Art Carney was best known as Ed Norton on The Honeymooners. Recognized as a fine character actor, he wasn’t a marquee movie name in 1974. Harry and Tonto changed that.
Carney started out in radio, as a natural for comedy and music, he appeared on many shows in the late 1930s and 1940s, doing impersonations, adapting funny dialects and playing a variety of characters. When television arrived in the 1950s, he joined Jackie Gleason on his Cavalcade of Stars, then later The Honeymooners, where he won several Emmy Awards for his Ed Norton character. Norton was good-natured, but a bit loopy, and Carney played him with distinction and pride.
Between stints as Norton, he appeared in many films and television shows, including Batman as The Archer. Beginning in the late 1950s, Carney appeared in numerous Broadway shows, including The Odd Couple, where in 1965, he originated the role of Felix Unger.
Harry and Tonto is about an elderly man and his cat, traveling around the country, trying to find someplace to land. This was a difficult film to get made, every studio turned it down. Marquee movie actors passed on it. Art Carney, who was talked into taking the role, won the Academy Award for Best Actor, winning over Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Albert Finney. Carney’s performance is very good, but better than these other actors in their roles in Chinatown, Lenny, The Godfather Part II and Murder on the Orient Express? Carney also won a Golden Globe for his role.
Carney is good as Harry, who struggles to find his legs after his apartment building is torn down. He tries living with one of his sons in the New York suburbs with his family, but the arrangement does not seem to work. He then decides to travel across the country with his cat to visit his daughter in Chicago, and another son in L.A. In California, he finds an opportunity to live on his own again, and be happy with whatever years he has left. The world is a challenge for him to navigate, but he is figuring it out. Shaken out of his cocoon, he is discovering that life has moved on, and it’s disappearing quickly. This is not a sad film on aging, just a realistic one. Carney plays Harry as a man who copes and sees things for how they are. He’s able to see past the bittersweet and find the sweet. There is a weariness and warmth to his performance.
Harry and Tonto made Norton a big star in his 50s, in demand for films and television roles. He worked steadily until 1993, when he retired. One of those projects was in a short-lived television series, Lannigan’s Rabbi, in 1977.
Carney scored another big role in The Late Show (1977) as retired private detective Ira Wells. Personally, this was a better performance than Harry. He was presented with the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actor for this role. Ira is tough, he’s old school, but he’s not folding to pressure. Like Harry, Ira has a lot of life left in him and he is determined to live it. Carney shows a broader range of emotions than he had to for Harry. His scenes with the flighty Lily Tomlinson character are wonderful.
After The Late Show, he appeared in 31 television and theatrical films. House Calls and Going in Style were two of the best. In House Calls, Carney re-teamed with his Odd Couple co-star, Walter Matthau, where he plays a senile doctor who is the head of a badly run hospital. The film was very successful earning back many times its budget.
Going in Style co-starred Carney with George Burns and Lee Strasberg who rob a bank to supplement their retirement, but it gives them back some of the purpose they have lost in their lives. All of that is short-lived, as their lives quickly unravel.
Carney and Gleason re-teamed for a television film, Izzy and Moe. By this time, Carney wasn’t a supporting player to Gleason and received equal billing.
In most of Carney’s roles, I see very little of Ed Norton, or the musical-comedy that made him famous. His characters are usually keen, wise and sure of themselves. Occasionally, he brings out the Ed Norton silliness, but mostly he left that behind.
”I love Ed Norton and what he did for my career,” Carney once said. ”But the truth is that we couldn’t have been more different. Norton was the total extrovert, there was no way you could put down his infectious good humor. Me? I’m a loner and a worrier.”
From his teenage years forward, Carney struggled with alcohol, and then pills. It affected his career and his family life.
There I was,” Carney recalls, “an 18-year-old mimic rooming with a blind whistler. He 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.” So were three of his other brothers. “It’s hereditary in my family.”
Carney was wounded in World War II, and possessed a permanent limp, and the pain to go with it. He spent time in a psychiatric hospital after leaving the The Odd Couple. During the filming of Harry and Tonto, Carney was finally able to get control of his substance abuse addictions.
“The booze and pills and the breakup of my marriage had me about finished,” Carney recalled. Then Gleason brought him out of the hospital to do a “Honeymooners’ special” on his CBS variety series, “The Jackie Gleason Show.”
Harry and Tonto gave Carney a rich second act. The awards and fame were great, but the challenging acting roles gave him the resolve to give up his demons and remarry the wife who left him years later. Now that’s, a great second act.