Septuagenarian widower and retired teacher Harry Coombes (Art Carney) is evicted from his New York apartment building so it can be demolished. Joined by his cat Tonto, he moves in with his son Burt (Phil Bruns) but quickly gets fed up with Burt's dysfunctional family and decides to fly to Chicago to see his daughter Shirley (Ellen Burstyn). But after a series of mishaps, he ends up buying a used car and driving to Chicago instead. Along the way he's joined by teenage runaway hitchhiker Ginger (Melanie Mayron). He ultimately decides to travel to Los Angeles to see his son Eddie (Larry Hagman), but the American road presents Harry with plenty of colorful characters and situations along the way, as Tonto stays faithfully by his side.
Most famous now for Carney's upset win of the Academy Award for Best Actor, beating out Jack Nicholson (Chinatown), Al Pacino (The Godfather Part II), Dustin Hoffman (Lenny) and Albert Finney (Murder On The Orient Express).
This film contains examples of:
- Auto Erotica: Implied with Harry and the prostitute who gives him a ride.
- Big Applesauce: The first quarter of the film is a prime example.
- The Bard on Board: It's a loose reworking of King Lear, which Harry even lampshades in the film. Since he was apparently an English teacher, Harry also quotes Shakespeare quite a bit.
- Bittersweet Ending: Harry settles in California and finds new friends and a new daily routine, but Tonto dies of old age.
- Cool Old Guy: Harry, who's still kind of crotchety but not too judgmental, since he knows how disappointing life can be.
- Crazy Cat Lady: Harry befriends one at the end of the film.
- Creator Cameo: Paul Mazursky as the hustler who silently hits on Harry in Hollywood.
- Elective Mute: Norman, Harry's grandson (and Burt's son) is studying Eastern mysticism and has taken a vow of silence, communicating only by writing. But when we see him again later in the film, he's renounced it.
- Loyal Animal Companion: Tonto.
- Magical Native American: Maybe not literally magical, but Harry meets an aging medicine man named Sam Two Feathers while he's in jail in Las Vegas.
- Meganekko: Ginger.
- Mistaken for Terrorist: When Harry intends to board a plane bound for Chicago, Airport Security starts grilling him about Tonto's cat carrier. Harry soon gets exasperated and angrily blurts out "Do you think I've got a bomb in there?" Though not arrested, he and Tonto do end up boarding a cross-country bus in the next scene.
- Name and Name: Though "Tonto" is a little puzzling if you're not familiar with the film.
- Pop-Cultural Osmosis Failure: Harry has to explain Tonto's name to Sam Two Feathers, who's never heard of The Lone Ranger.
- Road Movie: Harry and Tonto go from New York to Los Angeles via bus, driving and hitchhiking over the course of a single autumn.
- The Runaway: Ginger, a troubled teen who's left home to live in a commune in Colorado.
- Running Gag: People talking to Harry about seeing Ironside on TV.
- Slice of Life: Bordering on Random Events Plot. It's basically a few weeks in the life of a quirky old widower (and his cat).
- Whole Plot Reference: The film plays like a more naturalistic Americanized version of Wild Strawberries, infused with plot elements of King Lear.