Fans shouted ”How’s life in the sewer?” at Art Carney for most of his career…and he’s the only actor for whom that could be considered a compliment. His beloved sanitation worker Ed Norton, the upbeat, dopey yin to the slow-burning yang of Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden on ’50s staple The Honeymooners, made him one of TV’s most enduring icons. His manic entrances and foiled get-rich-quick schemes became the prototype for wacky neighbors through sitcom history.
But Carney, who died of undisclosed causes Nov. 9 at 85, was more than just a porkpie hat. After he left Gleason’s variety show in 1957, the six-time Emmy winner bounced between screen and stage, sampling roles both comic and dramatic: He originated the role of Felix Unger in Broadway’s The Odd Couple.
His status as a grand old man of showbiz was hastened by the roles he took – a leg injury sustained during WWII gave him a lifelong limp that seemed to usher him into older parts early. He won an Oscar at 55 for playing the 72-year-old wandering widower in 1974’s Harry and Tonto (beating out Albert Finney, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, and Al Pacino), in a tender role that showed little trace of Norton’s buffoonery. ”I don’t rattle off jokes and gags,” Carney once said. ”I’m an actor, not a funnyman.” In our eyes, he was definitely both.