Arthur William Matthew “Art” Carney, the youngest of six sons (Fred, Jack, Ned, Phil, Robert), was born in Mount Vernon, New York, the son of Helen (née Farrell) and Edward Michael Carney, who was a newspaper man and publicist. His family was Irish American and Catholic. He attended A B Davis High School. Carney was drafted as an infantryman during World War II. During the Battle of Normandy, he was wounded in the leg by shrapnel and walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
Carney was a comic singer with the Horace Heidt orchestra, which was heard often on radio during the 1930s, notably on the hugely successful Pot o' Gold, the first big-money giveaway show in 1939–41. Carney's film career began with an uncredited role in Pot o' Gold (1941), the radio program's spin-off feature film, playing a member of Heidt's band. Carney, a gifted mimic, worked steadily in radio during the 1940s, playing character roles and impersonating celebrities. In 1941 he was the house comic on the big band remoteseries, Matinee at Meadowbrook.
One of his radio roles during the 1940s was the fish Red Lantern on Land of the Lost. In 1943 he played Billy Oldham on Joe and Ethel Turp, based on Damon Runyon stories. He appeared on The Henry Morgan Show in 1946–47. He impersonated FDR on The March of Time and Dwight D. Eisenhower on Living 1948. In 1950–51 he played Montague's father on The Magnificent Montague. He was a supporting player on Casey, Crime Photographer and Gang Busters.
On the radio and television shows of The Morey Amsterdam Show from 1948 to 1950, Carney's character Charlie the doorman became known for his catchphrase, "Ya know what I mean?".
In 1950, Jackie Gleason was starring in a New York–based comedy-variety series, Cavalcade of Stars, and played many different characters. Gleason's regular characters included Charlie Bratten, a lunchroom loudmouth who insisted on spoiling a neighboring patron's meal. Carney, established in New York as a reliable actor, played Bratten's mild-mannered victim, Clem Finch. Gleason and Carney developed a good working chemistry, and Gleason recruited Carney to appear in other sketches, including the domestic-comedy skits featuring The Honeymooners. Carney gained lifelong fame for his portrayal of sewer worker Ed Norton, opposite Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden. The success of these skits resulted in the famous filmed situation comedy The Honeymooners, and theHoneymooners revivals that followed. He was nominated for seven Emmy Awards and won six.
Between his stints with Gleason, Carney worked steadily as a character actor. He guest starred on NBC's The Martha Raye Show, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show and many others, including as a mystery guest on What's My Line? which he attended dressed as Ed Norton. Carney also had his own NBC television variety show from 1959 to 1960. In the season two opening episode of the Batman television series, titled "Shoot a Crooked Arrow" (1966), Carney gave a memorable performance as the newly introduced villain "The Archer".
In 1958, he starred in an ABC children's television special Art Carney Meets Peter and the Wolf, which also featured the Bil Baird Marionettes. It combined an original storyline with a marionette presentation of Serge Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. Some of Prokofiev's other music was given lyrics written by Ogden Nash. The special was a success and was repeated twice.
Carney starred in a classic Christmas episode of The Twilight Zone "Night of the Meek", playing a dramatic turn as an alcoholic department store Santa Claus who later becomes the real thing. In 1964, he guest-starred in the episode "Smelling Like a Rose" along with Hal March and Tina Louise in the CBS drama Mr. Broadway, starring Craig Stevens. He also starred as Police Chief Paul Lanigan in the 1976 television movie, Lanigan's Rabbi, and in the short-lived series of the same name that aired in 1977, as part of the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie lineup.
He appeared in two 1966 episodes of "Batman", playing the villainous Archer.
In 1978, Carney appeared in The Star Wars Holiday Special, a made-for-TV movie that was linked to the Star Wars film series. In it, he played Trader Saun Dann, a member of the Rebel Alliance who helped Chewbacca and his family evade an Imperial blockade. In 1980, he starred in the TV filmAlcatraz: The Whole Shocking Story. In 1984, he portrayed Santa Claus in the made-for-TV holiday film The Night They Saved Christmas. Among his final television roles were a series of commercials for Diet Coke in which he played a man enjoying a day out with his grandson.
Carney recorded prolifically in the 1950s for Columbia Records. Two of his hits were "The Song of the Sewer", sung in character as Norton, and "'Twas the Night Before Christmas", a spoken-word record in which Carney, accompanied only by a jazz drummer, recited the famous Yuletide poem in syncopation. Some of Carney's recordings were comedy-novelty songs, but most were silly songs intended especially for children.
He also narrated a version of The Wizard of Oz for Golden Records, with Mitch Miller and his chorus performing four of the songs from the classic 1939 film version.
He composed the moderate hit "My Love Song To You". A Capitol single by singer Bob Manning, it reached the Cashbox and Music Vendor Top 30 pop charts in early 1955.
In 1974, he won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Harry Coombes, an elderly man going on the road with his pet cat, in Harry and Tonto. He also appeared in such films as W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, The Late Show (as an aging detective), House Calls, Movie Movie andGoing in Style (as a bored senior citizen who joins in bank robberies). Later movies included The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) and the thrillerFirestarter.
In 1981, he portrayed Harry Truman, an 83-year-old lodge owner in the semi-fictional account of events leading to the eruption of Mount St. Helens, in the movie titled St. Helens. Although he retired in the late 1980s, he returned in 1993 in a minor supporting role in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film, Last Action Hero.
Carney made his Broadway debut in 1957 as the lead in The Rope Dancers with Siobhan McKenna, a drama by Morton Wishengrad. His subsequent Broadway appearances included his portrayal in 1965–67 of Felix Unger in The Odd Couple (opposite Walter Matthau and then Jack Klugman as Oscar). In 1969 he was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in Brian Friel's Lovers. In 1961-62, Art Carney played Frank Michaelson in an English comedy by Phoebe & Henry Ephron entitled "Take Her, She's Mine" with Phyllis Thaxter as his co-star in the Biltmore Theatre in New York two seasons before his role in "the Odd Couple" in the Plymouth Theatre in New York; the character was played by James Stewart in the 1963 film version.
Carney was married three times to two women: Jean Myers, from 1940 to 1965, and again from 1980 until his death in 2003, and to Barbara Isaac from December 21, 1966 until 1977. He had three children with his first wife, Brian (born 1946), Eileen (born 1946) and Paul (born 1952). Brian Carney appears as a GEICO executive alongside the animated gecko in GEICO commercials. His great-nephew is musician/actor Reeve Carney. Carney died in his sleep on November 9, 2003 at age 85 of natural causes near his home in Westbrook, Connecticut. He is interred at Riverside Cemetery in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Jean Carney died nine years later on October 31, 2012 at the age of 93.