Over the years I have read many of Neil Simon’s plays and “The Odd Couple” has remained at the top of my favorites list. The play was a huge hit on Broadway with Art Carney and Walter Matthau originating the roles of Felix Unger, (a newspaper writer in the play and movie and a photographer in the TV series) and sportswriter Oscar Madison. The play opened in March of 1965 and ran for 964 performances. Along with Carney and Matthau, the cast included the delightful character actor John Fiedler and as the Pidgeon Sisters, Monica Evans and Carole Shelley. Along with Matthau these three actors would recreate their roles in the 1968 film. Evans and Shelley would go one step further playing the giggling bird sisters on the TV series. (1)
According to Wikipedia, there are conflicting reports on how the idea for the play evolved. One report states, Neil’s brother Danny, separated from his wife, moved in with an agent named Roy Gerber. Simon cooked a roast for dinner one night and burned the roast. “Sweetheart,” Gerber said, “that was a lovely dinner last night. What are we going to have tonight?” Simon replied: “What do you mean, cook you dinner? You never take me out to dinner. You never bring me flowers.” Danny Simon, a writer like his older brother, began a draft on the play but eventually gave it to Neil to write. The second tale involves Neil Simon’s observations of Mel Brooks during his divorce from his first wife when he moved in with a writer named Speed Vogel. This is according to James Robert Parish, author of Brooks biography, “It’s Good to be the King.” Whatver the true story is, a classic was born.
In 1968, the film version was released with Jack Lemmon as Felix and Walter Matthau, as mentioned, recreating his stage role. The film was a huge hit, even playing to sold out performances at Radio City Music Hall in New York. In 1970, Paramount, with the help of Garry Marshall, created a TV version with Klugman and Randall in the lead roles. If ever there was perfect casting, it was with these two gentlemen. The show ran for five seasons, though surprisingly, it was only a middle of the pack hit in the ratings, never managing to break into the Neilson top 20. It’s possible the movie version with Lemmon and Matthau was so ingrained in people’s minds at the time, they could not accept Randall and Klugman as Oscar and Felix. It was not until the show went into syndication and perpetual reruns that its popularity and cult status took off.
Though I saw the movie back in ’68 and liked it, I for one have come to associate the roles of Oscar and Felix with Klugman and Randall. When I think of “The Odd Couple,” I think Klugman and Randall and not Matthau and Lemmon. Now before fans of Lemmon and Matthau start jumping up and down, remember, I liked the movie, and Matthau’s performance is especially good. In fact, it’s so good I do think it would be tough to figure out who would win, Matthau or Klugman, in an Oscar Madison Slob Off competition! That said, the roles belong to Klugman and Randall.
Jack Klugman was a well- known character actor before “The Odd Couple,” having appeared on stage, screen and TV with credits like Juror No. 5 in Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” where he was the only guy on the jury with street credentials. His one big moment is when his character instructs the other jurors on the correct way a gang member would hold a switchblade. He also appeared in films like “Days of Wine and Roses,” “The Detective” and
“Goodbye Columbus” where his distinctive straightforward style was not easily forgotten. Among his more than 100 television credits include multiple appearances on “The Twilight Zone,” as well appearances in “The Untouchables,” “The Fugitive,” The Virginian” and an Emmy Award winning performance on the 1964 courtroom drama, “The Defenders.” He was adept at both comedy and drama. Klugman would have a second hit series in 1976 with “Quincy M.E.,” which ran for seven years. Klugman would appear in many other TV shows, movies and stage productions but like his Odd Couple roommate, Tony Randall, he would always be best known as the sloppiest sports writer in New York, Oscar Madison. By the way, Klugman’s first brush with the character of Oscar Madison came in late 1965 when he replaced Walter Matthau in the Broadway play. Soon after, Klugman would go on to star in the London production.
Felix Unger is the yin to Oscar Madison’s yang. Whenever I see Tony Randall in a movie, I always notice at least a touch of the neurotic nerd Felix in many of his characters. Think about films like “Lover Come Back,” “Send Me No Flowers” and “Boys Night Out” just to name a few. The Felix persona even appeared as far back as “Mr. Peepers,” the early 1950’s sit-com which he co-starred in with Wally Cox. Randall’s character, Harvey Weskit, a history teacher, would express the kind of condescending, know-it-all attitude that Felix exuded. It’s like Randall was practicing for his iconic role for much of his career. Tony Randall, like Klugman, did a lot of TV in his early days before parlaying his success into the movies. Like Klugman his range of roles varied from dramas like ‘No Down Payment” to playing Agatha Christie’s Hercules Peroit in “The Alphabet Murders.” Randall was also, and again like Klugman, a stage actor including the role of the reporter in the Broadway drama, “Inherit the Wind.” Much later in his career, Randall founded the National Actors Theater in New York putting on revivals of plays like “Night Must Fall,” “The Seagull” and “The Sunshine Boys” which he co-starred in with Klugman. Randall invested his own money in this heartfelt project. He also starred in a couple of other sit-coms (The Tony Randall Show and Love, Sidney) after “The Odd Couple” but they did not last too long.
