What's this -- Ed Norton throwing a pass at Alice Kramden? Not exactly. But tonight's episode of "Uncle Buck" on CBS at 8 does mark the first time that Art Carney and Audrey Meadows have worked together in a sitcom since their glory days as Mr. Norton and Mrs. Kramden on "The Honeymooners" years ago, and they do have a love scene or two in the show.
"It was a joy to work with her," says Carney from his home in Westbrook, Conn. Meadows is a series regular, Carney a guest star playing an old friend and mentor of Uncle Buck (Kevin Meaney) whom Buck calls, admiringly, "a scheming, low-life hustler."
"I play an Irish con man that knew Uncle Buck when he was a little kid," Carney explains. "And I make a play for Audrey and things work out very nicely." As a matter of fact, they do.
Seeing Carney and Meadows pair off as a romantic team is a little unsettling -- what would Ralph and Trixie say? -- and yet the good vibrations given off by the reunion are unmistakable. The series, which has been criticized in some quarters as cold and harsh, warms up during their scenes together.
Carney, who will be 72 on Nov. 4, says he was touched at the ovation he got when he was introduced to the studio audience prior to the taping. Although both actors have done many other roles, "The Honeymooners" will follow them everywhere.
"In one shot in the script, Audrey has a line to me. She says, 'You know, you look so familiar. Have I seen you somewhere?' It wasn't meant to be a play on our relationship or anything, but the studio audience started to laugh. So we had to wait a few seconds and continue with the script."
The laugh and pause have been edited out of the finished tape.
Surviving Honeymooners Carney, Meadows and Joyce Randolph, who played Trixie Norton, were reunited earlier this year, mainly for the purpose of taking a bow, at the HBO "Comic Relief" charity show. A number of contemporary comedy stars laid eggs as the long evening dragged on. But then this gladdening triumvirate appeared onstage, and the crowd went wild.
"I was floored," says Carney. "The three of us were floored! People were standing up and applauding, and it was very touching, very emotional. I couldn't get over that. Well, people like 'The Honeymooners' and they still look at them, and the reruns will go on forever, I guess. The show is like a comic strip come to life, really, and yet as broad and as hokey as it was, people seem to identify with these guys -- how and why, I do not know.
"And I still get quite a bit of mail, mostly from kids wanting pictures. And it's a good feeling. It really is."
Carney considers himself a semi-retired happy homebody, venturing out of Connecticut only when a project sounds interesting, as three Coca-Cola Classic commercials did last year. "I'm fortunately in the position where I can pick and choose," he says. "I still get scripts and if something really hits me between the eyes, I'll take a gander, I'll take a shot at it. But I'm pretty good at being a couch potato."
His favorite shows now, he says, are "Designing Women," "Murphy Brown," "Empty Nest," "Matlock" and "Jake and the Fatman." And, he says, "I look at CNN a lot."
For exercise, he walks "to the end of the driveway" and picks up the mail. "I'm afraid I'm a bit on the lazy side." His health is good. "I'm diabetic," he says matter-of-factly, "and I have to watch the sugar intake and make sure I get my insulin."
Life, it seems, is good, even if one does take a spill now and then.
"I just bide my time and get in my wife's way -- emptying the wastebasket, putting out the garbage, paying the bills and slipping on a slippery kitchen floor, which I did a few weeks ago here, just after I got back from doing the 'Uncle Buck.' The floor had just been washed, and down I went."
Carney fractured a bone in his ankle and so now has a cast on his right leg, from below the knee down. It's to come off in a couple of weeks. "Right now, it's just a nuisance, you know."
He and Jean, the wife into whose way he claims to get, would have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on Aug. 15 except for one thing. They each interrupted the marriage for several years to marry somebody else.
"This is an interesting kind of a bit," Carney says. "We got married in 1940 and, let me see now, we were married for 26 years and I loused it up, and we were divorced, and she remarried for about 3 1/2 years, and I remarried for 10, we both got divorced, and then we remarried each other in 1979. So I'm back where I belong.
"A lot of us don't get a second chance; I figure I did. We've got three kids and six grandchildren, and I'm grateful for that."
Among the scripts Carney has taken ganders and shots at since "The Honeymooners" have been some superior movies in which he was pretty superior himself: "The Late Show" with Lily Tomlin; "Going in Style" with George Burns; and "Harry and Tonto," for which Carney won an Academy Award (to keep his four Emmys company) in 1974.
