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THE NATION / ART CARNEY | 1918-2003

'Honeymooners' Sidekick Also Won Oscar

November 12, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Art Carney, who won a best-actor Oscar for "Harry and Tonto" and originated the role of fussy Felix Ungar in "The Odd Couple" on Broadway, but who is best remembered as Jackie Gleason's lovable sewer-worker pal Ed Norton on television's "The Honeymooners," has died. He was 85.

Carney, a versatile stage, screen and television actor who was equally adept at comedy and drama, died Sunday after a long illness. The family would not specify the illness or say where Carney, a longtime resident of Westbrook, Conn., had died.

Carney won his Academy Award in the 1974 film playing Harry, a retired teacher and widower who sets off on a cross-country journey with Tonto, his cat, after his New York apartment building is torn down.

But even after winning Hollywood's top acting prize for his first starring film role, Carney said people still greeted him with, "How are things down in the sewer?"

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 13, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Art Carney -- A caption accompanying the obituary of Art Carney in Wednesday's Section A listed an incorrect number of Emmys the actor won. He won five for his work on "The Honeymooners," not three.

"Not that I ever regret playing Ed Norton," said Carney, who got his acting start on radio in the early 1940s and made his TV debut in 1948.

There's no denying the impact Norton, the self-described "subterranean sanitation engineer," had on Carney's career.

"He was the show, because he was so inventive," comedian Sid Caesar, who worked with Carney on some TV specials, told The Times on Tuesday. "I admired him very, very much. He was a huge talent."

Carney won Emmys for best supporting actor in 1953, 1954 and 1955 for playing Norton in "The Honeymooners" sketches on "The Jackie Gleason Show." As Carney said later, "I brought the sewer worker to life."

Clad in his trademark T-shirt, open vest and beat-up felt hat with upturned brim -- a hat Carney paid $5 for in 1935 while still in high school -- he became one of the most enduring second-bananas in TV history.

Carney viewed his lovable, dim-bulb Norton and Gleason's blustery bus driver Ralph Kramden as a Brooklyn version of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

He told the Toronto Star in 1987 that Norton and Kramden's relationship "was crude in a way -- with that [kitchen] set and everything; the pan under the icebox. You had to imagine what the bedroom looked like."

Once, he said, when Norton's apartment was shown, it had a leopard-skin spread on the bed and a horse with a clock in its stomach that he'd won in Coney Island.

"Norton certainly had the better apartment," Carney said. "Of course, he bought everything on time -- he bought his newspapers on time."

One classic Norton moment comes when Ralph is trying to learn to play golf and Norton is reading from a book on how to execute a proper swing: "First step up, plant your feet firmly and address the ball."

What do they mean "address" the ball? Ralph asks.

"Wait a minute, I think I know what it means," Norton says, taking the club out of Ralph's hand. He then steps up, plants his feet firmly, offers an arm-waving salute and says, "Hellooooo, ball!"

Norton never failed to exasperate his pal "Ralphie boy" with his arm-flailing, time-consuming flourishes whenever he had to sign a piece of paper.

Carney stumbled on the signature piece of business in rehearsal one day, when he simply embellished something his father had done whenever he had to sign young Art's report card. The senior Carney would make sure the light was just right, move objects around on the table, shoot his arms out, check the pen and line up the paper just so.

"I'd say, 'Papa, just sign the card and let me go back to school,' " Carney recalled.

At the rehearsal, Gleason told him, "Whatever you're doing, keep it in."

Thanks to reruns of one of the most popular comedies from TV's Golden Age, Norton likely will continue to be the one role Carney is most associated with.

"If you look back on 'The Honeymooners,' there's Jackie Gleason, the bombastic, overstating, larger-than-life character; and here's Ed Norton, a realistic, down-to-earth Everyman," said Michael Marsden, professor of English and cultural studies at Eastern Kentucky University and co-editor of the Journal of Popular Film and Television.

"He's a perfect counterbalance to this huge overstatement."

Carney's passing leaves only Joyce Randolph, who played Norton's wife, Trixie, among the 1950s situation comedy's quartet of co-stars. Gleason died in 1987, and Audrey Meadows, his TV wife, Alice, died in 1996.

"Art gained most of his fame playing Ed Norton because he was so amazingly funny," Randolph told The Times on Tuesday. "He was just a natural. And Jackie could not have done the show without Art Carney and even said so.

"They were like Laurel and Hardy and, in fact, once in a while they played Laurel and Hardy in rehearsal, and they were very funny."

Arthur William Matthew Carney was born Nov. 4, 1918, in Mount Vernon, N.Y., the youngest of six sons of newspaperman-publicist Edward Carney and Helen Carney.

Although quiet and introverted, Carney was a born mimic who by grade school was entertaining family members with his impressions of everyone from Edward G. Robinson to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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