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Paul Mazursky made Art Carney a surprise, but very popular Oscar®-winner with the acclaimed 1974 comedy-drama Harry and Tonto, the story of a retired school teacher out to find himself as younger people had been doing for the last ten years in road movies. When the apartment building he's lived in for years in demolished, Harry Coombes faces some far from pleasant choices. He tries moving in with his oldest son, but doesn't appreciate the loss of privacy or feeling like an obligation. Still, he doesn't want to move into a retirement home either. Instead he takes off with his beloved cat, Tonto, for a cross-country tour to visit his other children and figure out where he wants to spend the rest of his days.
After years as a successful television writer and actor, Mazursky had begun building a career in the movies. His first directorial effort, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), had been a hit with its satire of the "let it all hang out" California culture and attitude. Then he had scored a big flop with Alex in Wonderland (1970), an Americanized version of Fellini's 8 (1963). That made it more difficult for him to get his next film funded.
Mazursky wrote the role of Harry with James Cagney in mind. When the actor declined to come out of retirement for the film, Mazursky then turned to Danny Kaye, for whom he had worked as a TV writer in the '60s, hoping Kaye would not only star in the film, but also back it. Although Kaye liked the script, when he started to demand they add more jokes and physical humor to the role, Mazursky knew there was no chance of striking a deal. 20th Century-Fox was interested in Harry and Tonto, but began pushing for a major name like Laurence Olivier, Cary Grant or Frank Sinatra. Instead, in a surprising move, he offered the lead to Carney, best known as Jackie Gleason's sewer-worker sidekick, Ed Norton, on the TV series, The Honeymooners.
Although the show had brought him international fame and six Emmys, Carney was eager to shed the Ed Norton image. He would tell gossip columnist Earl Wilson, "You don't like going through life with your name synonymous with sewers." He also needed a success like Harry and Tonto to rebuild his career. He had developed an alcohol and prescription drug problem in the '60s and suffered a nervous breakdown when his addictions cost him his marriage.
The one challenge Carney faced was age. He was only 55 when he went up for the role of the 72 year-old character. In addition to whitening his hair and growing a moustache, Carney agreed to use two physical problems he had been masking for years. To play Harry he wore his hearing aids for the first time on screen, and he stopped hiding the limp that had resulted from some shrapnel he caught during World War II's Battle of Normandy. He also had to warm up to the two cats cast as Tonto. To help in that area, crewmembers planted pieces of liver on his clothes so the cats would be appropriately affectionate.
Although Carney's role was basically the entire show, Mazursky exercised great care in choosing his supporting cast. Philip Bruns, a character actor who would later play Louise Lasser's father on TV's Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman played Harry's eldest son. Ellen Burstyn, who had co-starred in Alex in Wonderland, played his daughter the same year she turned in her own Oscar®-winning performance in Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More. And as Harry's Hollywood burn-out younger son, Mazursky cast gifted stage and television actor Larry Hagman before he rose to stardom as J.R. Ewing on Dallas. Rounding out the cast were Zero Mostel's son Josh Mostel as Harry's grandson, future thirtysomething star Melanie Mayron in her film debut as a young hitchhiker, legendary acting teacher Herbert Berghof as one of Harry's friends and Lenny Bruce's mother, Sally Marr, as another.
Harry and Tonto opened to strong reviews, but come awards season most of the best actor kudos went to Jack Nicholson for Chinatown, including the New York Film Critics Award and the National Society of Film Critics Award. Carney won the Golden Globe, but for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical, a category that anticipates the Oscars® less often than Best Actor in a Drama, which went to Nicholson. Carney won an Oscar® nomination, but on the big night, most of the betting was on Nicholson. His only likely competition was considered to be Al Pacino, returning to the role of Michael Corleone in the Best Picture front-runner, The Godfather, Part II. But it was Carney who won to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. At the podium, he thanked Mazursky for writing such a great part and his agent, who had advised him to accept the role, saying, "Do it. You are old." Later, he told the press, he considered saying "You're looking at an actor whose price has just doubled." In fact, Harry and Tonto gave Carney a film career after years of only sporadic appearances in that medium. He would follow it with acclaimed performances in W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975), The Late Show (1977), for which he won the National Society of Film Critics' Best Actor award, and Going in Style (1979), among many others.
Producer: Paul Mazursky
Director: Paul Mazursky
Screenplay: Paul Mazursky, Josh Greenfeld
Cinematography: Michael C. Butler
Art Direction: Ted Haworth
Music: Bill Conti
Film Editing: Richard Halsey
Cast: Art Carney (Harry Coombes), Ellen Burstyn (Shirley Mallard), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Jessie Stone), Larry Hagman (Eddie Coombes), Melanie Mayron (Ginger), Herbert Berghof (Jacob Rivetowski), Michael McCleery (Mugger), Avon Long (Leroy), Rashel Novikoff (Mrs. Rothman), Phil Bruns (Burt Coombes), Cliff De Young (Burt Coombes Jr.), Joshua Mostel (Norman Coombes), Dolly Jonah (Elaine Coombes).
by Frank Miller
Mason Wiley and Damien Bona, Inside Oscar®: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards®)