Original Publication – Newsweek: October 28, 1974
At a time when the “easy riders” have fallen by the wayside, a hip 72-year-old who traverses America talking to his cat is knocking out both old and young at the box office. The geriatric dharma bum is played by Art Carney, who after 37 years in show busines is relishing his first starring role in a movie, “Harry and Tonto.” His performance as Harry, a wise and lively widower with offbeat friends and insatiable curiosity, seems bound to bring him an Academy Award nomination and shows how much more there is to senior citizenry than memories and shuffleboard.
Most of America still identifies Carney as Ed Norton, everybody’s favorite sewer worker who appeared for years with Jackie Gleason on television’s “The Honeymooners.” In reality, Carney, 55, is a versatile and gifted dramatic actor and a shy and sensitive man. He’s also a frustrated musician who’s battled both alcohol and insecurity and has found new confidence in his movie success. “It kind of bugs me,” he told NEWSWEEK’s Maureen Orth, “those headlines that say ‘Second Banana, Now Ripe’ or ‘Out of the Sewer and Into the Sunlight.’ I’ve done vaudeville, radio, starred in five Broadway plays and won five Emmy’s on TV, yet so many people don’t think you’re a star until you’ve made it in motion pictures.”
Carney, who’s never taken an acting lesson in his life, originally had reservations about accepting the role of Harry. He worried about looking phony with make-up over his unlined, pink Irish complexion; he didn’t want to do a standard sentimental portrait of old age, and to top it off he was allergic to cats. But director Paul Mazursky gently coaxed him into the part. “I don’t think I was his first choice,” quips Carney. “I think Linda Blair was.” The Harry that finally emerged drew heavily from Carney’s own father and his Uncle Rich – who lived for years with Carney’s family and who had a dog he used to talk to. “Old people either talk to themselves or to their pets,” says Carney. “They need someone.”
Sober: Carney, who started his career as a vaudeville mimic, grew up in a tempermental Irish family in Westchester County, N.Y. “I often felt my mother and father were too much alike to have children,” says Carney, one of six sons. “I wish I had a little German or a little Jewish blood just to stabilize me.” Carney’s high-strung nature drove him to the bottle more than once throughout his long career. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous but “the first time I was going to speak at an AA meeting, word got out,” Carney recalls, “and people even brought their children to hear me. Geez, can you imagine what that did to me?” Today he is cold sober. “I just feel physically, emotionally and mentally great from the response to this movie,” he says.
This fall, Carney will appear on TV specials with Lucille Ball and Dinah Shore and will soon star on the road with his second wife, Barbara, in “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.” There’s talk of “Harry and Tonto” becoming a TV series and of Carney starring on Broadway in Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” Movie star Carney still has great affection for TV – “that little box people buy and plug in, and suddenly you’re part of their life. There’s none of that Garbo aura: people come right up to you on the street. Of course, sometimes it’s a pain in the ass; they think they own you. Anyway, now I won’t be in the sewers for the rest of my life.”
This article is typed from the original material. Please excuse any errors that have escaped final proofreading.