At age 10, Craig Horwich had a big mouth loaded with questions for his future stepfather, Jackie Gleason.
The celebrated comedian, one of the top stars of Hollywood during the ‘50s and ‘60s, is still remembered today as roly-poly bus driver Ralph Kramden of “The Honeymooners,” a sitcom he created based on one of his comic sketches. Gleason passed away in 1987 at age 71 from cancer.
Horwich, now 55, runs Jackie Gleason Enterprises, which still licenses the actor’s shows and specials. With the help of Horwich, Time-Life recently released a DVD collection of “The Jackie Gleason Show,” which also features unreleased episodes in full color.
Horwich told Fox News he still vividly remembers meeting the TV icon for the first time.
“I was unaware of the magnitude of his fame,” said Horwich. “He was an incredible man. I had questionitis. I remember him saying that to me. I had questionitis. He answered a trove of questions that came out in rapid fire from this young boy’s mind.
"He lived in this beautiful, big home. He would be driven around in a limo… He was always well dressed. Always at the head of the table and in charge. I found him very intriguing.”
Gleason first met Horwich’s mother, Marilyn Taylor of the June Taylor Dancers, in the late 1940s while they were working the east coast nightclubs. The troupe was ultimately featured in Gleason’s variety programs. A romance soon blossomed.
“By 1952, that’s when Jackie and my mom began a relationship,” said Horwich. “But my mom would not go out with Jackie until he got a separation. He was married, but separated… The relationship ran its course. Jackie was unable to be granted a divorce. He was very Catholic as his wife was. So the relationship really had a shelf life. So they went their own ways.”
Gleason was then married to dancer Genevieve Halford, with whom he had two daughters. They eventually divorced in 1970 and Gleason went on to marry former secretary Beverly McKittrick from 1970. That union lasted until 1974.
Meanwhile, Taylor had moved north.
“After they went their own ways, my mom moved to Chicago and met my father,” said Horwich. “I was then born. And then in the early ‘70s, my father passed away in Chicago. So my mom and I moved to Florida so she could be with her family.”
Then fate came knocking. It turned out Gleason happened to be in Florida when Taylor came to town.
“When he found out my mom was now widowed and living in South Florida… He wooed and reunited with her,” he said. “They married and quite literally lived happily ever after.”
Horwich, who was 12 when the couple tied the knot, witnessed a new side to the TV star.
“The majority of his time at home was spent quietly,” he said. “He was a prolific reader. Constantly reading. There was a store called Bookland… Every week or two the owners would come by and drop off a box of books. Jackie just consumed books. He read everything but he was most intrigued with non-fiction. He felt that his life as an actor, as a performer, was all fiction.
“He also listened to the radio. He had a room upstairs that we called the radio room. There were dozens of radios. He listened to airplanes flying over at the airport, long distance radio operators from around the world. He had the passion and curiosity of a child with the experiences of an adult.”
Gleason, who grew up in working-class Brooklyn, N.Y., was happily enjoying the wealth and fame he achieved entertaining America with what Horwich described as his “God-given talent.” And Horwich insisted Gleason never grew tired for being recognized as Kramden.
“He embraced it and was very proud of it all,” boasted Horwich.
“The Honeymooners,” which explored the hilarious antics of a city bus driver (Gleason) and his sewer worker friend (Art Carney) as they struggled to strike it rich, aired from 1955 until 1956.
Kramden was originally one of a dozen characters Gleason played on his variety show “The Jackie Gleason Show,” which was broadcast live from what is now the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City, the current home of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” That hourlong variety show aired from 1952 until 1957.
Horwich revealed Gleason never rehearsed to bring Kramden to life.
“He had a photographic memory,” he explained. “He could watch somebody do a dance and on his first try recreate the dance. It was a gift and he knew it… He believed rehearsals can take the edge off of a performance.
"There’s just nothing like that first performance. He didn’t enjoy rehearsing so he didn’t do it. That’s why Art Carney and Audrey Meadows (Alice Kramden) were deserving of all accolades. And Jackie at every point in his career always acknowledged their talents.”
While Gleason was a gentle giant, he had high standards when it came to performers who would join him on stage. Horwich confirmed Meadows was originally rejected for the role of Kramden’s wife because she was too glamorous.
“Jackie’s vision of ‘The Honeymooners’ was to be very authentic, very blue collar without the luster that we see on television,” he explained. “Audrey, who was a beautiful woman, originally auditioned but was told she was too attractive.
“But she had an agent who said, ‘I got an idea. Let’s dress you down, take the makeup off and take an early morning shoot.’ They took photos of her without makeup and lighting. When Jackie saw it, he said, ‘There’s Alice.’ Her beauty almost got in the way, but she proved she was perfect."
Despite “The Honeymooners” becoming a massive success, it ended after one season.
“He signed a contract for two years,” said Horwich. “But Jackie realized that after one year… that if you were to do any more, it would just be a variation of those same storylines. He said, ‘I can’t do this again, the audience will tire of it.’ That was it was just one year and 39 episodes. Those were the ones that were put in syndication from the ‘50s to today.”
Gleason stayed busy successfully pursuing film, television and even music. His last credited role was 1986’s “Nothing in Common.”
Horwich said that when it came to Gleason’s outlook on life during his later years, he followed one motto — Just play the melody.
“Be true to yourself and everything will fall into place,” explained Horwich. “He had a very impoverished childhood in Brooklyn… He learned as a young adult that there was a lot more out there… He was able to provide through hard work an affluent life that he was very proud of. He was able to enjoy the rewards of his labor.”
This article originally ran in September 2018.