Guideposts Classics: Art Carney on Friendship and Faith

In this story from April 1961, Art Carney, popular actor and featured player on The Honeymooners, pays tribute to a man who was like a second father to him.

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Actor Art Carney

Under a glass dome on my dresser is a gold pocket watch, not expensive, but very precious. It belonged to Rich. Whenever I look at it I see him, and I hear him. And I remember how he filled my youth with love and wonder and the special magic of hero worship.

His name was Philip Richardson. He was once the mayor of Woburn, a small Massachusetts city; he was an editor, and gave my father his first newspaper job. He and Dad became firm and life-long friends with an enduring affection for each other. My mother loved Rich, too. Everybody did.

Rich had an unhappy and childless marriage, and when he was about 50 he was alone. Naturally he came to live with us. My parents wouldn’t have it any other way. He quit newspapering and, until he retired on a pension at 65, worked for the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.

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Meanwhile, Rich gave all the love he wasn’t able to give elsewhere to the six Carney sons. I was the youngest, so the relationship between Rich and me was the longest, and I like to think, the deepest.

My parents were unstinting in their love for us but Rich added a new dimension to that love. My parents were the security, the authority, the insurance. Rich was the hero, the friend, the reassurance.

Our house was always full of frantic people. Any minor event could quickly reach the proportions of a major crisis. But Rich had this wonderful calm that always punctured any crisis. Once, after eating a lot of junk, I got a fierce stomach-ache. I yelped. My brothers yelped at me to stop yelping.

Amid the bedlam my mother and father sternly ordered me to take some milk of magnesia. That was for babies. Stubbornly I yelped back: “No! No! Never!” They appealed to Rich.

He silenced the din with his smile, then swallowed a spoonful himself, filled the spoon again, and held it out to me. It was the gesture of an equal to an equal. I took it without a word.

He had a way of leaving anyone, young or old, with his dignity intact.

You were never conscious of his age. He was never older than the person he was talking to. He looked like a medium-sized, gray-haired General MacArthur without the severe face, but with the same meticulous air of distinction.

Even when he played marbles with me he never lost that air. We had a crazy rug in our dining room with big colored squares in it and almost every day before dinner we’d play marbles on it. Then he’d go into the living room to read his paper.

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While he read I’d comb his hair into weird hairdos, pulling it up to points from every part of his head. He’d just go on reading the paper until I asked him to look at the hairdo in the mirror.

Rich would get up, look, smile his approval, or frown his disapproval, then return to his paper. And I’d start another weird hair comb.

Rich got me my first ball, my first baseball mitt, my first two-wheeler, and my first dog. He was always at the games when we boys played baseball. He also took me to see the Woolworth Building. But mostly I remember walking with him. Long walks, in a lot of silence and always feeling his love.

It seemed that Rich never had any problems of his own. He did. Plenty. But he never burdened anyone with them. I suspect he eased his problems by being with kids, especially me. Or maybe with painting.

He was a good artist. He used oils, charcoal, water colors, or pen. And sometimes on our walks, we’d stop in a nice spot and sit, and we’d both paint or sketch.

Those walks. They were great. Every Friday we’d take a special long walk to Aunt Mabel’s, a cousin of my father. Once, on the way there, I thought I smelled gas coming from the ground. I yelled “Gas! Gas!” Rich didn’t think I was crazy. Anybody else would have. Not him.

He went over, bent down, sniffed very seriously. Sure enough, there was part of an old gas pipe there with a strong gas smell. From then on, every Friday night, when we got to that spot we’d both stop, bend down, sniff, look up knowingly, and walk on happily, sharing our great, dark secret.

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Then, coming to the hedges before Aunt Mabel’s house, I’d duck behind one, then dash up the steps before Rich would catch me. I don’t know if he started that or if I did. But like the gas-smelling it became a regular ritual on the Friday night walks to Aunt Mabel.

When I got older, much older, near 13, the walks got longer, much longer. I mapped them out to pass the house of the girl I was madly in love with at the time. Rich never protested. I knew that he knew, but he never let on.

He was at the heart of my world, really, but once, when I got articulate enough to tell him he was, he said: “I’m not the center of your universe or any universe. God is.”

And whenever there was any trouble, big or small, his calm hovered over us, and we’d hear him say: “God and time will take care of it. Just ask, ‘Lord Jesus, help me,’ and if you really mean it, He will.”

At school I spent more time in the principal’s office than in my classes because of this irreverent urge I had to mimic my teachers. In one class, off in a corner, there was this bust of Beethoven, very severe-looking, very cold.

One day I just couldn’t resist: I rushed up, pulled out my handkerchief, and blew Beethoven’s nose. The class broke up.

The principal didn’t. “Arthur William Matthew Carney,” she said, “you will never amount to anything.”

I believed her. Rich didn’t. Under his auspices I gave my first professional performance. I was nine when one day I got the idea of a one-man show.

It was Rich who promptly sat down and wrote 12 invitations in his own beautiful script, mostly to relatives: “You are invited to a special evening of entertainment by Mr. Arthur Carney called ‘Art by Art.’”

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I danced and had funny disguises, doodled on the piano as my father had taught me, and I got by on drums, slide whistle, and flexitone, a kind of musical saw.

I always wondered if I would make it in show business. Sometimes I still wonder. Rich never did. He was always there, through the years, even when out of sight, when I was knocking about the country with Horace Heidt, in night clubs, in vaudeville, when I couldn’t get work of any kind.

He was there in the early days of radio, and he was there when, as an infantryman, I set up my machine gun on one of the Normandy beaches and got a piece of shrapnel in my right leg before I could fire it.

And he was there, out of sight, when I drank. I once was able to drink pretty good as a young man. When I got older and had real responsibility, the remorse was worse than the hang-over. I told myself I was headed for that endless lost week end. I tried to quit.

It wasn’t easy. I could fool a lot of people about it. But when you talk to yourself or to Rich you have to tell the truth. He was gone when I dropped to the depths as a drinker. But at the lowest point I heard him remind me:

“Just ask, ‘Lord Jesus, help me’, and He will—if you really mean it.”

Hearing Rich say that, even when he wasn’t there, I learned to mean it.

I try hard not to drink any more. I don’t beat the temptation every time but, whenever I say “Lord Jesus, help me", and mean it, I win, and the drink loses.

When Rich was 70 he was still playing tennis with me. When he was 81 he got a blood clot in his heart, and survived it. But he was never really right after that.

For a time he lived with my wife Jean and me, and one night, sitting by his bed, holding his hand, listening to his calm voice, he saw my worried look, and suddenly smiled reassuringly, and asked: “Do you think I’m going to make it?”

“Sure,” I said, “you always will.”

He died shortly after that. But he made it. He made it here, and elsewhere too.

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