The Honeymooners was over in 1970, and from that classic of television comedy, Art Carney went on to other second-banana roles with Jackie Gleason, a few TV specials, Broadway parts—and the family problem of alcoholism.
Finally, today, at 55, Carney seems once again to have a grip on his career and on himself. He is starring for the first time in a film, the sleeper hit Harry and Tonto, in which he plays a 72-year-old widower, who, with his cat Tonto, embarks on a cross-country odyssey to puzzle sense out of a changing society. Art has also just co-starred in a new TV special with Lucille Ball to be aired on CBS next month. And, thanks to Antabuse therapy, he is some 22 weeks away from his last drink.
Carney still consumes three quarts of liquid a day, only now it’s a mix of orange juice and water with a few reminiscent ice cubes. “It’s a throwback to the drinking days,” he laughs. “It’s ‘Let’s Pretend.’ I pour in the water, I pour in the orange juice, it’s like Mass.”
Reared in New York, Carney was the youngest of six sons of a newspaperman father and a musician mother who gave up her career to raise the family. It was his late brother Jack who, as a band booker with MCA, landed Carney his first comedy gig in 1937 with Horace Heidt. “There I was,” Carney recalls, “an 18-year-old mimic rooming with a blind whistler. He would order gin and grapefruit juice for us in the morning and, gee, it was great. We would go on, do five or six shows. No responsibilities, no remorse. I was an alcoholic even then.” So were three of his other brothers. “It’s hereditary in my family,” he explains. “I don’t say that my father was an alcoholic, but he would have been better off if he hadn’t done any drinking. Most of us boys are nonsmokers, but drinkers, yes.”
When his marriage of 25 years broke up in 1965 Carney fell totally apart. He left the original Broadway cast of The Odd Couple (in which he costarred with Walter Matthau), and spent nearly half a year in a sanitarium. “When I got out,” he says, “I started to flirt with pills again. So I went back in. When they go on the wagon most alcoholics find that barbiturates and amphetamines are great substitutes, and there’s nothing on the breath. I used to like the big ones, three grains. Withdrawal from any of those is rougher than heroin.”
Time and a second marriage to actress Barbara Isaac in 1966 helped Carney resolve the drug crisis, but the drinking problem and depression continued. Then toward the end of making Harry and Tonto Carney stopped drinking altogether. “My herniated diaphragm was kicking up and I was throwing up blood. Now I really truthfully and sincerely hope I’ll never have another drink the rest of my life. I’ve done this so many times. I used to mark on a calendar ‘L.D.’ for ‘Last Drink.’ Then the months would go by and I’d slip.”
Psychotherapy, Alcoholics Anonymous—Carney has tried everything. Antabuse, a daily drug which produces violent illness and even convulsions if alcohol is taken into the system, is the one that works, Carney now hopes. “I take my Antabuse every day and there’s no effect—it’s just a reminder.” Despite these personal torments, Carney has managed to hang on to his career. He’s in the next Burt Reynolds movie, W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, and will star in a major stage revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! this winter.
As for Harry and Tonto, he says, “I wasn’t sure about this for my first starring role—a man and his cat going to California—but they’re talking about an Oscar and it’s very flattering. It makes me happy because it is a medium I hadn’t cracked and now I have.”
Physically, Carney had to do little to age himself for the role. He accentuated a limp from a wound suffered during the Normandy landing in World War II—his right leg is¾” shorter than the left. He also normally wears a hearing aid, for deafness is another congenital Carney problem.
As for his costar, Art has only kind words about Tonto. “When my children were growing up (he has three, 22 to 33, and three grandchildren, plus two stepchildren in their 20s from Barbara), we had the usual cats, dogs and gerbils, but I never really responded to any of them. Tonto was different. He got used to me and I got used to him. That’s why,” Carney explains solemnly, “there is an ‘R’ rating—we had a mad love affair.” The picture has not propelled Art to trade in his nine-room Manhattan co-op for a Beverly Hills manse or to rush out to buy a cat, however. “Actually,” he says, “I have five pet rocks. They’re wonderful. You don’t have to feed them, you don’t have to take them for walks and you can leave them for months at a time and they’re just fine when you get back.”