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Actor Art Carney dies at 85

  |   Nov. 11, 2003 at 6:28 PM
CHESTER, Conn., Nov. 11 (UPI) -- Oscar- and Emmy-winning actor Art Carney, immortalized as Ralph Kramden's neighbor and pal Ed Norton in Jackie Gleason's classic TV comedy "The Honeymooners," died Sunday in Chester following a long illness. He was 85.

Carney, an accomplished Broadway actor who never took acting lessons and was too shy to act in high school plays, won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1974, for his performance as an old man on a cross-country trip in "Harry and Tonto."

Carney joined "The Honeymooners" in 1951, when it was first presented as a sketch on "Cavalcade of Stars." The sitcom premiered on CBS in 1955 and, for much of his professional career, Carney was Ed Norton -- the not-too-bright sewer worker who routinely tried the patience of his pal Kramden.

"The Honeymooners," lasted only 39 episodes in 1955-56, but millions of television fans tuned in every Sunday night to watch the action around the kitchen sink, a table and two-burner stove in the Kramdens' shabby apartment somewhere along Chauncy Avenue in Brooklyn. Carney reprised the role in subsequent incarnations of "The Honeymooners," including a series of sketches in the 1960s as part of Gleason's weekly variety show.

Carney won seven Emmys in a career that also included appearances on such classic anthology series as "Studio One," "Kraft Theater," "Playhouse 90" and "The Twilight Zone," but he remained best known as Norton.

"People who see you every week for years never forget the role," he once said.

Carney won the Oscar in his first starring role in a feature film when, at the age of 56, he played a 72-year-old man hitchhiking between Nwe York and Chicago with a cat to keep him company.

It was a role Carney almost passed up whenit was offered him by writer-director Paul Mazursky. Carney said he didn't think he could be believable as a 72-year-old, but he changed his mind, grew a mustache and bought some old-fashioned spectacles.

"They put false eyebrows on me, but that was all," he said.

After "Harry and Tonto," Carney co-starred with Lily Tomlin in 1977's "The Late Show," playing an aging private eye. His movie credits also included "A Guide for the Married Man," "Going in Style" and "Firestarter." He retired from acting after appearing in the 1993 feature "Last Action Hero."

Arthur William Matthew Carney was born Nov. 4, 1918, in Mount Vernon, N.Y., the youngest of six sons of Edward and Helen Carney. His mother was a concert violinist and his father a reporter and publicist.

Carney developed comic skills when he worked as a second banana to such funny men as Fred Allen, Edgar Bergen and Bert Lahr, and had a natural ability for mimicry, gathering his material and skills from newsreels and radio.

"I didn't do caricatures," he said of the famous people he learned to impersonate. "I really zoomed in on them, getting down mannerisms and voice inflections."

He began his theatrical career with impersonations in small nightclubs and on the vaudeville circuit. His most popular were those of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Britain's war-time prime minister, Winston Churchill.

"It was a very simple act," he said. "The material was never that strong but it was fairly good political stuff. I tried to look and sound like the person I was doing."

His impersonation of Roosevelt got him his first job, with CBS, and he became a regular on "Report to the Nation," where he did quotes from the president.

One of Carney's six brothers, Jack, suggested he try out for the Horace Heidt show and Carney signed on as a mimic, staying with the band through the early days of World War II. It was while he was with Heidt that he had his first movie part, that of a mimic with the band in "Pot O' Gold," starring James Stewart and Paulette Goddard.

He went into the U.S. Army infantry in 1943 and the following year landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, where he was wounded by shrapnel, an injury that left him with a slight limp.

After he was discharged in 1946, he returned to CBS and was a regular on such shows as "Suspense" and "Danger." He also worked up an impersonation of the new president, Harry S Truman.

A brooder and habitual worrier as well as a former alcoholic, Carney had to leave the successful Broadway run of "The Odd Couple" in 1960 to enter a psychiatric hospital, but was soon back working on the stage. He established himself as a first-class actor in such plays as "The Rope Dancers," "Take Her She's Mine," "Lovers," "The Odd Couple" and "The Prisoner of Second Avenue."

Two comedy writers, Arnie Rosen and Coleman Jacoby, approached Carney in 1950 about appearing with Gleason in a new show, "The Honeymooners."

He stayed with the weekly comedy series until 1957, when Gleason took it to Florida, and he returned in 1966 for four more years.

Carney and Gleason last worked together in the 1985 TV series "Izzy and Moe," as a couple of retired vaudeville performers who find success as Prohibition agents.

"The three of us would sit in the trailer waiting to be called -- knitting, reading, sitting back," said Gleason's widow, Marilyn Gleason. "I'd look at my watch and say, whoops, 4 o'clock -- pill time. We were all taking diabetes and heart pills."

Jackie Gleason died in 1987 of cancer at 71.

Carney won Emmys in 1953, 1954 and 1955 for best supporting actor in his role as Ed Norton, and added other Emmys in 1960 and 1968 for humor and individual achievement.

Carney was married three times, twice to the same woman.

His first marriage, to Jean Myers in 1940, produced three children, Eileen, Brian and Paul, and ended in divorce 26 years later.

He married Barbara Isaacs, the mother of two children, in 1966. After they were divorced in 1976, he re-married his first wife.

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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