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.
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