Saturday, November 27, 2021

Art Carney


"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 humor.  Me? I'm a loner and a worrier."
  -- Art Carney

Merry Christmas from Six Feet Under Hollywood!  This month, we'll be visiting the graves of actors who have donned a Santa suit at one time or another in their career, and in some cases, more than once.  Take for example this week's subject, Art Carney.  Though most famously known for his role of Ed Norton on The Honeymooners, Carney played Santa no less than three times in his career, most memorably on a 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone.  More on that later.

Arthur William Matthew Carney was born in Mount Vernon, New York, on November 4, 1918.  He was the youngest of six boys to a newspaper publisher and was of Irish and Catholic descent.

From a young age, Carney aspired to a career in show business.  After high school, he got his first break as a comic singer with the Horace Heidt Orchestra, which often appeared on the radio program Pot O' Gold, one of the first money-giveaway programs of the era.  In 1941, the series made the jump to the silver screen, and Carney earned his first feature film role, albeit uncredited.

A gifted impersonator, Carney worked steadily in radio during the early 1940s, portraying such notable figures as Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Then is 1943, he was drafted into the United States Army and served as an infantryman and machine gun crewman during World War 2.  As a member of the 28th Infantry Division, he participated in the Battle of Normandy, where a piece of shrapnel caught him in the leg.  He earned the Purple Heart and several other medals, and spent the rest of his life walking with a limp, something he often hid during his performances. 

After the war, Carney returned to his career in radio, appearing as a regular on The Morey Amsterdam Show.  The series later moved to television, and Carney's character of Charlie the doorman came along for the ride. Check out the opening intro on YouTube.

Then in 1950, Carney joined the cast of the CBS series Cavalcade of Stars, headlined by Jackie Gleason.  The two often appeared together as loudmouth Charlie Bratten (Gleason) and his victim Clem Finch (Carney).  Through these sketches, they developed a good working rapport with one another, and Gleason would often recruit him for other roles on the show, including that of sewer worker Ed Norton, in the domestic comedy segments known as The Honeymooners.  The segments were so successful that they were turned into a series of the same name (above), for which Carney would win multiple Emmy Awards.

In 1960, Carney took the role that inspired this holiday blog, appearing in a Christmas-themed episode of The Twlight Zone called "Night of the Meek."  A rare, dramatic role for Carney, this episode saw him as Henry Corwin, an unemployed man who earns just enough as a department store Santa to pay his bar tab.  But in a rare turn for the sci-fi and horror anthology series, this episode has a mostly happy ending.  Carney would later play Santa again in the 1970 Muppets special The Great Santa Claus Switch and the 1984 made-for-TV movie The Night They Saved Christmas.

In 1965, Carney took his talents to Broadway, originating the role of Felix Ungar in the Neil Simon play The Odd Couple, opposite Walter Matthau as Oscar Madison.  The play was an overnight success. 

While Carney's career was on track, his personal life was anything but, as he was addicted to alcohol, amphetamines and barbiturates.  It was too much for wife Jean to take, who divorced Carney after 25 years.  As a result, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a sanitarium. 

After several years of therapy, Carney fully recovered in the 1970s, and he and Jean eventually remarried. His career rebounded as well, when in 1974, he won the Academy Award for Best Actor for the film Harry and Tonto.  Here's the theatrical trailer

He was heavily in demand for the next several years, appearing in such films as W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975), The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), and Firestarter (1984).  His final acting role was in the 1993 Arnold Schwarzenegger film Last Action Hero (see Trivia below).

Carney retired from acting and for the next ten years, he enjoyed a quiet life in upstate Connecticut.  On November 9, 2003, he died in his sleep just five days after his 85th birthday.

Art Carney was laid to rest at Riverside Cemetery in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.  It's a rather small cemetery and his grave is pretty easy to find.  When you enter through the front gate, head to your right until you hit a wall of graves and shrubbery that mark the perimeter.  Walk down this row of graves until you find it.

Rest in peace, Norton.

  • In 1997, author Michael Seth Starr released his biography of Carney's life.  You can pick up a copy of Art Carney: A Biography from Amazon.

  • The quirky mannerisms that became so associated with the Norton character, such as the knuckle cracking and gum smacking, were brought to the role by Carney himself, who was emulating his father.

  • "Night of the Meek" is one of only six episodes of The Twilight Zone that was performed live on CBS and was recorded on videotape.  As such, it has a much-less polished look to it than most other episodes.  Despite that, it's top-notch writing and Carney's performance is five-star.

  • Along with Bea Arthur, Diahann Carroll and Harvey Korman, Carney appeared in the 1978 made-for-television spectacular The Star Wars Holiday Special.  Curious?  Click here.

  • In the late 1980s, Carney appeared in a series of commercials for Coca-Cola alongside newbie Brian Bonsall, who would later join the cast of NBC's Family Ties as Andy Keaton.  Here's one such commercial.

  • Carney's final role was in the 1993 Arnold Schwarzenegger film Last Action Hero.  His character died in the film, and ironically, the final words Carney ever spoke on screen were "I'm outta here."

  • Ed Norton's hat is today owned by Carney's son Brian, who brings it to events and allows fans to try it on and pose for photos.

  • In 2009, Carney and Gleason were honored by the United States Postal Service with a commemorative 44-cent stamp.

