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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Norton et al. (1918-2003)

Art Carney was another one of those actors who was so defined by his television work, in fact by a single TV character, that it is almost easy to forget he even had a movie career. But he had quite a movie career, and his obits contain that most singular of all phrases for an actor: Oscar winner.

The bulk of his film work seems to have been characterized by old age. He started playing old men at the age of 55 when he starred in 1974’s Harry and Tonto for Paul Mazursky, the movie that earned him the Academy Award. Three years later he presaged a crop of gray-haired TV sleuths like Barnaby Jones and Murder She Wrote, playing an elderly detective in Robert Benton’s The Late Show, opposite Lily Tomlin. Two years later, he starred in one of the best movies about old age of all time, Martin Brest’s Going in Style. Carney, George Burns and Lee Strasberg played pensioners in Queens, New York, who decide to rob a bank, largely out of boredom. They do not go gently into that dark night.

Those of us who lived in Washington state at the beginning of the 1980s will also remember him for playing a local legend, crusty old Harry Truman, who refused to evacuate when Mount St. Helens began acting up, in 1981’s St. Helens, one of a few movies about the eruption.

Carney also put in his time playing Santa and other twinkly old men in children’s movies, not to mention roles in quite a few minor comedies. These range from The Yellow Rolls-Royce to A Guide for the Married Man to Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood to Movie Movie to Take This Job and Shove It. He even co-starred with California’s new governor in the under-appreciated 1993 tongue-in-cheek action movie, Last Action Hero.

Of course, when we heard the news that Carney had passed on, our first memories were not of an Arnold Schwarzenegger flick or even of Harry and Tonto. We thought of Norton. Even in a world where typecasting has been rampant for ages, few actors have been as identified with a single character as Carney was with the neighbor of Ralph and Alice Kramden. Norton may not have been the first wacky neighbor to show up in a recurring radio or TV show, but he certainly became the new standard against which all future such characters would be measured. Every sitcom since that features a wacky neighbor owes something to Carney’s portrayal. As the wisely and insouciantly foolish foil to Jackie Gleason’s bellowing blowhard, he contributed to a chemistry that others have sought to duplicate ever since. It’s hard to think of a sitcom that is set in a private residence that doesn’t have a Norton. When Norman Lear updated the premise for the 1970s in All in the Family, he cast Rob Reiner as a young liberal academic who was not merely a neighbor but a son-in-law living right in the blowhard’s own house. Indeed, the formula for All in the Family was to bring a Ralph Kramden type into contact with a continuing series of Nortons. Bringing things full circle, Carney himself once made a guest appearance on All in the Family, as he did on numerous TV shows over the years.

Norton was merely one of many characters Carney played in repertory for Gleason’s various TV shows over the years. And back in those days, Carney also played an impressive number of dramatic roles in one-off television plays in series like Playhouse 90. But it’s Norton that endures. This is mainly because Norton was a brilliant comic creation, expertly played. But he had a sense of humanity about him. His very occupation, that of a sewer worker, was played for laughs. Yet the character took himself and his work quite seriously, exemplifying in the face of ridicule the dignity of work, whatever its form. He described himself without irony as an “underground sanitation expert.” Such was the perceptiveness of the writing that, all these years later, we don’t even smile or laugh at such a job title, which in the 1950s sounded humorously pompous.

On a personal level, perhaps the most impressive thing about Carney is how he beat addictions to alcohol and various medicines, which had ended his 25-year marriage. After another marriage and divorce, he re-married his first wife and they were together for the rest of his life. This is an inspiration to us all, since it is the classic definition of the triumph of hope over experience. That is something Ed Norton would have understood.

-S.L., 13 November 2003

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