Art Carney, beloved as Ed Norton, dies at 85

November 12, 2003|By Dennis McLellan | Dennis McLellan,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Art Carney, who won an Oscar for Harry and Tonto and originated the role of fussy Felix Unger in The Odd Couple on Broadway, but who is best remembered as Jackie Gleason's sewer-worker pal Ed Norton on The Honeymooners, has died. He was 85.

Carney, a versatile stage, screen and television actor, died Sunday after a long illness; his family would not specify the illness. Carney died in Chester, Conn., and was buried yesterday after a small, private funeral.

Carney won his Academy Award for best actor in the 1974 film playing Harry, a retired teacher who sets off on a cross-country journey with Tonto, his cat, after his New York apartment building is torn down.

But even after winning Hollywood's top acting prize for his first starring film role, Carney said people still greeted him with, "How are things down in the sewer?"

"Not that I ever regret playing Ed Norton," said Carney, who got his acting start on radio in the early 1940s.

There's no denying the impact Norton, the self-described "subterranean sanitation engineer," had on Carney's career.

He won Emmys for best supporting actor in 1953, 1954 and 1955 playing Norton in "The Honeymooners" sketches on The Jackie Gleason Show.

Clad in his trademark T-shirt, open vest and beat-up felt hat with the upturned brim - a hat Carney paid $5 for in 1935 while still in high school - he became one of the most memorable second bananas in TV history.

Carney's passing leaves only Joyce Randolph, who played Norton's wife, Trixie, among the 1950s situation comedy's quartet of co-stars. Gleason died in 1987 and Audrey Meadows, Gleason's TV wife, Alice, died in 1996.

Arthur William Matthew Carney was born Nov. 4, 1918, in Mount Vernon, N.Y., the youngest of six sons.

Although quiet and introverted, Carney was a born mimic. After graduating from high school in 1937, he was hired to join the Horace Heidt band and did his impressions of celebrities, sang novelty songs and served as announcer for Heidt's Pot o' Gold radio program.

In 1940, Carney married his high school sweetheart, Jean Myers, with whom he had three children: Eileen, Brian and Paul.

Drafted into the Army in 1944, Carney was sent to France where a piece of shrapnel from a German mortar round ripped into his right thigh. The wound permanently shortened his right leg by three-fourths of an inch, leaving him with a slight limp.

After his discharge, Carney worked for CBS radio, where he became a second banana for Milton Berle, Bert Lahr, Edgar Bergen and Fred Allen.

Carney made his television debut in 1948 with The Morey Amsterdam Show. His scene-stealing character, Charlie a nightclub doorman, gave him his first taste of TV fame. In 1950, he began his association with Gleason, the new host of Cavalcade of Stars, a comedy-variety show on the DuMont network. "The Honeymooners" sketches debuted in 1951.

"I became Norton, the one guy in the world who was even dumber than Ralph Kramden, the boob Gleason played," Carney once recalled. "I liked it because I could be myself, make mistakes in grammar, and be comfortable."

When Gleason moved his show to CBS in 1952, "The Honeymooners" became its main sketch for three years. The Honeymooners then ran as a series from 1955 to 1956 before returning as a sketch for one season on the new Jackie Gleason Show.

Carney demonstrated his acting range during and after his Gleason years on Playhouse 90, Studio One, Kraft Television Theatre and Suspense.

By 1965, despite his success in Neil Simon's hit Broadway play The Odd Couple, playing opposite Walter Matthau as Oscar, Carney was on a personal downward slide.

That October, Carney, suffering what he later called a mental and physical breakdown, dropped out of the play. "My first marriage was breaking up and I was not in good shape, physically or mentally," Carney told the Los Angeles Times in 1974. "I was hurt by my troubles with alcohol."

Carney later credited Ed Norton with saving his life.

"The booze and pills and the breakup of my marriage had me about finished," he recalled. Then Gleason brought him out of the hospital to do a "Honeymooners" special on his CBS variety series, The Jackie Gleason Show.

The special was such a hit that a revived "Honeymooners," with Sheila MacRae as Alice and Jane Kean as Trixie, continued on the Gleason show for the next four years and earned Carney his fourth and fifth Emmy awards.

A few years later, Carney took the starring role in Harry and Tonto. At first, Carney, in his mid-50s, felt he was too young to play the 72-year-old Harry - despite his own balding head, his hearing aid and his limp. But his longtime manager Bill McCaffrey told him: "Do it. You are old."

Among Carney's later films are The Late Show (1977), Going in Style (1979) and The Last Action Hero (1993). He also appeared in NBC's Lannigan's Rabbi (1977) and CBS' The Cavanaughs (1986-1989).

Art and Jean Carney were divorced in 1965. He was married to Barbara Isaac from 1966 to 1976 and in 1977 remarried Jean.

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