  • You've heard of the Oscars and the Emmys, but how about the Carneys?  The Carney Awards, an annual award show that began in 2015, recognize outstanding lifetime achievement in character acting.  The ceremony was named after Carney in honor of his legendary status as second banana.  

Monday, November 8, 2021

Who Loves Ya, Baby?


"Kojak is the kind of guy who couldn't arrest a hooker, he'd send her home.  He operates on instinct and decency, but if you give him any lip he'll throw you out a window."
  --Telly Savalas

Telly Savalas was born Aristotelis Savalas in Garden City, New York on January 21, 1922.  He was of Greek heritage and was the second of five children.  His family owned and operated a successful restaurant throughout the 1920s, reaching millionaire status.  However, the Great Depression would put an end to all that.

By 1941, America was fully engaged in World War 2.  Having recently completed high school, Savalas was drafted into the Army and served with Company C, 12th Medical Training Battalion at Camp Pickett, Virginia. He served for two years, reaching the rank of Corporal before being honorably discharged following a car accident.  He'd spend more than a year recuperating from a broken pelvis and a sprained ankle.  He then enrolled in the Armed Forces Institute, studying radio and television production.  Like many service members, his military duty was deeply personal to Savalas and it was something he refused to discuss in interviews.

After the war, Savalas began his career at the U.S. State Department, hosting a radio program called Your Voice of America.  From there he landed his first network job, hosting an ABC radio show called The Coffeehouse in New York City.  He worked his way up at ABC, later serving as senior director for news special events.  In this position, he hired legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell, giving him his first job in television.

Savalas's segue into acting was something of an accident.  The television series Armstrong Circle Theatre was looking for someone who could pull off a European accent.  He was a last-minute substitution for the role, for which he received great acclaim.  With little experience in acting, he became very in demand, appearing on such series as Sunday Showcase and Naked City.  He was also a regular on the short-lived NBC series Acapulco, starring James Coburn.

Hollywood soon took notice, and Savalas made his big-screen debut in the 1961 film Mad Dog Coll, playing, what else, a police officer. Check out the original theatrical trailer.  His work in the film impressed fellow actor Burt Lancaster, who arranged for Savalas to be cast in his next feature film The Young Savages, once again playing a police officer.  Here's a preview of the film.

In 1962, Savalas appeared in three films, Bird Man of Alcatraz (see Trivia below), the original version of Cape Fear and The Interns.  He also made several guest appearances on television, including a memorable episode of The Twilight Zone.  Click here to see him match wits with Talky Tina.

In 1965, Savalas accepted the role of Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told.  At the request of the film's director, Savalas shaved his head, a look that he would continue for the rest of his career.  He'd follow it up with several memorable films from the 60s and 70s, including The Dirty DozenOn Her Majesty's Secret Service (above) and Capricorn One.

In 1973, Savalas was cast in the made-for-TV movie The Marcus-Nelson Murders, playing New York police detective Theodopolus Kojak (I bet you thought he didn't have a first name).  It was so successful that the character was given his own series, simply called Kojak (below), which ran for five seasons on CBS.  The role put Savalas on the map and it would ultimately define his career.  

Following the series cancellation, Savalas returned to the silver screen, with memorable roles in such films as Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) and Cannonball Run 2 (1984).  Then in 1985, he reprised the role of Kojak in the first of six made-for-TV movies, which he continued making until 1990.  His final television role was in the CBS series The Commish, which was produced by his son-in-law.

In 1988, Savalas was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder.  It would plague him during the final years of his career and would ultimately take his life on January 22, 1994, one day after his 72nd birthday.

Savalas had spent the final twenty years of his life as a resident of the Sheraton Universal Hotel in Hollywood and it was there that he perished.  In honor of their famous resident, the Sheraton renamed the hotel bar "Telly's."

He was buried in a semi-private garden at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills. It's so well hidden that I didn't know he was there.  I stumbled across it completely by accident. 

The quote is from his namesake, Aristotle.

Location: Court of Liberty, Gardens of Heritage, Map #H11, Garden #288
Inscription: "The hour of departure has arrived and we go our ways -
I to die and you to live.  Which is better God only knows."

Rest in peace, baby.

  • Savalas never published his memoirs, but a biography was released at the height of his fame.  You can pick up a copy of the simply titled Telly Savalas by Marsha Daly from Amazon.

  • Savalas was good friends with actor John Aniston (Days of Our Lives) and was godfather to his daughter Jennifer Aniston.

  • Before making it big in Hollywood, Savalas held a number of odd jobs, including a stint as a lifeguard.  On one occasion, he failed to save a man from drowning, and the incident troubled him for the rest of his life.

  • Savalas was the original choice to play the lead in Cool Hand, Luke.  He was in Europe while the film was in pre-production, and due to his fear of flying, he opted to return to America by boat.  Unfortunately, this was a time-consuming process and the film's producers were unable to wait for his return.  The part was ultimately given to Paul Newman.

  • Savalas appeared in two different films about Alcatraz, playing two different inmates.  First, he appeared as Feto Gomez in 1962's Bird Man of Alcatraz.  Then in 1980, he appeared as Cretzer in the made-for-TV mini series Alcatraz: The Whole Shocking Story

  • Kojak was famous for sucking on lollipops. This was pure Savalas, as he was trying to give up cigarettes.

  • Savalas and a host of other A-list stars appeared in the very first commercial for Diet Coke, with Savalas himself delivering the signature line, "just for the taste of it."  How many stars can you spot?