Theatre yesterday and today



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I have written close to 400 of these “Theatre Yesterday and Today” columns over a two and a half year period and was surprised that after discovering today was the birthdate of Art Carney that I hadn’t already written one about him. I keep a master list and had to do a search twice because I could have sworn I had done it before now. Anyway, in the tradition of better late than never, here is a salute to one of my favorite actors.

Arthur William Matthew Carney (1918–2003).​

Predictably, when Art Carney passed in 2003 at the age of eighty-five, the first line of nearly all his obituaries mentioned his portrayal of Ed Norton, the proud sewer man and do-or-die best friend of bus driver Ralph Kramden on the immortal 1950s television sitcom The Honeymooners. And for good reason, as Carney came up with one of the all-time great comic creations with Ed. From his thick Brooklyn accent to his loose-limbed physical comedy, Ed exuded a joy of life that was in stark contrast to the beleaguered and put-upon Ralph. Carney said he always wanted to be like Ed Norton; that “Ed was friendly and outgoing, and nothing seemed to bother him. For me, that was all acting.”

But together the two made beautiful music together (and actually sang songs when The Honeymooners was resurrected and musicalized on Jackie Gleason’s American Scene Magazine TV show in the 1960s). And even when Carney won the Academy Award as Best Actor in 1975 for his film performance in Harry & Tonto, over such formidable competition as Albert Finney, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino (seriously — I’m not making this up), it wasn’t enough to stop the New York Times headline from reading: “Art Carney, 85, Lauded ‘Honeymooners’ Actor, Dies.” Or the Los Angeles Times, which read “‘Honeymooners’ Sidekick Art Carney Dies.”

Jackie Gleason and Art Carney as Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton.

While just a teenager, Carney’s career got its start courtesy of his brother Jack, a band booker, who got him hired as comedy relief for Horace Heidt & His Orchestra, which took him on a three-year tour. Subsequently, he only had a high school education and never received any formal training or took an acting class. “There I was,” Carney recalls, “an eighteen-year-old mimic rooming with a blind whistler.” His ability with voices made him widely employable, especially due to spot-on impressions of FDR and Winston Churchill. That is until he was drafted into service in the Army during World War II. As a machine gun crewman he was a Purple Heart recipient for his having been wounded, though not at the Battle of Normandy, as some reports suggest. He only arrived in France two months after D-day when a piece of shrapnel from an enemy mortar round ripped into his right thigh giving him a pronounced limp for the rest of his life, leaving his right leg ¾-inches shorter than his left. Of course, if you watch him do his eccentric dancing from time to time on The Honeymooners, you would never know.

A very young Art Carney in his radio days.

Throughout his sixty-year career, Carney displayed a versatility that was known to casting directors, if not to the general public quite as much. For example, he received excellent reviews as the original Felix Ungar in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple on the Broadway stage, but was somewhat overshadowed by the bellowing Walter Matthau, who won the Tony and also got the chance to repeat his Oscar Madison on film, with Carney losing Felix to the much more in-demand film star Jack Lemmon (who was also a personal friend of Matthau’s). And sadly, not many people got to see Carney play Felix, as he suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by the failure of his twenty-five-year first marriage, which forced him to leave the show for a six-month stint in a sanitarium.