Harry and Tonto (1974): Oscar Winner Art Craney and Cat

Paul Mazursky’s “Harry and Tonto” is a sentimental, life-affirming serio-comedy, lifted above a routine TV of the Week by the lead performance of Art Carney, who won the Best Actor Oscar.

Carney plays the titular role, Harry Coombes, a feisty, independent 72-year-old widower who takes off on a cross-country odyssey with his cat, Tonto, after he’s evicted from his Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan when his building is condemned.  He initially stays with his son’s family in the suburbs but eventually chooses to travel cross country with his pet cat “Tonto” in tow

Assuming the shape of a mildly amusing road comedy, the narrative describes Harry’s encounters. Initially planning to fly to Chicago, Harry instead boards a long-distance bus, then later impulsively buys a used car. During his episodic journey, he befriends a Bible-quoting hitchhiker (Michael Butler) and underage runaway Ginger (Melanie Mayron).

His visits his eldest daughter Shirley (Ellen Burstyn), a bookstore owner in Chicago, while planning to meet up with his failure of a son Eddie (Larry Hagman, just before he became the star of the TV show “Dallas”) in California.

The trip is filled with vignettes that remind Harry of his roots as well as present and tentative future, forcing the quiet man to ponder his life of quiet desperation. Harry remembers his first love, Jessie (Geraldine Fitzgerald), an old girlfriend who used to be a vivacious ballet dancer but now resides senile in a retirement home, suffering from dementia.

Continuing west, Harry accepts a ride with a health-food salesman (Arthur Hunnicutt), meets an attractive hooker (Barbara Rhoades) on his way to Las Vegas, then spends a night in jail with a friendly Native American (Chief Dan George).

Harry’s encounters of the younger and older America expose him to his Zen nephew, a Bible-spouting hippie, a runaway teen-ager, a bearded vitamins seller.  Rather expectedly, most of the characters are odd, such as a young female hitchhiker, a high-priced hooker, and an Indian chief-medicine man, when the two share briefly a prison cell in Vegas.

In the end, Harry reaches the West Coast, only to realize that things are not quite as he had anticipated, thus giving him a new vision of the last years of his life. In Los Angeles, after a brief stay with his son, he finds a place of his own with Tonto, his best buddy, who like him is trying to dealing with the hardships of old age.

End Note:

Also appearing toward the end of the film as Celia is Sally K. Marr, mother of the real-life comedian Lenny Bruce.


Oscar Alert

 Oscar Nominations: 2

Actor: Art Carney

Screenplay (Original): Paul Mazursky and Josh Greenfeld


Oscar Awards: 1


Oscar Context:

The best male performance of the year was given by Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown,” in a competitive race that also included Albert Finney in “Murder on the Orient Express,” Dustin Hoffman in “Lenny,” and Al Pacino in “The Godfather, Part II.”


The winner of the Original Screenplay was Robert Towne for “Chinatown,” competing against Coppola’s “The Conversation,” Robert Getchell’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” and Francois Truffaut’s “Day for Night.”


Other Awards

Carney also won the Golden Globe for Best Actor Musical/Comedy, while Greenfeld and Mazursky were nominated for Best Picture Musical/Comedy. The screenplay was nominated for the Writers Guild of America Award. The film was also selected as one of the 10 Best of 1974 by the National Board of Review.


Released by Fox

Running time: 116 minutes



Art Carney as Harry Coombes

Herbert Berghof as Jacob Rivetowski

Ellen Burstyn as Shirley Mallard

Geraldine Fitzgerald as Jessie Stone

Larry Hagman as Eddie Coombes

Chief Dan George as Sam Two Feathers

Melanie Mayron as Ginger

Joshua Mostel as Norman Coombes

Arthur Hunnicutt as Wade Carlton

Barbara Rhoades as Stephanie, Hooker

Cliff DeYoung as Burt Coombes Jr.

Phil Bruns as Burt Coombes

Dolly Jonah as Elaine Coombes

Avon Long as Leroy

Louis Guss as Dominic Santosi

Cliff Norton as Nick Lewis, Used Car Dealer

Rashel Novikoff as Mrs. Rothman

Michael Butler as Hitchhiker

René Enríquez as Jesús, Deli Manager

Michael McCleery as Mugger