Thesp forever linked to 'Honeymooners' character

This obituary was updated at 5:25 p.m.

HOLLYWOOD — Art Carney, who created television’s first memorable wacky neighbor and would win an Academy Award more than 20 years after the debut of his character Ed Norton, died Sunday at his home in Westport, Conn. He was 85 and had been ill for some time. He was buried Tuesday, the day news of his death was released.

With his turned-up porkpie hat and unbuttoned vest over a white T-shirt, Carney’s bumptious Ed Norton became an ideal foil for Jackie Gleason’s blustery, bullying Ralph Kramden on “The Honeymooners.”

“The first time I saw the guy act,” Gleason once said, “I knew I would have to work twice as hard for my laughs. He was funny as hell.”

Carney first teamed with Gleason on the 1951 TV program “Cavalcade of Stars,” in which Carney created several comic characters, including Ed Norton, the hapless sanitation engineer. Sketches appeared on several of Gleason’s variety shows, but the classic “Honeymooners” series itself ran for only season, 1955-56, and consisted of 39 episodes.

The Norton character was eccentric and loving. In the show’s first episode, when Norton and Kramden decide to buy and share a TV set, Norton displays a bizarre affinity for the kidshow “Captain Video”; in later episodes, he goofs up in one situation after another, but always comes through for his best friend Ralph and wife Trixie.

Avoided typecasting

Not wanting to be typecast, at times, Carney distanced himself from the role, but over the last two decades or so, he has embraced his part in the enduring appeal of the classic TV skein.

In his later years Carney added to his already proven talent for mimicry and comedy by turning in a dramatic performance in Paul Mazursky’s “Harry and Tonto,” for which he copped the Oscar for best actor in 1974.

Other sterling film performances include “Going in Style,” with George Burns and Lee Strasberg, and “The Late Show,” with Lily Tomlin.

He also toplined several Broadway shows, most memorably as the original Felix Unger in Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” opposite Walter Matthau. Yet his run in the show was cut short by alcoholism, which he battled through much of the prime of his life.

Youngest of six

Born in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., Arthur William Matthew Carney was the youngest of six sons. His father was a reporter, his mother a concert violinist.

After graduating from high school in 1936, Carney traveled for four years with Horace Heidt’s band doing impersonations and novelty songs. He tried standup comedy but failed. His knack for impersonations landed him a job on the radio show “Report to the Nation,” imitating Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and other world leaders.

When he wasn’t in character, his baritone voice was good enough to get him work as an announcer for the “Heidt’s Pot O’Gold” radio quiz program.

He appeared in the 1941 film version of “Pot Of Gold,” which starred James Stewart and Paulette Goddard, but he would not appear in another film for 23 years, when he made “The Yellow Rolls Royce.”

Military service

He entered the Army in 1943 and was shipped overseas in 1944, landing in Normandy as part of the invasion. A month later, a piece of shrapnel shattered his right leg, leaving it three-quarters of an inch shorter than the left and causing a slight limp that he would have the rest of his life.

After the war he went to work for CBS Radio on such popular shows as “Suspense” and “Danger” and worked on Morey Amsterdam’s program, which led to his first television work.

He first teamed with Gleason on the 1951 TV program “Cavalcade of Stars,” and in 1952, after Gleason moved to CBS for his eponymous show, the character of Ed Norton debuted.

The Honeymooners” sketches, running between 10 and 37 minutes each, were a part of the Gleason show through the 1954-55 season. In the fall of ’55, Gleason spun off the series and then halted it after one season, saying the quality of the writing could not be maintained. Gleason returned to the variety format in 1956-57, including “The Honeymooners” among the sketches.

Other gigs

Carney worked sporadically after Gleason shut down his operation, appearing in episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and “Playhouse 90″ and the TV movie “Panama Hattie” with Ethel Merman in 1958. He later appeared with Ingrid Begrman, Shirley MacLaine, George C. Scott and Omar Shariff in “The Yellow Rolls Royce” in 1964.

In 1957 Carney made his Broadway debut in “The Rope Dancers” opposite Siobhan McKenna. But his biggest theatrical success was in Simon’s “The Odd Couple.” And though he lost the film role to Jack Lemmon, critics contend that his Felix Unger was definitive.

After “The Honeymooners,” Carney battled a drinking problem for several years. His behavior became erratic during “The Odd Couple,” and he dropped out of the show, spending nearly half a year in a sanitarium.

Gleason had moved to Florida to revive the variety show and although Carney initially begged out of the series, he stayed with Gleason during the show’s 1966-70 Miami run.

Emmys 3 years in row

For his supporting work, Carney was honored with Emmys for three years running. He was also honored with special Emmys in 1967 and 1968. He did other series work on “The Snoop Sisters” and “The Cavanaughs.”

In 1974, he stopped drinking to play a wandering senior citizen in “Harry and Tonto” and won an Oscar. After picking up his statuette, Carney cracked to reporters: “You’re looking at an actor whose price has just doubled.”

In 1984 he won another supporting actor Emmy in the TV movie “Terrible Joe Moran.” A year later, he teamed with Gleason again for the TV movie “Izzy and Moe.”

In later years Carney starred in TV projects such as “The Night They Saved Christmas” and small roles in films such as “The Muppets Take Manhattan.”

His other film credits included “W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings,” “House Calls,” “Going in Style,” “Movie, Movie,” and most memorably, Robert Benton’s “The Late Show.” He made his final film appearance in 1993 with Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Last Action Hero.”

He married his childhood sweetheart Jean Meyers in 1940. The couple divorced and he married thesp Barbara Isaac in 1966. He and Isaac divorced 10 years later, and in 1980 Carney and his first wife remarried.

He is survived by Meyers and their three children, Eileen, Brian and Paul.

Carney was buried in a private ceremony, with about 20 friends and family attending.

(Richard Natale and the Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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