For both Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, it was their appearance in “The Odd Couple” for which they became household names and genuine TV stars. Yes, they were both well known and respected before the show but they moved on up to another level afterward. As I mentioned earlier the show became iconic after its network run ended and it went into what seemed like permanent reruns. Today, Klugman and Randall have overshadowed Lemmon and Matthau and for many, like myself, are the two actors most associated with the roles of Oscar and Felix. During the run, Klugman would go on to win two Emmys and Tony Randall one. Not bad.
“The Odd Couple” has certainly stood the test of time. It remains funny after all these years and extensive repeated viewings. Without a doubt, the two stars are a big part of the reason this is so, their chemistry together is superb, but there’s more. Other cast members like Al Molinaro (Murray the Cop) Penny Marshall (Mryna Turner), Larry Gelman (Vinnie), Gary Walberg (Speed), Brett Somers (Klugman’s real life wife at the time was Blanche, the ex-Mrs. Madison on the show) and of course those Pidgeon Sisters all add some wonderful touches. Additionally, a large chunk of the credit goes to the writers beginning with Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson, and of course for the original source material thanks goes to Neil Simon. There were some other great writers during the shows run too, guys like Mickey Rose (Take the Money and Run, Bananas), Lowell Ganz and Mark Rothman who both worked with Garry Marshall on Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley.
Over the years, “The Odd Couple” has continually reappeared in new and different ways. In 1982, for example, there was “The New Odd Couple” with Ron Glass as Felix and Demond Wilson as Oscar. It lasted only 13 episodes. Neil Simon himself reworked the original play in 1985 twisting it into a female version with Olive Madison (Rita Moreno) and Florence Unger (Sally Struthers). The show ran for eight months on Broadway. In 1993, a made for TV movie called “The Odd Couple: Together Again” reunited Randall and Klugman with their most famous characters. Some of the original cast (Penny Marshall and Gary Walberg) also came back but, on the whole despite the chemistry between the two leads, the script was mediocre. In 1996, Klugman and Randall did a three month run of the play in London to raise money for Randall’s National Actors Theater. In 1998, Simon wrote a sequel script called what else, “The Odd Couple II” with Lemmon and Matthau recreating their film roles. Sadly, it was not up to the standard of the original. In 2005, and much more successful, “The Odd Couple” came back to Broadway where it all began with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the lead roles. (2) The cast, that included Brad Garrett, Rob Bartlett and Olivia D’Ablo, were all good, but after so many years of TV, so many viewings of Jack Klugman and Tony Randall as Oscar and Felix well, it’s a lot for anyone to live up to.
(1) Just as an FYI, I put together a list of my favorite sit-coms. They are in no particular order other than alphabetical. What these shows have in common beside a good cast is the writing. They had quality scripts just about week after week.
All in the Family
Bob Newhart Show
Dick Van Dyke Show
Everybody Loves Raymond
I Love Lucy
Mary Tyler Moore Show
(2) I did get to see this stage version on a trip to NYC.
This post is part of Me-TV’s Summer of Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Go to http://classic-tv-blog-assoc.blogspot.com) to view more posts in this blogathon. You can also go to http://metvnetwork.com to learn more about Me-TV and view its summer line-up of classic TV shows.”
Our family enjoyed Tony & Jack in “The Odd Couple” twice on stage. The second time was after Jack beat cancer and was speaking through a voice box. After the initial shock, it was nothing but an evening filled with laughter and good will.
I think both of Tony’s post-Odd Couple series were excellent and it’s a shame they didn’t find their audience.
This was a grand stroll down memory lane.
Patricia – my wife and I were suppose to see Tony and Jack on stage doing THE ODD COUPLE when we were living in the Atlanta area. Purchased tickets but unforotunately the show was cancelled. Never knew the reason but we always assumed it was because of Klugman’s illness. Then again, you know what they say about “assume.” Thanks!!!
I LOVED The New Odd Couple! I haven’t seen it since it first aired, but wow, you just gave ma flashback.
I’m a huge Klugman fan from Quincy, and I’ve been watching him more and more on The Odd Couple. His chemistry with Randall is so strong and seemingly effortless.
Thanks Amanda. I remember watching THE NEW ODD COUPLE but it been a long time and I don’t believe it has ever been released on VHS or DVD, Klugman and Randall were superb together! Thanks!!!
John, Really enjoyed your piece on “The Odd Couple,” your love and admiration for the series really comes through powerfully. I agree, agree, agree with you on Klugman and Randall as the ultimate Oscar and Felix. But, then…I’m not that crazy about the movie, mostly because Jack Lemmon’s Felix annoys me to death (the allergies schtick drives me craaaazy). I love Jack Lemmon, but not so much in this one.
I’ve always thought of The Odd Couple as a hit show in its day, but it makes sense that with the movie having just been a huge hit, the series (and stars) were completely overshadowed – for a while.
