The bar scene was bustling noisily at Furci’s Italian Restaurant when one patron held up his hand to quiet the crowd: “Hey, everyone, here comes a sacred moment in television history.” On a TV screen high up in the corner, an episode was playing of “The Honeymooners.”
Ed Norton, played by actor Art Carney, is being shown how to play golf by blustery Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason), who has just told his lovably goofy sidekick to “address the ball.”
The physically expressive Norton gives a weird little waggle with his club and his hips, and, looking downward, declares, “Hello, ball!” causing Kramden to explode in exasperation. The Furci’s bar explodes in laughter.
The crowd on this night at the popular Yorktown bistro—operated by brothers Ed and Carmine Furci and their father, Carmine Sr.—has the distinct thrill of sharing the classic television comedy moment with North Salem resident Brian Carney, son of Art.
Any time capsule of 20th century America would not be complete if it did not include episodes of “The Honeymooners.” Despite running for a single season of 39 half-hour episodes during the mid-’50s, the timeless humor and perfect chemistry of Kramden and Norton continue to capture the hearts and tickle the funny bones of today’s audiences, spanning generations.
Brian, who is as gregarious and kind as he is proud of his pedigree, was at Furci’s—a favorite haunt of his—to meet and greet fans of his dad and of the TV show that made his dad a household name across the country. (Born in 1918, Nov. 4 of this year marks Art Carney’s centennial birthday.)
He was accompanied by a little guy named Oscar (who weighs eight pounds that feel like 20), as well as a couple of other shiny objects: an Emmy award, one of seven his father won, and a Golden Globe.
One by one, fans of “The Honeymooners”—and who isn’t?—press through the crowd to shake hands with Brian and to pose with him for photos while clutching the Best Actor Academy Award won by Art Carney for the 1974 film “Harry and Tonto.” Who did Brian’s dad have to beat that year to make an acceptance speech? Only Dustin Hoffman, Albert Finney, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino (for “The Godfather: Part II”).
Not bad for an actor who, Brian tells me, never took an acting lesson. (As someone who does study acting, I’m still deciding if that’s encouraging or discouraging.)
Even with the glittery hardware on display, the most popular piece of memorabilia by far was a crumpled old porkpie hat that every guy in the place couldn’t wait to put on for a photo opp with Brian.
It’s the very same hat Art Carney bought while in high school and then later pressed into service for Ed Norton to wear in “The Honeymooners.” The 80-plus-year-old hat is in mint condition. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
Brian Carney was not yet 10 years old, living in the Crestwood area of Yonkers, when he first started to detect that what his dad did for a living was a little different from what his friends’ fathers did—be they dentists, carpenters or lawyers.
“People always talked more about what my father did than what the other fathers did,” recalls Brian. “They would say, ‘I saw your father the other night,’” which of course meant they saw him on TV, not at the corner market.
“When we would go out to dinner somewhere,” he adds, “and people would come over to the table, I knew something was different. Very different.” Although Brian knew his father was an actor, he didn’t necessarily equate that with his dad being famous, as vicariously familiar to strangers as if he was part of their family.
Although Art Carney did not appear in another legendary sitcom, “The Odd Couple,” Mr. Carney originated the role of Felix on Broadway, starring opposite Walter Matthau (as Oscar) in the 1965 production of Neil Simon’s stage comedy.
Brian was a fan of TV’s Felix, Tony Randall, who he says did a great job with the part. While in Manhattan one day, Brian spotted Mr. Randall, and felt he had to go over and introduce himself as Art’s son to say how much he admired his performance on the show. Tony Randall returned the compliment, telling Brian he thought Art Carney was great on Broadway as Felix.
When “The Odd Couple” movie was cast without his dad as Felix, Art Carney was a bit disappointed, says Brian, but his dad also understood that the actor who was given the role, Jack Lemmon, was a major Hollywood star. Art, at that point, did not have a film career, and was nothing if not realistic.
Art’s film career got going after his award-winning, lead role in “Harry and Tonto” (for which he also won the Golden Globe).
Another standout performance was as a detective in the movie “The Late Show.” Brian recounts how Art, who wore a hearing aid, would remove it before a scene called for his shooting a gun. After firing the pistol, he would replace the device in his ear. Art was doing it for real, to mute the sound he heard, but the director kept it in the movie as part of Art’s character.
Another memorable role essayed by Art Carney is as a department store Santa in “The Twilight Zone” episode “Night of the Meek.”
That’s not to say there weren’t a couple of clinkers along the way, notably a movie with Farrah Fawcett called “Sunburn,” where, in one scene, Art flies in on a parachute. “It was horrible,” says Brian.
Brian has followed in his father’s footsteps, after a fashion. He spent 10 years as a young man touring colleges singing and playing guitar, covering music of the ’50s and ’60s.
For the past 30 years, Brian’s done very nicely as an on-camera and voice-over commercial actor. You no doubt saw him some years back as the CEO talking to the gecko on his desk in the Geico commercials.
Brian’s free time these days is spent riding his motorcycles, fishing, and loving the Yankees, since the days of Mantle, Berra and Ford. “It’s a good life!,” he says.
Another thing he enjoys is playing 18, and something funny, if not surprising, happens every time he tees it up: “I never get through a round of golf,” Brian Carney chuckles, “without somebody in my group, around the 7th hole or so, saying, ‘Hello, ball!’”