CARNEY, ART

U.S. Actor

Art Carney's many noteworthy achievements as an actor will always be overshadowed by one name: Ed Norton. Carney made his reputation as the loyal but dopey neighbor, Ed Norton, opposite Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden in the classic sketches and series The Honeymooners. So complete was Carney's transformation into the loose-limbed, bumbling sewer worker, that he won five Emmy Awards for his work with Gleason, including three consecutive awards as best supporting actor from 1953 to 1955.

Born to an Irish family in Westchester County, New York, Carney got his start in show business doing imitations and comedy bits with Horace Heidt's orchestra. Stints in radio, and bit parts in films led to Carney's first regular role on television on the Morey Amsterdam Show. When Jackie Gleason took over as host of the DuMont network's Cavalcade of Stars, Carney became a principal supporting player. He moved with the show to CBS in 1952 where it was rechristened The Jackie Gleason Show and "The Honeymooners" became a regular sketch.

Ed Norton may have been second banana to Ralph Kramden, but Carney's performance never took a back seat to Gleason's. Indeed, the pair created a symbiosis of comic styles so unique that when Carney left the show in 1957 "The Honeymooners" went on hiatus until his return almost ten years later. In contrast to Gleason's broad, blustery Kramden, Carney's Norton was the personification of nonchalance. His casual delivery could make any statement sound vacuous. Even his typical greeting, "Hey-hey, Ralphie boy," announced Norton's child-like amicability as well as his lack of brains. Carney's face drooped into a slackjawed expression that was perpetually blank. Coupled with his feeble-minded manner was a body like a rubber band. It could be as slouched as the hat that was always perched on his head at one moment, then snapping into improbable contortions the next. Carney seemed to make up for Ed's lack of intelligence by investing the character with a host of broad physical tics that could turn a game of pool, a few moments on a pinball machine, or a mambo step into a comic ballet. Much like the great silent comedians, Carney created an wholly original character who was recognizable at a glance. In Ed Norton we find the pathos of Chaplin, the earnestness of Lloyd, and the physical grace of Keaton.

Even though the Gleason Show and the role of Ed Norton cemented Carney's success as a comedian, he was never content to be known as merely a comic actor. When the program moved to CBS Carney's agent negotiated for the actor to have three out of every thirteen weeks off to perform in noncompetitive shows. Carney built up a solid background as a dramatic performer on episodes of Studio One, Suspense, Kraft Television Theater, and Playhouse 90, and in special events like a telecast of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. By the latter part of the decade critics had come to take the excellence of Carney's dramatic performances for granted. When he appeared in the lead in Rod Serling teleplay "The Velvet Alley" on Playhouse 90, the Variety review of 28 January 1959 commented, "Carney achieved considerable stature as a dramatic actor with his remarkable performance."

In 1966 Carney returned to the Jackie Gleason Show, and the role of Norton, as well as capturing one of the coveted slots as a guest villain ("The Archer") in ABC's wildly popular Batman series. He had achieved success on Broadway, creating the role of Felix Unger in the original run of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple. And he was maturing as an actor. Lacking any formal training in the profession, Carney drew from his own life to build performances. Overcoming battles with alcoholism and depression seemed to add depth and wisdom to his characterizations. His ability to convey a sense of loneliness and world-weary resignation tended to belie his relative youth. This was evident in his film work including his Academy Award -winning portrayal as an old man traveling across the country with his cat in Harry and Tonto (1974), and as the aging hardboiled detective in The Late Show (1977). It was also present in impressive performances in television movies such as his low-key portrayal of Robert Stroud, "The Birdman of Alcatraz" in Alcatraz: The Whole Shocking Story(1980). Despite a flourishing career for theatrical features Carney continually returned to the medium that made him a star. He took the lead in the short-lived series Lanigan's Rabbi (1977), did guest appearances on shows like Alice and Fame, and was featured in specials and telefilms. He captured a sixth Emmy in a heartfelt performance as the loyal caretaker of an elderly boxing champion (played by Jimmy Cagney in his last role), in Terrible Joe Moran (1984).

