Arthur William Matthew “Art” Carney would have turned 94 years old today.
Born in Mount Vernon, New York, Carney started his career as an entertainer by doing imitations and performing comedy bits with Horace Heidt‘s orchestra. He was also a regular on a variety of radio programs and appeared in bit parts in movies.
His first “regular” role was on television’s The Morey Amsterdam Show from 1948 to 1950.
When the already popular comedian, 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 its title was changed to The Jackie Gleason Show and a skit called, “The Honeymooners” became a regular part of the variety show.
Art Carney made his debut as Ed Norton, the role that would cement his name and image in our collective consciousness forever, in 1951. Here’s one of the sketches of “The Honeymooners” from Cavalcade of Stars. Take note of Alice in this sketch, she’s played by Pert Kelton, the “original” who preceded Audrey Meadows in the role.
Without getting too far away from the work of Mr. Carney, it’s worth noting how wonderful Pert Kelton was as Alice Kramden, no disrespect to Ms. Meadows who we all came to love in the role. The reasons why Kelton was replaced by Meadows are complex, a post for another day, but for now suffice it to say that aside from some of the skits available of her in the role via internet searches, her wonderful performance is virtually lost and unknown to most.
Anyway – Ed Norton may have been a supporting character in The Honeymooners but Carney’s memorable portrayal of Ralph Kramden’s neighbor and best friend who worked in the sewers of New York City is unforgettable. At least as popular as Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden. He didn’t take a back seat in popularity or comedy chops. Together, Gleason and Carney created characters and situations that everyone could relate to and that remain forever funny. Their pairing was so unique that when Carney left The Honeymooners in 1957, the show went on hiatus until his return ten years later. Gleason recognized the magic then as we all still do today. These pioneers of television comedy set the bar so high it has not been bettered in the approximate seven decades since television situation comedies first hit the airwaves.
Here are a few scenes featuring Art Carney as Ed Norton on The Honeymooners:
Norton teaches Ralph how to do “The Hucklebuck”
Ed Norton sleepwalks
From episode, “TV or Not TV,” it’s Captain Video:
Special treat. Here’s Carney in Ed Norton garb on “What’s My Line?”
Art Carney had a substantial career after The Honeymooners, active on the stage from 1957 to 1974, with his greatest success playing Felix Unger in the original run of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple in 1965.
In 1966 Carney returned to The Jackie Gleason Show, and the role of Ed Norton. But he also landed a role on the very popular 1960s Batman series appearing in two consecutive episodes in 1966 as guest villain, “The Archer”. Worth mentioning, because it’s simply too fabulous to ignore – The Archer had accomplices. His female assistant was Maid Marilyn, played by veteran film and television actress (a great comedienne) Barbara Nichols, and his two henchmen, Big John and Crier Tuck were played by Loren Ewing and Doodles Weaver (uncle to an actress you may have heard of, Sigourney Weaver), respectively.
Aside from a variety of roles in made-for-tv movies and guest appearances on many popular television shows through the years, Art Carney also appeared in feature films through 1993, winning an Academy Award for Best Actor for Paul Mazursky’s, Harry and Tonto in 1975. He also received a total of twelve Emmy Award nominations, winning six.
“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 for The Museum of Broadcast Communications
Among my most prized possessions is a drawing of Art Carney as Ed Norton by Art Carney that I received as a gift from an old friend. I’ve yet to display it although I’ve had it for years because I can’t quite find the perfect place for it. However, strangely, I am compelled now and again to remove it from its resting place and just look at it. It’s quite extraordinary. When I can I’ll post it for everyone to take a look at. But it’s worth noting Mr. Carney was a wonderful sketch artist with many of his drawings, mostly self-portraits it seems, available for purchase. Beyond the joys he brought us on screens of all sizes we should appreciate all the facets of the art of Art Carney.