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Before Art Carney took the helm of Harry and Tonto, several big names were considered for the role, including Laurence Olivier, James Stewart, Frank Sinatra, and Cary Grant.
Director Paul Mazursky had written the part with one particular star in mind though – James Cagney.
“I wanted some quality that Cagney had,” Mazursky said. “It was hard to find it.”
However, Cagney had retired from the business and wasn’t interested in coming back for the film.
Carney was considered next, but he had never been the lead in a film. Nevertheless, 20th Century Fox believed that he would make a good fit because, in their mind, if the film didn’t succeed at the box office, it could run on television and capitalize on the popularity of the hit series The Honeymooners.
“I had never met Carney,” Mazursky said. “But the minute I saw him, I wanted him.”
However, Carney turned it down at first. In his mind, the character of Harry, a seventy-something man, was too old to play when he was only in his fifties.
Mazursky told him, “Art, you’re deaf. You’ve got a bow leg from shrapnel from World War II. You’re balding. You can play 73 or 74 easy.”
But Carney still wasn’t sure. When he walked out of the room, however, his wife leaned in and told the director that her husband would do it. And she was right.
Carney said, “At first, I didn't really want to play an old man traveling across the country. It sounded depressing, like a dull travelogue… But Paul asked me again and again, and I finally realized that if he wanted me so badly for the part, he must have his reasons.”
To make him appear older, the makeup department used heavy eye shadow, and Carney grew out his mustache. But the real key to the character was embodying him, such as crafting his elderly character’s “old” walk – something Art excelled at.
“I never directed Art. That’s all him. He’s not a natural. He’s more than natural. He’s a genius,” Mazursky said.
“I shot the movie in sequence because I felt it would be difficult enough for Art Carney to play this part if we had to jump back in time shooting it. I wanted him to experience everything that happens in the movie in sequence.”
For Carney’s outstanding performance, he was nominated for an Academy Award for the first time ever. The competition for Best Actor that year was fierce; Albert Finney was nominated for Murder on the Orient Express, Dustin Hoffman was nominated for Lenny, Jack Nicholson was nominated for Chinatown, and Al Pacino was nominated for The Godfather Part II.
To the surprise of many, Carney took home the golden statuette.
He said, “Harry and Tonto was the biggie for me. Imagine, the first movie I've starred in, even though I've been in the business for 37 years.”
Mazursky said, “When Art was still alive, I called him just to say hello. And he said, ‘When are we doing a sequel to Harry and Tonto?’ He was very amusing to be around.”