He has only praise for co-workers. Tomlin was "absolutely brilliant." Burns was "a joy to work with." Even Meaney, Uncle Buck himself, is "a very funny, very nice young man, I must say." Originally the producers wanted Carney for two "Uncle Bucks," but he wanted to try one to see how it felt. They sent him a tape of the pilot to entice him.
"I told them quite frankly that the script they sent to me was much better than the pilot; that's why I took it. That, and working with Audrey. We had a very pleasant week."
"Any chance you'll be back?" asks Meadows as Mrs. Hogoboom tonight.
"Aw, shoot -- I never thought I'd be back this time," says Carney as con man Pete.
Carney was enlisted a few seasons ago to help save a dying CBS comedy called "The Cavanaughs." Is "Uncle Buck" in trouble after only two weeks on the air? Last week's episode won its time period, but the introduction of Carney's character suggests the producers are already running out of things for Uncle Buck to do.
Even if it's a panicky move, viewers are hardly likely to complain.
It's only a footnote in his career, but among the others Carney has shared the screen with is the legendary James Cagney in Cagney's last film, a tortured TV movie called "Terrible Joe Moran" in 1984. Cagney was recovering from a stroke, and many of his lines had to be redubbed later by another actor.
But Carney fondly remembers working with the old pro, whom he'd met a few times previously. "Once, when I was on the coast, I wanted to talk with Cagney about a personal problem I had. I said, 'Jim, can I stop by and see you a few minutes? I won't keep you long.' And then there was a pause and he said, 'You got it.' Typical of Cagney. He was a man of few words. Like on acting, he said, 'Just do it.' Enough of the analyzing and all that. It's a job, just do it."
Certainly the late great Jackie Gleason was the largest larger-than-life figure with whom Carney ever worked, however. During a stopover in Washington, Gleason was asked if he laughed at himself when he happened to catch a "Honeymooners" rerun on the air. Gleason said he never laughed at himself -- only at Carney.
"Yeah," says Carney with a chuckle, "we used to laugh at each other. I did four seasons of hour-long, musical 'Honeymooners' down in Florida with him, and we'd watch the tape after the taping and we'd laugh at each other, both of us. We never broke up on stage, though we came close a couple of times.
"We had a very good relationship from the very beginning, Gleason and me. Never had a harsh word, never had a fight, never had a disagreement. I guess it was the Irish chemistry that was working, because when I started working with him in 1950, he didn't know me, and I didn't him, and we just shook hands and hit it off. I miss those days."
Gleason was "not as gregarious as a lot of people think," Carney says. "He was kind of hard to get to know, and he was quite a private person, actually. Of course, when he had his drinks under his belt, he was gregarious and very outgoing."
Norton was hardly the only role Carney played on the Gleason show, which was originally a weekly variety hour of different sketches. Carney played a lot of rich twits whom Gleason would bombastically overwhelm. And then there was "The Loud Mouth" sketch, set in a diner, with Carney as a milquetoast and Gleason as the title character.
"He was Charlie Bratten, and I was Clem Finch. Yeah, he used to whack me on the back a few times during that sketch. And I played his father on the Reggie Van Gleason sketches. Assorted characters."
It was Carney who took the solo curtain call on the night when Gleason slipped on dry ice and broke his ankle. This was live TV, so there couldn't be any retakes and it couldn't be edited out of the show.
"Fortunately -- and it sounds strange to say it -- that was the last sketch of the evening, 'cause I don't know what we would have done if it had been the first sketch. I think some piano and organ music would have had to fill in for about an hour. Yeah, he took some fall. That was frightening."
It all seems so long ago, and yet it stays so near, partly because "The Honeymooners" keep resurfacing one way or another. CBS is thinking about doing a "Honeymooners" 35th anniversary special this year, and hoping Carney will participate. "I don't know anything about that," he says. "It just depends on what it might be, or what it entails, if Audrey is available and Joyce and I, then we might be connected with it."
Unlike some actors closely associated with a TV character they have played, Carney doesn't seem to resent that for millions, whenever he appears, they will see at least a little Ed Norton there.
"That'll stick with me, I suppose. We did it for so many seasons. Working with Gleason was quite eventful, to say the least. And the Norton character was very good for me, and very good to me.
"And when you make people laugh," Art Carney says, "they remember it, and they love you for it."