An American actor who triumphed on television, then became a film star in middle age, is dead. Art Carney died Sunday of a long-term illness, at the age of 85. For much of his career, Mr. Carney was best known for one role he played on TV. Then, in his mid-50s, his movie career blossomed, starting with a performance that won him an Academy Award.
In the early 1950's, comic Jackie Gleason became a favorite of American television viewers, on his weekly program, "Cavalcade of Stars." The show also introduced many Americans to one of Mr. Gleason's supporting players: Art Carney. On "Cavalcade of Stars" and its later versions, Mr. Carney provided a comic contrast to Mr. Gleason's gallery of characters. He was the rich, embarrassed father of spoiled, egotistical "Reggie Van Gleason." And, when Jackie Gleason played the obnoxious "Charlie Bratten," he interrupted the lunch break of timid "Clem Finch" - Mr. Carney.
Although many Americans first noticed Art Carney on Jackie Gleason's television shows, he had already worked on radio, TV and the stage for some time before that. Arthur William Matthew Carney was born in Mount Vernon, New York, on November 4, 1918, exactly one week before the end of World War I. He sharpened his comedy skills and mimicry working with a dance band and with prominent entertainers of the time, such as Fred Allen, Edgar Bergen and Bert Lahr. During World War II, Art Carney was wounded by shrapnel in the 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy, France. His injury left him with a slight limp. After the war, Mr. Carney returned to the stage and broadcasting, including the relatively new medium of television. His exposure on Jackie Gleason's "Cavalcade of Stars" began a professional association that would continue off and on until Mr. Gleason's death in 1987. Of all the roles they would play together, one was clearly the public's favorite, which is announced as "Jackie Gleason - "The Honeymooners" - with the stars Art Carney, Audrey Meadows, and Joyce Randolph."
As segments within Mr. Gleason's variety shows and, briefly, as a series of its own, "The Honeymooners" depicted two young couples in a Brooklyn, New York apartment building. Jackie Gleason played loud and sometimes-grouchy Ralph Kramden and Art Carney portrayed his best friend, Ed Norton. Silly, sweet and childlike, Ed loved Ralph and drove him crazy at the same time.
On "The Honeymooners," Art Carney as Ed Norton could be counted on to say the most hilariously inappropriate thing for any situation. There was the time when Ralph mistakenly thought he had a fatal disease - and six months to live.
The Honeymooners has maintained a loyal following ever since it first appeared in the 1950s. The Honeymooners continues on TV broadcasts, cable TV, videocassettes and even computer CD-ROMs. There are even conventions of fans of Mr. Gleason, Mr. Carney and their co-stars.
Art Carney returned to his The Honeymooners role at various times in his career. However, he played many other comic and serious parts on the stage and TV. In playwright Neil Simon's 1965 Broadway hit The Odd Couple, Art Carney and Walter Matthau originated the roles of two friends who became enemies by sharing an apartment. Although Walter Matthau was cast in the 1968 movie version of The Odd Couple, Mr. Carney's character was played on screen by Jack Lemmon. Art Carney's first starring film role - the role of a lifetime - came a few years later.
For 1974's Harry and Tonto, writer-director Paul Mazursky cast Art Carney as Harry, a retired teacher traveling across America with his cat. The film was both a whimsical comedy, in which Harry encountered unusual characters, and an eloquent drama about the importance of dignity and independence. Early in Harry and Tonto, at home in a deteriorating New York City neighborhood, Carney, (Harry) talked to his cat about his late wife, "She loved this neighborhood. Who could argue with her? It was like Shakespeare's London. Bristling with energy. Well, today it's still bristling - but without the energy. There were trolleys, Tonto. Cobblestones. The aroma of corned beef and cabbage. The tangy zest of apple strudel," he said.
In 1975, Art Carney was presented an Academy Award for his performance in Harry and Tonto. He was 56-years-old and had only appeared in three other movies. But, in subsequent years there would be many more, such as The Late Show, in which he played a detective opposite Lily Tomlin; House Calls with his former stage co-star Walter Matthau; Going in Style, with George Burns and legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg; and, in the 1990s, a role in Arnold Schwarzenegger's Last Action Hero.
Art Carney leaves behind these films and others ... as well as the special kind of goodwill that is created by a popular television personality. In their living rooms, on stage and on movie screens, Americans loved Art Carney. He died Sunday, at the age of 85.