Art Carney

Foil to Jackie Gleason in 'The Honeymooners'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Arthur William Matthew Carney, actor: born Mount Vernon, New York 4 November 1918; married first 1940, 1977 Jean Myers (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1966), 1966 Barbara Isaac (marriage dissolved 1976); died Chester, Connecticut 9 November 2003.

Art Carney won an Oscar as Best Actor for his performance in Harry and Tonto and created the role of fussy Felix Ungar in Neil Simon's play The Odd Couple, but he will be best remembered as one of the great comic foils of radio and television.

His portrayal of Ed Norton, the endearing sewer worker ("underground sanitation expert") in the legendary show The Honeymooners is part of television lore. The series is constantly rerun on American TV and Norton, wearing his battered fedora indoors and out, and forever raiding his neighbour's refrigerator, is one of the medium's best-loved characters from the Fifties, alongside Lucille Ball's Lucy Ricardo, Phil Silvers' Bilko and Norton's sparring partner in The Honeymooners, Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden.

Born in New York in 1918, the youngest of six sons, Carney displayed a gift for mimicry while in his teens. After high school he joined Horace Heidt's orchestra on tour doing impersonations and novelty songs; he also worked on Heidt's radio programme Pot o' Gold and had a small role in the 1941 film of the same name. Radio proved his forte: he was a splendid straight man to such comedy greats as Bert Lahr, Milton Berle and Fred Allen. He joined the army in 1944, but was wounded in France by shrapnel in the leg shortly after landing on Omaha Beach in Normandy - he had a lifelong limp as a result.

Discharged, in 1947 he was a regular on Morey Amsterdam's radio show, which turned into a television show. Amsterdam played the MC of a fictional night-club, with Carney as Charlie the doorman.

In 1950 the rotund comic Jackie Gleason became host of the big- budget television variety show Cavalcade of Stars, and made an enormous hit with a gallery of characters he created for comedy sketches. Carney was his foil in many of the routines, most successful of which was to be "The Honeymooners", introduced in 1951. Gleason was Ralph Kramden, the boastful, forever scheming but always thwarted bus driver who would never get away from his dingy apartment and nagging wife (Pert Kelton). Carney was his upstairs neighbour and best friend Ed Norton, whose optimism and encouragement were allied to hopeless naïvety and incompetence.

In 1952 Gleason moved networks to host his own Jackie Gleason Show, part of which remained "The Honeymooners" sketches. The Honeymooners finally became a series in its own right in 1955, with 39 30-minute episodes filmed before a live audience using an advanced filming system called Electronicam. It was one of the first examples of live-audience, single-set filmed situation comedy. Carney's phlegmatic, low-key approach to Norton made him the perfect complement to Gleason's bombastic, forceful bus driver, and their teaming has often been compared to that of Laurel and Hardy, Hope and Crosby, Abbott and Costello, and Martin and Lewis.

Look magazine wrote, "Carney brings to comedy all the deftness, imagination and pathos of yesterday's most eloquent loser, Charlie Chaplin." Gleason later said that Carney had "exquisite timing and the best body language in the world". Carney won the Emmy as best supporting actor in a regular series for The Honeymooners in 1953, 1954 and 1955, another for The Art Carney Special (1960), two more for his appearances on The Jackie Gleason Show (1967, 1968), and a seventh in 1984 for his supporting performance in the television movie Terrible Joe Moran.

Carney, who always pointed out that he was an actor, not a comedian, gave outstanding performances in dramatic anthology series during the years of live television. In 1960 he appeared as a divorced and suicidal alcoholic in a one-man tour de force, Call Me Back. It was ironic casting, since Carney was to have a battle with alcoholism himself. He had left Heidt's show after being too drunk to announce it on the air.

In 1965 Carney originated the role of the obsessively neat Felix Ungar, constantly irritated by his slovenly pal Oscar (Walter Matthau) in the Broadway play The Odd Couple. He had a personal triumph in the play, but the same year his first marriage, to his high-school sweetheart Jean Myers, broke down due to his addictions to alcohol, amphetamines and barbiturates. After The Odd Couple finished its successful run, he entered a psychiatric hospital.

Gleason helped his recovery by hiring him for a Honeymooners Special on his television show in 1966, which led to a fresh series which lasted until 1970. In 1974 Carney was given the starring role in the film Harry and Tonto, in which he played an evicted widower who embarks on a cross-country odyssey with his pet cat. His touching and sharply observed performance won him the Oscar against formidable competition but his subsequent film career was chequered, his most notable role being that of an ageing private eye who forms an unlikely alliance with a quirky cat-lover (Lily Tomlin) in Robert Benton's The Late Show (1977).

In 1985 Carney teamed up with Gleason for the final time (Gleason died in 1987) in the television movie Izzy and Moe. Carney said of the role in The Honeymooners:

I love Ed Norton and what he did for my career. 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 humour. Me? I'm a loner and a worrier.

Tom Vallance