV variety shows in the 1950s, and during one magical year in 1956 filmed all 39 episodes of The Honeymooners. These were the early days of television, before UHF, cable, DVDs and DVRs, and The Jackie Gleason Show averaged a Nielsen rating of 42.4 for the 1954-55 season, which meant that 42.4 percent of the nation’s households with television sets were tuned to Gleason’s show. For perspective, the 2009 Super Bowl received a 42.0 Nielsen rating.

During that Honeymooners season, Gleason was learning to play golf, which led to the classic “The Golfer” episode, where Gleason’s Ralph Kramden, the volatile-yet-lovable, hard-luck bus driver tries to learn golf to impress his boss and get the promotion and raise that would never come.

Gleason as Kramden enters the sparsely furnished Kramden apartment—the closest American television has ever come to showing an unsentimental working class, paycheck-to-paycheck life—and starts making comically awkward, lurching swings with a golf club. He’s dressed in flamboyant golf attire (plaid plus-fours, argyle sweater, tam-o’-shanter), which clashes even in black-and-white. Art Carney as sewer worker Ed Norton, Kramden’s good-hearted if slow-witted pal, enters the apartment with a golf book to help his friend.

That’s where Jackie Gleason the golfer was in 1956, so to be playing with Arnold Palmer in 1960 was pretty good. CBS filmed the match for a special called “Sunday Sports Spectacular: Jackie Gleason with Putter and Cue,” where Gleason played golf against Palmer and pool against Willie Mosconi. Gleason grew to love golf so much that he eventually moved his entire show to Florida to play year-round. He even hosted a PGA Tour event there (the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic, which is now the Honda Classic), but his skill at pool, honed in the Brooklyn pool halls of his youth, was always his pride. In Gleason’s acclaimed film turn as Minnesota Fats in The Hustler (1961), Gleason not only insisted on doing all his shots, he also claimed that he, and not the film’s technical adviser Mosconi, taught Paul Newman how to play like a shark. Almost every visitor to Gleason’s Inverrary, Fla., mansion remarked on how his pool table sunk into the floor like a gladiator pit with benches for spectators above it. They also usually commented on the nightclub-sized island bar, behind which the former CBS announcer Ben Wright remembers a mechanical gorilla pouring scotch.

The producer of the CBS special was Frank Chirkinian, who virtually created televised golf in his almost 40 years covering the Masters for CBS Sports, and who remained a Gleason friend for life. Gleason had as much bravado as Ralph Kramden ever did; he and Chirkinian got the idea for “Sunday Sports Spectacular” when Gleason told Chirkinian that he could beat anybody in golf if he got a stroke a hole. As the reigning U.S. Open and Masters champion, Palmer was a natural pick for Gleason’s opponent.

“Jackie and I were friends, and we had played golf before and shot pool,” Palmer said. “CBS wanted to get us together for the show since I had done some work for his show and they knew I was a Pennsylvania guy [because the match was at Shawnee]. I was a fan of Jackie’s show, and we had a lot of fun together.”

Palmer was no slouch in the raconteur business either, and he and Gleason would have more fun together when Gleason moved to Florida in 1964. “We got together quite a lot when he was in Fort Lauderdale, and there was never a lack of food or drink,” Palmer said. “He was so full of life on the course, always coming up with one-liners. He was just a special person, he had me laughing all the time. His stuff wasn’t always stuff you’d want everyone to hear, but he was funny all the time. And he loved to play golf.”

It was no surprise that Gleason fell hard for golf. He was a guy’s guy of the wise-cracking, double-whiskey kind — he spent much of the 1950s on a bar stool at Toots Shor’s legendary New York City saloon — and he found that same camaraderie on the golf course. Gleason and Shor were close friends who enjoyed giving each other the business and playing practical jokes. Gleason only made fun of you if he liked you, so he must have loved Shor. Here’s what he said about the hefty saloon owner on the golf course: “If he puts the ball where he can see it, he can’t hit it. And if he has the ball where he can hit it, then he can’t see it.”

