Art Carney holds his Oscar for Best Actor (AP Photo)
Art Carney will always be best remembered as Ed Norton to Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners in the mid-1950s. But the depth and variety of his talents are worth celebrating on this 10th anniversary of his death at age 85. Carney, who never took an acting class, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame not long before he died.
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Carney considered himself a serious actor, not just a comedian, and the critics agreed. He was nominated for a Tony Award for his Broadway performance in Brian Friel’s Lovers (1969) and appeared in many other Broadway plays, including The Prisoners of Second Avenue and Take Her, She's Mine. He created the acclaimed role of Felix Unger in the original Broadway production of The Odd Couple (1965-67). He appeared in more than 25 films and won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his first film role, an elderly man traveling with his pet cat in Harry and Tonto (1974), beating out heavyweights Albert Finney, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino.
On television, he appeared in Studio One, Kraft Theatre, Playhouse 90 and other series. He won five Emmys for his portrayal of the goofy Norton –– a self-described "underground sanitation expert" –– on The Honeymooners and the Jackie Gleason Show, and a sixth for his role in 1984’s Terrible Joe Moran.
As Norton, dressed in a ratty T-shirt, vest and beat-up fedora, Carney’s character was socially awkward and always hungry. Friends said Carney and Norton shared some traits: he was known to eat several helpings of dinner and dessert and was extremely shy despite his exuberant trademark outburst –– "Va va va voom!"
Arthur William Matthew Carney was born youngest of six sons in Mount Vernon, N.Y. He did impersonations in high school and for several years after, along with radio and singing gigs, until he was drafted into the Army. He served as an infantryman in World War II and was wounded in the leg by shrapnel during the Battle of Normandy, which left him with a limp for the rest of his life.
He was married to Jean Myers twice, from 1940 to 1965 and again from 1980 to his death in 2003. He was married to Barbara Isaac from 1966 to 1977. Carney and Myers had three children –– two sons and a daughter (son Brian is an actor who’s appeared opposite the Geico Gecko in the popular commercials). He is buried in Old Saybrook, Conn., the town next door to his Westbrook, Conn. home.
Carney did a number of recordings, some for children. He spoke 'Twas the Night Before Christmas accompanied by a jazz drummer, narrated The Wizard of Oz with Mitch Miller, and wrote My Love Song to You, which reached the top 30 in 1955.
Carney retired in the 1980s, but appeared in a sweet series of commercials for Diet Coke in which he played a man enjoying a day out with his grandson. In 1993 he appeared in Last Action Hero with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief." Find her on Google+.