Paul Mazursky’s 1974 film follows a 70-year-old and his cat’s cross-country journey as they discover individuals of various dispositions
“You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need. You see me here, you gods, a poor old man, as full of grief as age, wretched in both.”
This line from Shakespeare’s King Lear might seem like an anomaly in a 1974 Hollywood dramedy about a modern day odyssey of a retired English teacher and his cat. However, in the hands of director Paul Mazursky and actor Art Carney, this urban reworking of Lear (minus all the killing) is a befitting tribute to old age and the yearning to continue onward till death knocks.
Harry and Tonto traces the life of septuagenarian widower and retired English teacher Harry Coombes (Art Carney) as he is evicted from his New York apartment building so it can be razed for a parking lot.
Harry has lived at the apartment with his faithful cat Tonto for years and is the sort of guy who has no intention of fading into the twilight. Although he misses his late wife Annie, Harry is glad to be alive. Like a latter day Hume, he enjoys chatting with his good friend Rivetowksi, an ageing radical who hates capitalism. Harry is a bundle of contradictions, a curmudgeon who likes to quip as well as a sagacious man who sees all things and all peoples with glint of sadness.
As he is evicted from his home, Harry claims a kinship with King Lear: “He gave up his real estate too.” As he protests his eviction the cops are forced to carry him out in a chair.
His son Burt invites Harry to his suburban home but witnessing the dysfunction in his son’s family Harry opts to move out. In an amusing little scene, Harry asks his grandson, who has taken a vow of silence, if he does drugs.
What follows are a series of vignettes of Harry travel travails as he attempts to go to Chicago through Las Vegas and eventually reaching Los Angeles to the American west coast.
Throughout his episodic journey, Harry meets all sorts of characters, from a Bible-quoting hitchhiker, an underage runaway, a cowboy who sells vitamins and electric blenders, a happy hooker who rides with her trusted dog, and an American Indian tribesman who heals Harry’s ailing shoulder. Harry visits his daughter (played by the inimitable Ellen Burstyn), who runs a bookstore and shares a bristly but mutually affectionate relationship with her father.