His own weight wasn’t a problem for Gleason on the golf course. Bob Murphy, who won the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic in 1975, said that Gleason had an athletic swing, not surprising considering his prodigious talent for physical comedy and dancing. Gleason’s third and final wife, Marilyn, worked as a dancer on his variety show and said Gleason would only need to see a dance step once and he could do it on the show. “But don’t ask him to remember it a week later,” she laughed.

“If you knew how well he could dance, then you knew he could swing a golf club,” said Murphy, who because of his Irish roots and Brooklyn birthplace became a Gleason favorite. “He had natural rhythm, balance and timing.”

Murphy’s favorite Gleason story is the time Gleason played in Murphy’s pro-am tournament in Delray Beach, Fla., and surprised Murphy’s mother at their home.

“My mom was from Brooklyn, and she thought ‘The Honeymooners’ was the best show in the history of television,” Murphy said. “Well, my mother always came out in her housecoat in the morning to get her coffee and totter back to her room. I said, ‘Eleanor, don’t come out this morning without getting dressed because Jackie Gleason is coming over and he’s having breakfast.’

“She said, ‘You shouldn’t lie to your mother. It’s not a good trait.’ So she came bouncing out in her robe and there’s Jackie Gleason sitting at our kitchen table just laughing and raising hell and my mother is stuck in her footsteps, she just couldn’t move,” Murphy said. “So of course he made a big show over her. Later we played in the pro-am with Bob Hope and Sammy Davis Jr., and Jackie brought a sterling silver teapot that was ostensibly filled with ‘tea.’ Well, he ended up getting pretty well smasho-ed by the end of the round, but he had a ball and they entertained the crowd the whole way around. It was pretty incredible.”

Jack Nicklaus, who won the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic three times, including his historic 1978 win when he made birdie on each of the final five holes, said Gleason was a decent recreational player.

“Jackie was a fun player,” Nicklaus said. “He was probably a teen-handicap player and was never a single-digit player, but he was never a bad player. He had fun, he enjoyed it, and everybody loved being part of his event.”

Even Chirkanian, who knew Gleason’s pool prowess from experience, thought that Gleason had a better chance against Palmer in golf—with a stroke a hole—than playing pool against a world-class pro like Mosconi, who could probably make a billiard ball get him a cup of coffee. Chirkinian was proved right when Mosconi made short work of Gleason at pool and again when Gleason got off to a good start against Palmer at Shawnee.

Video of the match backs up Nicklaus’ and Murphy’s recollection of Gleason’s game. Always the showman, Gleason starts his swing with a theatrical up-and-down waggle and then makes a fluid swing with good lower body motion, despite a little hitch at the top. Playing in front of a few hundred spectators at Shawnee, Gleason wears a light sweater and dark pants, while Palmer is in all black with a porkpie hat. For all the fat jokes at Gleason’s expense on “The Honeymooners” (Kramden: “Did you ever see a picture of me when I was 165 pounds?” Norton: “No, Ralph, I never did see any of your baby pictures.”), Gleason looks bulky, not obese, by today’s more forgiving standards. Like everything else in his life, Gleason’s weight was in constant flux — from about 260 pounds in “The Honeymooners” to as much as 300 pounds. While trying his luck in Hollywood in the 1940s, the 6-foot-tall Gleason once lost 100 pounds until a producer told him that skinny wasn’t funny.

Not that Gleason carried the extra weight to be more entertaining. His appetite for food and drink was gigantic.

“After he had bypass surgery [in 1983], I got a call asking me to take some things to Jackie,” said Cliff Danley, the former tournament director of the Honda Classic (formerly the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic.) “I knew Jackie a little so I said sure. Well, it was a half-gallon of ice cream, a quart of chili, some booze. He didn’t do anything halfway.”

Danley also remembered Gleason surprising people with his ability on the golf course. “Physically he didn’t look imposing, with his big belly and skinny legs, and you wouldn’t think he was a great athlete, but he hit it straight and had a great short game and great touch,” Danley said.