Constant re-runs of The Honeymooners and the packaging of the "lost" "Honeymooners" sketches from The Jackie Gleason Show have guaranteed Art Carney's place in the pantheon of television comedians. But to be given his full due Carney must be recognized as one of the most accomplished and multi-faceted actors to emerge during television's "golden age."

-Eric Schaeffer


Art Carney

ART CARNEY (Arthur William Matthew Carney). Born in Mount Vernon, New York, U.S.A., 4 November 1918. Attended A.B. Davis High School, Mount Vernon, New York. Married Jean Myers, 1940 (divorced, 1965); children: Ellen, Brian, Paul; remarried Jean Myers, 1977 (divorced); Barbara Isaac. United States Army, 1944-45. Began entertainment career as member of the Horace Heidt Orchestra, 1936-39; vaudeville and club performer, 1939-40; radio performer, 1942-44, 45-49; began television career on The Morey Amsterdam Show, 1948; featured performer in various versions of The Jackie Gleason Show, 1952-70; various guest performances in television series from 1950s. Recipient: six Emmy Awards; two Sylvania Awards; Academy Award, Best Actor (Harry and Tonto), 1974; Best Actor, National Society of Film Critics, 1977.

TELEVISION

1948-50 The Morey Amsterdam Show
1952-59,
1966-70 The Jackie Gleason Show
1955-56 The Honeymooners
1966-68 Batman
1977 Lanigan's Rabbi
1986-89 The Cavanaughs

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES

1972 The Snoop Sisters
1975 Katherine
1975 Death Scream
1976 Lanigan's Rabbi
1979 Letters from Frank
1980 Alcatraz: The Whole Shocking Story
1980 Fighting Back
1981 Bitter Harvest
1984 Terrible Joe Moran
1984 The Night They Saved Christmas
1984 The Emperor's New Clothes
1984 A Doctor's Story
1985 The Undergrads
1985 Izzy and Moe
1985 The Blue Yonder
1986 Miracle of the Heart: A Boys Town Story
1990 Where Pigeons Go to Die

FILMS

The Yellow Rolls-Royce, 1965; Guide for the Married Man, A, 1967; Harry and Tonto, 1974; W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, 1975; Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood, 1976; Scott Joplin, 1977; The Late Show, 1977; Movie Movie, 1978; House Calls, 1978; Sunburn, 1979; Ravagers, 1979; Going in Style, 1979; Steel, 1980; Roadie, 1980; Defiance, 1980; Take This Job and Shove It, 1981; St. Helens, 1981; Better Late Than Never, 1982; The Naked Face, 1984; The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984; Firestarter, 1984; Night Friend, 1987; Last Action Hero, 1993.

STAGE

The Rope Dancers, 1957; Harvey, 1956; The Rope Dancers, 1957; Take Her, She's Mine, 1961; The Odd Couple, 1965; Lovers, 1968; The Prisoner of Second Avenue, 1972; The Odd Couple, (Chicago), 1974; The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Long Island, New York, 1974.

FURTHER READING

Bishop, Jim. The Golden Ham: A Candid Biography of Jackie Gleason. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.

Crescenti, Peter. The Official Honeymooners Treasury: To the Moon and Back with Ralph, Norton, Alice, and Trixie. New York: Perigee, 1990.

Hall, Jane. "Reunited for a Made-for-TV Movie, Jackie Gleason and Art Carney Savor a Wacky Second Honeymoon." People Weekly (New York), 23 September 1985.

Henry, William A. The Great One: The Life and Legend of Jackie Gleason. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Marc, David. Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

McCrohan, Donna. The Honeymooners' Companion: The Kramdens and the Nortons Revisited. New York: Workman, 1978.

McCrohan, Donna, and Peter Crescenti. The Honeymooners Lost Episodes. New York: Workman, 1986.

Meadows, Audrey. Love Alice: My Life as a Honeymooner. New York: Crown, 1994.

Mitz, Rick. The Great TV Sitcom Book. New York: R. Marek, 1980.

Waldron, Vince. Classic Sitcoms: A Celebration of the Best of Prime-time Comedy. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

Zolotow, Maurice. "The All-out Art of Art Carney." Reader's Digest (Pleasantville, New York), October 1989.

 

See also Gleason, Jackie; Honeymooners