Would love to have seen Carney and Matthau or Carney and Klugman in the original stage version – I didn’t realize Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick (who seem to have become a permanent Broadway team) were in a revival. I’ll bet they were good in it.
Eve, though I liked the movie, I agree, Lemmon’s Felix can get very annoying after awhile. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick did make a good Oscar an Felix but no one, at least for me, can be a better Odd Couple duo than Klugman and Randall.
You know, I have never seen “The Odd Couple” television series, and I see that I’m missing something. I had no idea it was on TV for so long! I enjoy Randall & Klugman, so I’ll try to catch this series.
Great review of the whole “Odd Couple” scene!
SS – You have some homework to do! (LOL) Your first assignment is to start watching THE ODD COUPLE on ME TV and enjoy. Thanks for stopping by!
A fine post on THE ODD COUPLE, John! My introduction to the characters was the TV series, so when I finally saw the Lemmon-Matthau movie, I was disappointed. They are both fine actors and well-suited to the roles, but Randall & Klugman ARE Felix & Oscar. I think the show’s opening includes one of the most iconic images of 1970s television: that freeze frame when Felix stabs Oscar’s discarded cigar with his umbrella and holds up to chastise his friend. Thanks for participating in the Me-TV Blogathon. You bring class to whatever you do!
I’m not sorry to admit that I didn’t care for the movie version of The Odd Couple because I think the tone is all wrong. Jack Lemmon is too melancholy as Felix, and that’s why it’s never worked for me. Admittedly, because I was an Odd Couple nut growing up, Randall and Klugman sort of spoiled everything else for me but I’m not entirely certain that they should shoulder all the blame. After all, I liked the Ron Glass-Demond Wilson version, too (though I may be the only one).
The Odd Couple has stood the test of time for a simple reason: it’s character-based comedy. Sure, some of the situations are amusing but at the heart of the series it’;s the story of two best friends who admittedly drive one another crazy but remain close because strong friendships can triumph even when confronted with major irritations. I watch the show on Me-TV practically every weeknight, and in my opinion (with the exception of the scripts he contributed to The Dick Van Dyke Show) it’s still the best thing Garry Marshall ever did.
Ivan, I agree, this is some of the best stuff Garry Marshall ever did, along with The Dick Van Dyke scripts. Thanks for stopping by and enjoy watching TOC.
LOVE this series too. This is an interesting approach–comparing different stage, screen and TV versions. Thanks for writing this essay.
Joanna, Thanks for stopping by. Took a look a you blog, which I will have to keep an eye on, and it reminded me that one of my favorite TV versions of A CHRISTMAS CAROL is THE ODD COUPLE episode with Oscar as SCROOGE. Thanks again!
I adore THE ODD COUPLE too John, and much appreciate this fabulous assessment of the show’s sustained popularity over the years. Randall and Klugman will always be known for these roles. Yes it’s a favorite sitcom of mine as well, and one can’t go wrong with that great list you add on at the end of the review! My all-time favorite is THE HONEYMOONERS, while my wife’s is I LOVE LUCY. But THE ODD COUPLE no matter how you size it up in a national institution! Really great contribution to the TV blogothon.
Thanks Sam! I love the two shows you mention. A while back we got a really good deal on the complet I LOVE LUCY DVD collection and its been a joy watching these clean copies. More than 50 years later, like THE HONEYMOONERS, and they still are great.
Great write-up, John. I’d only echo what others have said, that this show holds up so well. It’s particularly nice to see Jack Klugman in this role – he can be so intense, and (dare I say) one-dimensional in so many of his appearances in classic TV of the era. He and Tony Randall play off each other wonderfully.
Hi Mitchell and welcome! It does seem pretty unanimous about Klugman and Randall as the perfect “odd couple.” They did work wonderful together. thanks!
The Odd Couple is one of my favorite TV shows of all time. Klugman and Randall had a special chemistry. My favorite episode was probably when Felix and Oscar go crazy winning money at the race-track. But there are so many classic episodes it’s hard to choose.
So many classic lines in those shows also.
When Felix was singing Laugh Clown Laugh on a television show with Murray watching back in Felix and Oscar’s apartment. Felix screams into the camera “Murray use Your coaster!” Murray watching on TV then puts his drink on the coaster then takes it off and then puts it back on again. Hilarious stuff!
Also the classic password episode clue “graphite” for pencil.
Lastly the classic Oscar sleepwalking episode. ” I don’t like pits, pits, pits in my juice, juice, juice.
There are countless others…
And don’t forget the courtroom episode where you when you assume, you make an “ass” of “u” and “me.” All great stuff that can be watched repeatedly. Thanks John for sharing your thoughts!
I agree with your list John with two exceptions, Friends and 30 Rock. I would just replace those two with Hogan’s Heroes and The Addams Family.
John – It’s been years since I watched either of the two shows you mention but as a kid I do remember watching and liking them. I would have to take another look at both shows to comment.