Harry Coombes (Art Carney) is an elderly widower and retired teacher who is forced from his Upper West Side apartment in New York City when his building is condemned. He initially stays with his eldest son Burt's family in the suburbs but eventually chooses to travel cross country with his pet cat Tonto in tow.
Initially planning to fly to Chicago, until Harry has an issue with Airport Security checking his cat carrier, he instead boards a long-distance bus. He gets off so Tonto can take a leak (Harry tries to get Tonto to use the bus toilet, to no avail), then buys a used car after Tonto wanders away. During his episodic journey, he befriends a Bible-quoting hitchhiker (Michael Butler) and underage runaway Ginger (Melanie Mayron), visits his daughter (Ellen Burstyn), a bookstore owner in Chicago, and drops in on an early sweetheart (Geraldine Fitzgerald) in a retirement home, where she suffers from dementia.
Continuing west, Harry accepts a ride with a health-food salesman (Arthur Hunnicutt), makes the acquaintance of 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). He eventually makes it to Los Angeles, where he stays with his youngest son (Larry Hagman), a financially strapped real-estate salesman, before finding a place of his own with Tonto, who, much like Harry, is dealing the best he can with the hardships of old age.Art Carney as Harry Coombes
Tonto as Tonto
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
Also appearing toward the end of the film as Celia is Sally K. Marr, mother of Lenny Bruce.
Cast as an elderly man, Carney, born in 1918, was actually only 13 years older than the actors who played his sons, Larry Hagman and Phil Bruns, and 14 years older than Ellen Burstyn, who played his daughter. Thanks to the makeup of Emmy winning artist Bob O'Bradovich, Carney was effectively transformed into the elderly Harry.
Carney beat Albert Finney, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino, for their performances in Murder on the Orient Express, Lenny, Chinatown and The Godfather Part II respectively, for the 1974 Academy Award for Best Actor. The film was nominated for Best Writing, Original Screenplay.
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 as Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen. The film was also selected as one of the ten best of 1974 by the National Board of Review.
At the time, Carney noted that prior to his work in Harry and Tonto, he "never liked cats" but said he wound up getting along well with the cat in the film.