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Carney, Arthur William Matthew (“Art”)

Carney, Arthur William Matthew (“Art”)

(b. 4 November 1918 in Mount Vernon, New York; d. 9 November 2003 in Chester, Connecticut), Oscar-winning actor and television star best known as the goofy sewer worker Ed Norton in The Honeymooners, the classic 1950s situation comedy costarring Jackie Gleason.

Carney was born in 1918 in Mount Vernon, New York, a suburban area just north of New York City in Westchester County. He was the youngest of six boys born to Edward “Ned” Carney, a public relations executive, and Helen (Farrell) Carney, a homemaker and onetime violin prodigy. Carney, a mediocre student with a flair for mimicry, attended DeWitt Clinton Grammar School and graduated from A. B. Davis High School in January 1936.

With few other prospects for employment, Carney had help from his oldest brother, Jack, an executive with entertainment conglomerate Music Corporation of America (MCA), to get an audition with the bandleader Horace Heidt. Carney was hired as a mimic/announcer for Heidt’s band, known for their big band sound popularized by Tommy Dorsey, Glen Miller, and Fred Waring. In September 1937 Carney began touring with Heidt and also appeared on Heidt’s radio show, Pot o’ Gold, earning accolades for his impersonations of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New York politician Al Smith, among others. “My boy, you sound more like me than I do myself,” Smith told Carney after a fundraiser. In November 1938 the show business publication Variety noted that “Art Carney can still tie up the proceedings with his accuracy on the biggies.”

Carney, still touring with Heidt, appeared briefly (and unbilled) in the 1940 movie Pot ‘o Gold, based loosely on Heidt’s radio show and starring Jimmy Stewart and Paulette Goddard. On 15 August 1940 Carney married his high school sweetheart, Jean Myers. In 1941 he quit Heidt’s band and spent the next year touring as a solo comedy act in nightclubs, attracting little attention. “I couldn’t cope with the audience so close to me,” he said. In 1942 Carney’s brother, Jack, now working for the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), got him a job on the CBS radio show Report to the Nation, on which Carney impersonated politicians and celebrities including Harry S. Truman, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Wendell Wilkie. That led to jobs on other radio shows including The March of Time, The Man Behind the Gun, and Gangbusters.

Carney’s first child was born in 1942; he and Jean would eventually have two more children. In the spring of 1944 Carney was drafted into the U.S. Army. On 15 August 1944, two months after D day and on his fourth wedding anniversary, Carney was hit in the leg by a mortar shell while setting up his machine gun on the beach in Saint-Lô, France. He spent the next nine months recuperating in England and at McGuire General Hospital outside Richmond, Virginia. The injury left Carney with a pronounced limp, his right leg now shorter than his left leg.

Upon his discharge from the army, Carney resumed his radio career, signing an exclusive contract with CBS, where he playedthe“stooge” to such stars as Milton Berle, Bert Lahr, Edgar Bergen, and Ethel Merman. His radio career flourished; in 1948 he joined the comic Morey Amsterdam on The Morey Amsterdam Show, where he played dimwitted Charley the Doorman. That same year Carney joined Amsterdam when he moved his radio show to the fledgling medium of television, first to CBS and then in 1949 to the DuMont Television Network. Carney now played Newton the Waiter (a variation on Charley the Doorman), and his work on The Morey Amsterdam Show attracted national attention, including a feature story in TV Guide and an enthusiastic review from a New York Times critic who wrote that Carney “almost runs away with the show.”

In 1950 the DuMont Television Network launched a live variety show called Cavalcade of Stars, hosted by the nightclub comic Jackie Gleason. Cavalcade producers, hearing about Carney’s work on The Morey Amsterdam Show, hired him to appear in a comedy sketch with Gleason in which Gleason played a drunken playboy and Carney played the photographer sent to photograph him for a print ad. The sketch aired 15 July 1950 and demonstrated a tangible onstage chemistry between the two performers, who had never before worked together. Carney became a regular on Cavalcade of Stars, which moved to CBS in 1952 and was renamed The Jackie Gleason Show. Carney and Gleason continued to appear together in sketches, with Carney playing second banana to Gleason’s bevy of characters including Reginald Van Gleason, The Poor Soul, and Rudy the Repairman.

