Art Carney, who died last Sunday at age 85, was television's original wild and crazy guy. As Ed Norton, the sewer-toiling sidekick to Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden on "The Honeymooners," Carney was possibly the funniest image to flicker across TV screens in the 1950s, when the medium gained its first foothold in American homes.
Ed Norton was a total idiot, but a blissfully happy one. He merrily bumbled his way along, much to the chagrin of his good buddy, Ralph, as if he hadn't a brain in his head. And what did it matter? He was having too much fun to care.
However, life was serious business for Art Carney. Like many comics, Carney found the pressure of depending on an audience's laughter for his livelihood to be difficult to bear, and he battled alcohol dependency almost from his first days in show business. No amount of success could calm his fears.
By 1965, despite creating the character of Felix Unger in Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple" on Broadway, Carney could no longer cope and entered a psychiatric center. He thought he was finished, but it was Ed Norton to the rescue. Gleason brought Carney back to TV in the late sixties to recreate the character on a "Honeymooners" revival, and audiences still loved him.
In 1974 though, Carney let Ed Norton shuffle out of his life for good with his Oscar-winning role in the movie "Harry and Tonto." A man much older than Carney's actual age at the time, Harry was as wise and pensive as Ed was silly and thoughtless.
In the story, widower Harry is a New Yorker who ventures across the country with his pet cat Tonto in an attempt to re-establish family ties with his three grown children. His journey is bittersweet, and his attempts to bond with the complicated people his kids have become largely futile. But Harry does find out a lot about himself, and through his wistful, melancholy eyes, the audience sees that life itself is a journey that only ends with death.
Until his retirement in 1993, Carney revisited life's sobering ironies in a number of movie and television roles. The original wild and crazy guy ended his career as a quietly bemused, excellent, serious actor.
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