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.  

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