Gleason showed some of that touch in his match against Palmer. On the eighth hole, Gleason hit a 65-foot putt and gave his own commentary, “Hit it, Jack. Keep going ball. Get in the hoooolllleee.” After the putt drops, Gleason danced on light feet across the green. Palmer left his putt for the halve short and Gleason cracked, “That’s good!”

On the ninth, Gleason had another long putt, this one uphill about 45 feet. Smoking a cigarette, Gleason said, “Well, lightning strikes twice,” and then sunk it.

Art Carney relished recounting the match for a Gleason retrospective on CBS. “At the end of nine he was leading Arnold Palmer. Naturally this was a victory to celebrate, and boy did he celebrate, until 4 o’clock in the morning,” Carney said. “Well, he crawled into bed with visions of the headlines, ‘Gleason takes Arnold Palmer.’ The next morning he crawled out of bed to play the second nine holes.”

You can see where this was headed. Teeing off the next morning, Gleason hit his first one toward the woods. “Get through there,” he yelled at his ball, which ended up resting in the nook of a tree. Palmer loved it. “How are you at climbing trees, Jack?” he laughed.

The match was over after that. As Palmer remembered it recently, “Jackie was competitive, but our match wasn’t competitive.” Chirkanian agreed, but added that Gleason’s reaction to hitting the ball into the tree made for great television.

“The ball looked like it was in a bird’s nest, and Jackie gave the same look he used to do as the Poor Soul character on his show,” Chirkanian said. “That show was a lot of fun to do and it got great ratings.”

Nobody who tuned in to that program thought Gleason would beat a golf champion like Palmer or a pool wizard like Mosconi, just like we know Charlie Brown won’t kick the football and Ralph Kramden’s get-rich-quick scheme will unravel. Gleason didn’t just make himself the butt of the joke; he exulted in it. It brought out the best of his reactions: the cross-eyed twisted face when he’s in pain, the frozen grimace of stage-fright, the exasperated wide-eyed fury when Norton says “Heeelllllo, ball.” The theme of “The Honeymooners” is that you’re stuck with your lot in life, but that it isn’t so bad if you have a loving spouse and one good friend. That might not have been the theme of Gleason’s life, but it doesn’t make it any less appealing.

If his match with Palmer shows Gleason’s rambunctious-showman side (the guy who when feuding with Broadway producer David Merrick had custom golf balls made with Merrick’s face on them), another side of Gleason was attracted to the game’s quiet charms. He was famous among his neighbors at the Inverrary golf community in Florida for playing alone, sometimes as many as 72 holes a day. His status there was such that he simply played through other groups; no one kept the Great One waiting on the tee box. “There wasn’t any small talk; he’d hit and you’d get out of the way,” said Danley.

“I think golf was the ultimate personal challenge for him,” his stepson Craig Horwich said. “Whatever Jackie did, he had to be the best. When he hosted a golf tournament, he had to have the highest purse. When he did a movie, he had to be the highest paid. But golf isn’t something where you can say, ‘Golf, mastered that, check,’ and that appealed to him.”

Deane Beman, who was PGA Tour commissioner when Gleason hosted the Tour stop, said he saw both sides of Gleason on the golf course.

“I played with Jackie twice,” Beman said. “Was it like playing with Ralph Kramden? That depends. Once we played with people watching us and once it was just our foursome. With people around he definitely felt like he had to perform. The second time, sure there were sparks of Jackie the entertainer, but he was just a guy playing golf with friends.”

Those friends still relish their time with Gleason, who died in 1987. Asked if he played any pool with Gleason, Palmer, a noted stick himself, laughed. “I could beat him at pool, golf, whatever,” Palmer said. “The only thing he could beat me at was drinking.”

What Chirkanian remembers most fondly are not the rounds he played with Gleason, but the time spent at Gleason’s in-house saloon, where they’d go to trade jokes and tall tales, the kind of place where every great day of golf ends.

“We had a lot of fun, a lot of laughs, a lot of whiskey and a lot of lies,” Chirkanian said. “Those were great days. We don’t have days like that anymore. There are no characters anymore.”

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