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Director and writer Paul Mazursky’s mother actually inspired Harry and Tonto. She enjoyed walking her cat on a leash in Greenwich Village, so Mazursky used this idea paired with Shakespeare’s King Lear to create the lead character.
“It was turned down by every studio. They were afraid of old age. They said, ‘It’s a great script but I don’t want to see a movie about my father. I want to see lines around the block,'" Mazursky remembered. Thankfully, 20th Century Fox picked up the project and reaped the benefits.
“Harry and Tonto was the biggie for me,” Art Carney said, remembering the Academy-award-winning role. “Imagine, the first movie I've starred in, even though I've been in the business for 37 years.”
1. Art had to age.
Since Carney was only in his fifties and Harry was seventy-something, he was hesitant to take the role. His agent told time, “Do it. You are old!” Something Mazursky echoed, saying, “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.” Some compliment! Carney eventually caved due to the pressure.
2. The cab driver was a real cab driver.
While traveling to different casting offices, Mazusky met a cab driver who he thought was perfect for the role of, well, the cab driver. “I brought her to the office, and I let the meter run. She came in a read for me, and I gave her the part,” he said. And just like that Muriel Beerman, school teacher and part-time cab driver, made her film debut. “She did about ten different takes. Letter perfect. No nerves. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
3. A Blackboard Jungle villain was almost cast.
Mazursky originally wanted to cast Vic Morrow as Carney’s on-screen son. Morrow and Mazursky studied acting together and had gotten to know each other well, especially after they both appeared in Blackboard Jungle. However, Morrow turned down the part, which he felt wasn’t big enough and occurred too late in the script. Larry Hagman was cast instead.
4. Chief Dan got another gig thanks to the film.
After seeing Chief Dan George in Little Big Man, Mazursky wanted to cast him. George, who was a chief in real life, wore his own clothes for the part and performed an actual “curing song.” He also didn’t completely memorize his lines – which made Mazursky nervous – but used cue cards. After seeing the film, Clint Eastwood called to ask about George and Mazursky gave him a good recommendation. As a result, Eastwood hired him for The Outlaw Josey Wales.
5. Art hated cats.
“The only pet that I have is this rock,” Carney joked with Mazursky. Nevertheless, the two cats used for the film liked him. Liver treats were used to get the cat to stay close to Carney or to hit its mark in a scene. The main cat was particularly talented and even improvised some moments, such as reaching for the sandwich on the bus, that enhanced the film. “The cat should have won an award too. He was very smart,” Mazursky joked. The trainer offered to let Mazursky keep the cat, but his wife was allergic.
6. There’s a director cameo!
Mazursky appears in a brief scene on Hollywood Boulevard as a male prostitute. He said, “That was my ‘Alfred Hitchcock’ appearance. I’m in every movie I’ve made somehow.” His daughter, Jill, also makes an appearance in the final scene, where she builds a sand castle.