May 04, 1989 12:00 PM

Naaaawton!” Ralph Kramden would bellow out of his apartment, and there Ed would be—even if he once had to come through the window because the door was stuck—a lank, loose-limbed, goofy soul, chin outthrust, arms adangle, looking like a scarecrow gone bad. Clad in the costume he devised (“Did you ever see anything jerkier?” he once asked), Art Carney was Ed Norton, an “engineer of subterranean sanitation,” a figure of wildly deceptive simplicity. He was all honesty and dumb as a doorknob, but he had a cockeyed peasant wiliness and an athletic grace that would get him through anything, no matter how bedraggled he might emerge—sublimely oblivious to defeat, proud of his honest work in sewers. Exquisitely, delightfully, and weirdly nuanced, Carney’s Ed Norton was, simply, the greatest second banana TV ever saw.

As the youngest of six sons of a New York newspaperman, Carney held a birth order that gave him a taste for second violin: He had little chance to get a word in and lots to watch and mimic. He was a skilled actor when Jackie Gleason found him in 1951. During their 10 years together they danced on the lip of disaster, often getting scripts Friday morning and performing live Saturday night. Once, Gleason forgot to enter, leaving Carney alone in Ralph’s kitchen. Carney plucked an orange from the icebox and, with great flourish and self-absorption, carefully peeled it for two glorious minutes. “I don’t particularly want to be a star,” he said, and, six Emmys notwithstanding, he never acted like one. But he’s always been on top, despite his battles with alcoholism and romantic turmoil: He is thrice married, twice to the same woman. “I’m only funny creating a character,” Carney, 70, has insisted. And that’s something nobody has done better.

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