Art Carney Biography (1918-)

Full name, Arthur William Matthew Carney; born November 4, 1918, in Mount Vernon, NY; son of Edward M. and Helen (Farrell) Carney; married Jean Myers, August 15, 1940 (divorced, 1965), remarried Jean Myers, March, 1977 (divorced);married Barbara Isaac; children: (first marriage) Eileen, Brian, Paul. Addresses: AGENT--International Creative Management, 8899 Beverly Blvd., LosAngeles, CA 90048.

"How would you like to go through life with your name synonymous with sewage?," actor Art Carney asked columnist Earl Wilson during an August 3, 1974, interview in the New York Post. Carney was then still best known for playing EdNorton, the self-styled "underground sanitation expert," on the popular 1950stelevision situation comedy series The Honeymooners. Within a year, however,Carney won an Academy Award for his performance as Harry, a retired professor who embarks on a cross-country tour when he is thrown out of his New York City apartment, in the 1974 comedy-drama Harry and Tonto. That movie and the ones that immediately followed, notably The Late Show in 1977 and House Callsin 1978, gave Carney a new reputation--as one of Hollywood's most effective actors portraying elderly men. In a New York Times article (February 20, 1977)just after after the release of The Late Show, Joseph Morgenstern wrote: "He's shown men playing through their lives to feel the wholeness of their lives. . . . Young audiences, as well as old, are looking up to [Carney] as a hero."

Through his brother Jack, a musical booking agent, Carney landed his first show-business job in 1936, as a mimic and novelty singer for Horace Heidt's band. He worked with the band in vaudeville, on radio, and in one movie. Able toimitate Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and other world figures, Carney held several more radio jobs in the years just before and after his World War II Army service. His role as "Philly" on the Joe and Ethel Turp show foreshadowed his characterization of Ed Norton.

Carney first appeared as Norton, the foil for star Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden, when "The Honeymooners" was a regular skit between 1951-52 on the DuMont Network's Cavalcade of Stars television program. The feature was used againon CBS's Jackie Gleason Show (1952-55 and 1956-57). Most of the episodes sooften broadcast in syndication in the decades since then, however, were originally shown during the one year (1955-56) that The Honeymooners was a separate series. Carney's dumb but good-hearted Norton remained one of the best remembered characters of sitcom history. The actor's contribution was acknowledged when, in 1966, Gleason and Carney were temporarily reunited for a new set of "Honeymooners" segments on the Jackie Gleason Show; a reporter for Look (November 15, 1966) asserted that Carney "brings to comedy all the deftness, imagination and pathos of yesterday's most eloquent loser, Charlie Chaplin."

Indeed, even during his Honeymooners years, Carney thought of himself as an actor rather than just a comic. Wanting to prove he could handle more seriouswork, in 1957, he left Gleason and accepted one of the lead roles in Morton Wishengrad's Broadway drama The Rope Dancers. The play was only a moderate success, but Carney received virtually unanimous raves from the rather suprisedcritics. Robert Coleman of the New York Mirror (November 21, 1957) felt Carney was "the dramatic find of the year," while Hobe Morrison of Variety (November 27, 1957) called him "a revelation." Morrison elaborated, "His portrayal starts on a low key, as does the part, but grows in depth and color as the indolent would-be writer is engulfed in tragedy." Carney's success in The Rope Dancers led to more Broadway parts, the most famous one being that of Felix Ungar, the obsessively neat roommate in Neil Simon's Odd Couple. In his Varietyreview of the play (March 17, 1965), Morrison stated, "Carney gives a mercurial, flexible, articulate and effectively contrasting portrayal of the maniacally neurotical, hypochondriac border."

While appearing in The Odd Couple, Carney suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by the failure of his twenty-five-year first marriage, and he left the play to enter a sanitarium for nearly six months. Over the next nine years, hefought addictions to alcohol, amphetamines, and barbituates, finally bringing his alcoholism under control at about the time he made Harry and Tonto.

Originally Carney was not interested in portraying Harry in Harry and Tonto at all, feeling the film sentimentalized old age and that at fifty-five he wastoo young to play a seventy-two-year-old. Soon convinced, however, by director Paul Mazursky, that "this part was not that of an 'old' 72-year-old-man,"and as the actor explained to a reporter for the National Enquirer (October 7, 1974), little change was necessary to become Harry: "I used my own voice, very slight makeup, bushier eyebrows, grew my own mustache and whitened my hair." In addition, Carney wore his own hearing aid and did not try to mask thelimp that was the result of a World War II injury.

In his Christian Science Monitor (August 12, 1974) review of Harry and Tonto,David Sterritt asserted, "We fans . . . have always known that Carney has the makeup of a first-rate movie star." Describing Carney's work in the film asa "tour de force of performing skill," he went on to say, "Carney presides over [the movie] like a wizened wizard, aged 20 years by makeup magic and acting nuance, onscreen nearly every moment, filling the screen with his unique warmth." Sterritt's opinion was shared by nearly all of his fellow critics; Virginia Gray of The Lively Arts (September, 1974) wrote, "Art Carney's performance is remarkable in its range and honesty, as he conveys Harry's confusion,his determination to remain independent, and his abiding sense of the absurdity of it all without a trace of self-pity or self- consciousness."

Carney's next important part was in The Late Show, writer-director Robert Benton's 1977 homage to the classic detective thrillers of such actors as Humphrey Bogart. In this film, Carney's character, aging detective Ira Wells, has trouble pursuing his profession because of physical disabilities, but managesto outwit the villains anyway. Critics generally felt that the movie did notwork as a thriller, but they admired the chemistry between Carney and co-starLily Tomlin. Clancy Sigal of the British publication The Spectator (July 16,1977) remarked, "It's startlingly easy to identify with [these] likeable losers but stubborn survivors."

Carney's comic portrayals of physicians in two later films were also noted bycritics. Frank Rich, in the April 10, 1978, issue of Time, described Dr. Willoughby, the senile, imcompetent hospital chief of staff portrayed by Carneyin House Calls as "the film's one outright hilarious character, played with vaudevillian relish." The actor's crusty Dr. Blaine in Movie Movie, a satiricre-creation of 1930's double features, prompted New Yorker's Pauline Kael (December 4, 1978) to comment, "It's easy to forget him [Carney], because he's the kind of good actor who does things so instinctively that you don't see anyactor's tension or control--he just plays his part, as if there were nothingto it."

Although Carney's film roles since 1978 have been in less successful movies,he has won a new generation of admirers due to the growing popularity of TheHoneymooners in reruns. Back in 1964, Carney had told Vernon Scott of UPI that he did not mind people calling him 'Norton' on the street: "That's okay. Ilook back on The Honeymooners as having the same quality as Laurel and Hardy.The audiences believed in them." In a press release for his 1979 movie Goingin Style, however, the actor denied that he was actually like Norton: "I love Ed Norton and what he did for my career. But the truth is that we couldn'thave been more different. Norton was the total extrovert, there was no way you could put down his infectious good humor. Me? I'm a loner and a worrier."

Birth Details
November 4, 1918
Mount Vernon, New York, United States

Famous Works

Recent Updates

November 9, 2003: Carney died on November 9, 2003, in Chester, Connecticut, at the age of 85. He had been in ill health for a long time. Source:,, November 12, 2003; E! Online,, November 12, 2003; New York Times, November 12, 2003, p. C13.

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