But it was a sketch called “The Honeymooners” that would establish Carney’s career. The sketch featured Gleason as the blustery Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramden and Pert Kelton (later Audrey Meadows) as Alice, his loving wife who gave as good as she got. The first “Honeymooners” sketch had aired on Cavalcade of Stars in October 1951, with only Ralph and Alice as its main characters (Carney had a bit role as a police officer). When Gleason moved his show to CBS he decided to make “The Honeymooners” a regular part of the show, and the writers created two more characters, the Kramdens’ upstairs neighbors and best friends, Ed Norton and his wife, Trixie. The dim-bulb Norton, played by Carney, worked in the sewer (he called himself a “subterranean engineer”) and, like his pal Ralph, was a lovable loser with a heart of gold. Joyce Randolph played Trixie.

“The Honeymooners” proved extremely popular, and in 1954 Carney won the first of three consecutive Emmy Awards for his work on The Jackie Gleason Show, in particular for his role as Norton. During the 1955–1956 television season, Carney, Gleason, Meadows, and Randolph filmed thirty-nine half-hour episodes of The Honeymooners before a live audience. Those episodes, still airing around the world today, are now known as the “Classic 39” and are considered television comedy greats.

CBS cancelled The Jackie Gleason Show in 1957 and Carney, now thirty-nine years old, kept busy with regular television work (Playhouse 90, Alfred Hitchcock Presents). That same year he made his Broadway debut as a drunken philanderer opposite Joan Blondell in The Rope Dancers, winning critical acclaim. Variety noted that Carney “offers an effecting blend of charm, weakness, paternal love and blarney.” Carney continued to mix television work with stage work over the next several years, starring on Broadway in Take Her, She’s Mine (1961) and on television in The Twilight Zone and a series of National Broadcasting Company (NBC) specials including a heralded one-man performance in the drama Call Me Back.

In 1964 Carney made his first (billed) movie appearance opposite Shirley MacLaine in the comedy The Yellow Rolls-Royce, and in March 1965 he opened on Broadway opposite Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple, Neil Simon’s comedy about two mismatched roommates, slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison (Matthau) and prissy neatnick Felix Unger (Carney). Carney left the show seven months later after suffering a nervous breakdown, the result of his ongoing battles with alcohol and depression, aggravated by the breakup of his marriage to wife Jean, who divorced him a year later. Carney spent three months recuperating in a Connecticut sanatorium and in 1966 reunited with Gleason on The Jackie Gleason Show, which had moved from New York to Miami. On 21 December 1966 Carney married Barbara Isaacs.

Gleason had revived The Honeymooners as part of his new variety show, this time as a musical version, and Carney won his fourth, fifth, and sixth Emmys (1966–1968) before leaving to star on Broadway in Lovers, for which he received a Tony Award nomination in 1968. He returned to Broadway in 1972, replacing Peter Falk in Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue. In 1973 Carney was hired by the director Paul Mazursky to star in Harry and Tonto as an elderly man who is evicted from his New York City apartment and travels cross-country with his cat, Tonto. The movie, which opened in 1974, was a hit, and Carney won an Academy Award as Best Actor, beating out Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Albert Finney, and Dustin Hoffman for the coveted trophy. Carney then starred in a series of critically acclaimed movies including The Late Show, House Calls, and Going in Style (with Lee Strasberg and George Burns).

Carney and Barbara Isaacs divorced in 1978, and the following year Carney remarried his first wife, Jean. He reteamed with Gleason for a series of Honeymooners specials on ABC (1976–1978) and spent the 1980s and early 1990s acting in movies and on television, including the television movie Terrible Joe Moran, which starred James Cagney in his last screen role and for which Carney won his seventh Emmy Award (1984). Carney made his final movie appearance in Last Action Hero (1993) before retiring. He died 9 November 2003 at age eighty-five after a long illness. He is buried in Riverside Cemetery in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Just before his death Carney was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame.

Carney was one of earliest stars of television and helped popularize the fledgling medium in the 1950s through his work on The Jackie Gleason Show, in particular by teaming with Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners, considered by many to be one of the finest situation comedies in television history. Carney’s work over a forty-year period in television, on Broadway, and in the movies resulted in seven Emmy Awards, an Academy Award, and a Tony Award nomination—attesting both to his popularity as an entertainer and to the esteem his peers held for him.

The best source for information on Carney’s life and career is Michael Seth Starr, Art Carney: A Biography (1997). Information on Carney is also in Ronald L. Smith, entry in Who’s Who in Comedy (1992). Obituaries are in the New York Post and New York Times (both 12 Nov. 2003).

Michael Seth Starr

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