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THE ARTFUL ART OF CARNEY

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.

Art Carney as Felix Ungar and Walter Matthew as Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple (1965).

That depression was made worse by the severe alcoholism that began as early as Carney’s teenage years. Extremely forthcoming about it later in life, he would recall those days touring with the Heidt Orchestra telling People Magazine in 1974 that “I would order gin and grapefruit juice for us in the morning and, gee, it was great. We would go on, do five or six shows. No responsibilities, no remorse. I was an alcoholic even then.”

After many years of abuse to his system that left him with a variety of medical ailments, Carney thankfully was able to quit in the mid-1970s. When you see him in Harry & Tonto, it’s hard to believe he was only fifty-five when it was shot. He looks and moves (thanks to exaggerating his leg injury) exactly like the seventy-two-year old he is supposed to portray. In fact, when he won the Oscar, he kept his primary thank you to “my agent, manager, father-confessor William Francis Xavier McCaffrey for twenty-five years, who said two words to me: ‘Do it. You ARE old!” Watch the short clip below (his whole speech is a mere 35 seconds) and see how he does a little dance on his way through the row and up onto the stage. And oh — take in how Jack Nicholson reacts to the envelope opening (he and Carney were the only two in the category to show up, too).

On set with his co-star Tonto (played by Tonto).

While promoting Harry & Tonto, Carney told an interviewer: “I wasn’t sure about this for my first starring role — a man and his cat going to California — but they’re talking about an Oscar and it’s very flattering. It makes me happy because it is a medium I hadn’t cracked and now I have.” Can you imagine? With having conquered radio, television and the Broadway stage, he had barely been in films (total: two), let alone starred in any, by age fifty-five. You might think this would have had something to do with his gaining a reputation for being unreliable due to drinking, but with the exception of what happened to him during The Odd Couple, he did long runs on Broadway throughout the fifties and sixties without incident, in such plays as The Rope Dancers; Take Her, She’s Mine (a big hit) and Lovers, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Actor.

I never saw Art Carney in a play, but I did get to see him once onstage: a soundstage in Hollywood. A friend of mine, John Short, was a series regular on a sitcom called The Cavanaughs, that starred Barnard Hughes and Christine Ebersole, and ran for twenty-six episodes between 1987–89. When John told me the news that Carney was to play Hughes’s brother on the show, I made sure that I was in the audience. Watching both he and Barnard Hughes, another marvelous actor, create stage magic was as much a treat for the studio audience as it was for them. So much so that Carney returned for an additional two episodes.

As Irish brothers, Barnard Hughes and Art Carney on The Cavanaughs (1988).

Carney didn’t perform very much after that, although by the time of his death, he had racked up dozens of television credits, with everything from a wonderful Christmas-themed Twilight Zone episode “The Night of the Meek,” to a Batman villain (The Archer) on the campy 1960s series. Emmy Awards voters apparently thought a great deal of him, as over the years, he won six Emmys, all in supporting roles (with five of them for playing Ed Norton).

As I mentioned earlier, there were musical editions of The Honeymooners on Jackie Gleason’s variety series in the 1960s. This clip is about as good as it gets, featuring both their unique talents. But it’s really Carney who steals the scene and it’s to Gleason’s credit that he lets him (although Gleason does finally get up from the table with only a minute to go and makes it his own). And be sure to watch the admiration in Gleason’s eyes for Carney’s talents during the applause. It’s as genuine as Art Carney’s genius.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.

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