December 04, 2017
Hall of Fame

Art Carney: Hall of Fame Tribute

Lorraine Santoli

With a career that spanned over six decades and accolades that include six Emmy Awards and an Academy Award, the late actor Art Carney will forever reside in the hearts of millions as Jackie Gleason's neighbor and best friend, Ed Norton, the affable sewer worker, on the classic television series, The Honeymooners.

The casting of Carney as Norton to Gleason's Ralph Kramden in the early 1950s was pure comedic magic that left an indelible mark on the golden age of television. From his simple, "Hey-hey, Ralphie boy," greeting to a broad spectrum of physical twitches, slack-jawed expressions and rubber-band like bodily movements, Carney could turn a game of pool, signing his name, or dancing the mambo into an unforgettable comic ballet. He created a character so wholly original and his, that clearly no one could have taken his place in that role.

Who can forget the time Norton was learning to play golf and was told to "address the ball." With a wave of his hand, he says, "Hellooooooo, ball!" Or the time the loose-limbed character teaches Ralph a finger-popping new dance called the Hucklebuck. Norton also maintained a great love for his job in the sewer. In fact, he once mused about his vocation, "A sewer worker is like a brain surgeon. We're both specialists!" Carney was often approached by strangers and asked how he liked it down in the sewer. He told a Saturday Evening Post interviewer in 1961, "I have seasonal answers. In the summer I say, 'I like it down there because it's cool.' In winter, 'I like it down there because it's warm.'"

Born Arthur William Matthew Carney on November 4, 1918, in Mt. Vernon, New York, Art Carney's interest in the theater came early in life after winning a talent contest in elementary school and another at A.B. Davis High School in Mt. Vernon, from which he graduated in 1936. After performing locally as an Elks Club entertainer, Carney traveled for several years with popular orchestra leader Horace Heidt doing impressions and singing novelty songs. In 1939, he won a job on the radio show, Report to the Nation, imitating Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and other world leaders. Carney remarked of his radio work, "I used to love radio. Those days were fun, there was no tenseness there."

With the advent of World War II, Carney was drafted into the Army. In 1944, he took part in the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach at Normandy and had his right leg shattered by a piece of shrapnel. Hospitalized for nine months, he was left with a leg three-quarters of an inch shorter than the other and a lifelong limp, an injury that took a back seat to Carney's show business ambitions.

Postwar, Carney continued working on radio on such dramatic programs as Gangbusters and Dimension X and appeared as a comedy foil for major stars such as Bert Lahr. He moved into television in 1948, playing a comic waiter on The Morey Amsterdam Show. It was this role that brought him to the attention of Jackie Gleason, who hired him as a supporting player for Gleason on the Dumont TV Network's Cavalcade of Stars in 1951. Although they were never particularly friends offstage, Gleason and Carney developed an immediate onstage chemistry that was to remain intact until Gleason's death in 1987.

When Gleason moved to CBS in 1952, Carney joined him, portraying a remarkable array of sharply defined characters on The Jackie Gleason Show, the most famous of which was the Brooklyn sewer worker, Ed Norton, in the show's classic Honeymooners sketches. The popularity of the sketches fostered the creation of The Honeymooners TV series for which Carney was awarded five Outstanding Supporting Actor Emmys. He, in fact, became the first performer to ever earn three back-to-back Emmy Awards, in 1953, 1954 and 1955.

Carney also considered himself a serious actor and appeared in dramatic roles on a number of television drama series such as Studio One, Suspense, Kraft Television Theater and Playhouse 90. His post-Honeymooners career in the '50s and '60s gave Carney the opportunity to really display his versatility. He made his Broadway debut in The Rope Dancer (1957-58), headlined a small screen version of Harvey (CBS 1958) and played the Stage Manager in a 1959 NBC adaptation of Our Town. During this period he also starred in several variety shows and won an Emmy in 1960 for Outstanding Program Achievement in the Field of Humor for an NBC Special. In the same year he portrayed Franklin Roosevelt in CBS's The Right Man and was cast in the NBC drama, Call Me Back.

Returning to the Broadway stage in 1965, Carney originated the role of Felix Unger in Neil Simon's The Odd Couple (Walter Matthau played Oscar Madison). Just a year later, Carney returned to television to reprise his role of Ed Norton on Gleason's new variety series, The Jackie Gleason Show, that ran from 1966 to 1970. Following the return stint, Carney appeared once again on Broadway in the comedy Lovers and made occasional featured appearances in films. However, in 1974, Carney starred in a film that propelled his feature career, Paul Mazursky's tale of an elderly man who sets out on a road trip with his cat, Harry and Tonto.

"Harry and Tonto was the biggie for me," Carney said in a 1974 Los Angeles Times interview: "Imagine, the first movie I've starred in, even though I've been in the business for 37 years (as of 1974). At first, I didn't really want to play an old man traveling across the country. It sounded depressing, like a dull travelogue, so I turned it down. But Paul asked me again and again and I finally realized that if he wanted me so badly for the part, he must have his reasons."

Indeed he did. Carney won the 1974 Best Actor Academy Award for his work in the film.

A number of feature films appearances followed, most notably in The Late Show with Lily Tomlin and Going in Style with George Burns. In the late 1970s, Carney returned to television in the series Lannigan's Rabbi and won his seventh Emmy Award in 1984 as the long-time friend of a wheelchair-bound boxer (James Cagney) in Terrible Joe Moran, broadcast on CBS. He also appeared in numerous movies made for television and nearly a dozen feature films throughout the 1980s. Carney's last featured role was opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie Last Action Hero in 1993.

Art Carney passed away at the age of 85 on November 9, 2003. Throughout his life, he was a consummate actor onstage, although offstage, a very private man. He enjoyed great success but also battled alcoholism during much of his adult life; ultimately triumphing over his addiction. In 1940, he married his high school sweetheart, Jean Myers, and after the marriage broke up, Carney married Barbara Isaac in 1966. They divorced 10 years later, and in 1980 he and his first wife remarried. "We always kept in touch because of our three children," he said in a 1980 Associated Press interview. "After our second divorces ... we decided to give it a go again." Carney lived quietly in suburban Connecticut until his death.

While Art Carney may be gone, his work lives on. In particular, of course, Ed Norton is still with us. Just turn on the TV and you're likely to find an episode of The Honeymooners airing. Or visit your local video store and rent the original 39 episodes of the show on VHS or DVD. The decade may be different, but the laughs provided by Art Carney are still as potent as ever. There was only one Ed Norton, and only one of the man who brought him to life, Art Carney, a true television icon.

This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Art Carney's induction in 2004.

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