By Matt Apuzzo
Hartford, Conn. (AP) -- Art Carney, who played Jackie Gleason's sewer worker pal Ed Norton in the TV classic "The Honeymooners" and went on to win the 1974 Oscar for best actor in "Harry and Tonto," has died at 85.
Carney died in Chester, Conn., on Sunday and was buried on Tuesday after a small, private funeral. He had been ill for some time.
The comic actor would be forever identified as Norton, Ralph Kramden's bowling buddy and not-too-bright upstairs neighbor on "The Honeymooners." The characters appeared in various forms from 1951 to 1956, and the show was revived briefly in 1971. The shows can still be seen on cable.
With his turned-up porkpie hat and unbuttoned vest over a white T-shirt, Carney's Ed Norton with his exuberant "Hey, Ralphie boy!" became an ideal foil for Gleason's blustery, bullying Kramden. Carney won three Emmys for his role and his first taste of fame.
"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."
In one episode, Norton and Ralph learn to golf from an instruction book. Told to "address the ball," Norton gives a wave of the hand and says, "Hellooooo, ball!" In another episode, Norton inadvertently wins the award for best costume at a Raccoon Lodge party by showing up in his sewer worker's gear. Another time, the loose-limbed Norton teaches Ralph a finger-popping new dance called the Hucklebuck.
"I loved Art Carney," said actor Billy Bob Thornton. "I was a huge fan of 'The Honeymooners' and I loved Jackie Gleason, who was a genius. But I was probably more struck by Art Carney than Gleason. You just couldn't wait for him to come through the door again."
Carney told a Saturday Evening Post interviewer in 1961 that strangers were always asking him how he liked it down in the sewer. "I have seasonal answers," he said. "In the summer: 'I like it down there because it's cool.' In the winter: 'I like it down there because it's warm.' Then I've got one that isn't seasonal: 'Go to hell.'"
After "The Honeymooners," Carney battled a drinking problem for several years. His behavior became erratic while co-starring with Walter Matthau in the Broadway run of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple" in the 1960s. He dropped out of the show and spent nearly half a year in a sanitarium.
His career resumed, and in 1974 he was cast in Paul Mazurksy's "Harry and Tonto" as a 72-year-old widower who travels from New York to Chicago with his pet cat. He stopped drinking during the making of the film.
When it won him his Oscar, Carney wisecracked: "You're looking at an actor whose price has just doubled."
"Art was, and is one of the most endearing men I have ever met," the late actress Audrey Meadows (the caustic Alice Kramden on "The Honeymooners") wrote in her 1994 memoir "Love, Alice." She called him a "witty and delightful companion who went out of his way to help each new actor find his niche" on the show.
Carney was born into an Irish-Catholic family in Mount Vernon, N.Y., on Nov. 4, 1918, and baptized Arthur William Matthew Carney. His father was a newspaperman and publicist.
After appearing in amateur theatricals and imitating radio personalities, Carney won a job in 1937 traveling with Horace Heidt's dance band, doing his impressions and singing novelty songs.
"There I was, an 18-year-old mimic rooming with a blind whistler," he told People magazine in 1974. "He would order gin and grapefruit juice for us in the morning, and it was great. ... No responsibilities, no remorse. I was an alcoholic, even then."
Later he won a job at $225 a week imitating Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and other world leaders on a radio show, "Report to the Nation."
He was drafted into the Army in 1944 and took part in the D-Day landing at Normandy. A piece of shrapnel shattered his right leg. He was left with a leg three-quarters of an inch shorter than the other and a lifelong limp.
Carney returned to radio as second banana on comedy shows, then ventured into television on "The Morey Amsterdam Show" in 1948. That brought him to the attention of Gleason.
Among his movie credits: "W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings," "The Late Show," "House Calls," "Movie Movie," "Sunburn," "Going in Style," "Roadie," "Firestarter," "The Muppets Take Manhattan" and "Last Action Hero."
Around Westbrook, where he and his wife had a waterfront home, Carney was known around town as "Mr. C."
Family friend Janice Buglini remembered how Carney came to cheer up her 11-year-old daughter, who had leukemia. "He would bring ice cream over for her, and a lobster -- anything she wanted," Buglini said.
Carney married his high school sweetheart, Jean Myers, in 1940. After the marriage broke up, Carney married Barbara Isaac in 1966. They divorced 10 years later, and in 1980 he and his first wife remarried.
"We always kept in touch because of our three children," he said in a 1980 AP interview. "After our second divorces, it was sort of like the puppy coming home: 'Oh, it's you, come on in.' We decided to give it a go again."
Associated Press Writer Bob Thomas in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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