TV’s ‘Odd Couple’ in the ’70s: Jack Klugman & Tony Randall as Oscar & Felix

Tony Randall Jack Klugman Felix Unger Oscar Madison The Odd Couple

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Jack Klugman & Tony Randall star in TV’s “The Odd Couple” (1971)

By Joyce Haber – The Los Angeles Times (California) Aug 8, 1971

On the sound stage up at Paramount, Jack Klugman and Tony Randall are rehearsing a scene for next season’s Odd Couple. The show will be filmed the next evening live, with three battery-powered cameras in front of an audience.

No laugh track: The boys killed that, by griping publicly on TV talk shows and demanding that viewers write in their reaction to a single non-laugh track segment last year. The audience voted almost five to one against canned laughter.

Now Klugman, as the slovenly sportswriter Oscar, slouches beside the living room sofa in sneakers (no socks), blue wash-and-wear pants that have never known a crease, and a rumpled yellow T-shirt that hangs on his ample frame like a tent. Jack clutches a can of beer as other, less simple men clutch an original quarto by Shakespeare.

Odd Couple original TV show main cast

Tony Randall, who plays Felix, the orderly one, is making up the couch as a bed. His black moccasins are so shiny that they suggest Tony uses them as a mirror: From the look of Tony, fresh from head to toe as the sheets he holds, he probably did.

Tony, or Felix, is making up the couch because his ex-wife’s beau is staying with the Odd Couple that night. The boyfriend is using Felix’s room. Klugman, alias Oscar, his beer can hovering at a 45-degree angle to the neat carpet, asks Felix to sleep in his bedroom. “Listen, Oscar, if I never sleep again –” says Felix.

Jerry Paris, the eminent TV comedy director who’s assigned to the first three episodes of Odd Couple, laughs out loud at Tony’s delivery of the line. A moment later, Klugman threatens to flop on the newly-made couch.

“Don’t sit on my bed,’ says Randall. The costars frown in unison. The director calls a break. The stars and director huddle for maybe two minutes. The scene starts again. But this time Klugman actually flops on the sofa. Randall says: “You comfortable there?” Klugman says: “Yeah.’ Randall ripostes: “GET up.”

Show’s script changes

The crew and half a dozen observers break up at the change (and exchange) by the stars. The action and dialog, obviously, was not in the script.

“From the original script we get on Friday,” says Janis Hansen, who this year plays Tony’s ex-wife, “the show is completely altered. “They’re really opposites. I can’t tell you.

“Jack’s always talking about his horses and bets at racetracks. He spends his lunches telling me about them. Tony is meanwhile next door, in his dressing room; listening to an opera. Tony will call Jack and me and say, ‘Come here, you’ve got to listen to this.'”

Jack Klugman has been listening, as well as playing the horses, for 25 years.

“Acting has nothing to do with technique. It has to do with listening,” says Klugman, who learned that at the Theater Wing from a guy named Kurt Conway. And from Lee Strasberg.

“The first time I went to Strasberg, he said, ‘You have presence and you can read lines, but you’re not aware.’ So I quit him.

“Then, a year later, while doing a play, I suddenly realized what he meant. So I went back to him. I never made the Actors Studio. I auditioned four times and failed each time.

“The last night I tried, Steve McQueen auditioned, and he got in. And I said, ‘That’s it. It’s too humiliating. I can’t do it anymore.’

“There is no different technique for the stage or movies or TV. They say ‘movie technique.’ You can’t learn how to act in movies. You can learn your best side, or how to light yourself. But all acting is remembering what you did on the stage.

“The good actors, like Olivier and Tracy, were on the stage. ‘They try to say, ‘Back away from the camera.’ I say the hell with the camera. Move the camera away from ME. Don’t interfere with the actor.”

The Odd Couple Jack Klugman and Tony Randall

The Couple co-stars’ camaraderie and mutual admiration wasn’t always thus. Today its extraordinary, I can assure you. I’ve had both men to dinner at various, separate times, and found that neither can keep from praising his friend to the skies at the merest mention of the series.

But Tony, who was hired first, was opposed to casting Klugman (perhaps, understandably, because Klugman, like Randall, is a super actor and potential very strong rival). Tony wanted — of all odd couplings — Mickey Rooney for his co-star. He even went to the network, ABC, and asked for Rooney.

Indeed, when the producers, Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson, recommended Klugman, the network wasn’t sure. The network thought that Jack was “too ethnic.” (He’d just played the ultimate Jewish father in the film “Goodbye, Columbus.”)

Even author Neil Simon had his doubts. But the teaming clicked as the show did not, at first. Reviewers be-came ecstatic about the stars although the series did nothing in the Nielsen ratings for the entire first season. It got renewed by the skin of its teeth and because, specifically, ABC chief Elton Rule and head of programming Martin Stargar believed in it.

That belief is surely beginning to tell as more and more viewers tune in: Odd Couple is now in the Top 10 rated shows in its summer reruns. Its Friday filmings before a live audience are the hardest ticket in town.

I think Couple is among the best produced, best acted, best written (or rewritten, as the case may be) situation comedies I can recall (I haven’t the years — or maybe the brain — to remember them all). Klugman this year won his second Emmy as Best Actor for it in competition with his co-star, Randall.

Insiders feared that the votes for Couple would split and cancel each other out. How nice they didn’t. Klugman, accepting the statue, quipped, “Half of this is Tony’s — the neat half.”

Klugman is pretty neat. He’s appeared in more than 400 shows on live TV, not to mention film and tape. He once played the young gangster in a TV version of “The Petrified Forest” which starred Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall. The show had three weeks of rehearsals.

“I like to rehearse,” says Jack, “rather than perform. At first, you like the clapping. But after many years you find it’s the work you like. When you have to do it an opening night, you’re all uptight.”

Star Bogart didn’t show up on the set the first week, so they used a stand-in. “I knew they were going to shoot Bogart all the time, right?” says Klugman. “So I was a kid. Every place the stand-in went, I was beside him.

“Bogey arrived and said, ‘I know what you’re trying to do, kid.’ He’d push me away. He told the director, ‘I think the kid should speak the line from over there.’ He made me a radio voice. Then he started to take me back.'”

Another star who took him back a bit was Ethel Merman. Klugman played her boyfriend in Broadway’s “Gypsy.” Some actor-friends warned him that “Ethel spits out her leading men,” so Jack decided to concentrate on his job. “If she said hello, I did, and if she didn’t, I didn’t.”

One day, Miss Merman stopped him and chided, ‘You’re a moody fellow. You never say hello.’

That was in 1959. Jack and his wife, actress Brett Somers, had just had their first child (they have two sons).

The very same night, Miss Merman gave him a silver picture frame from Georg Jensen inscribed with the date of birth, the hour of birth and the weight of their baby. She’d taken the trouble to do the research.

From then on, as Jack puts it, “We had a ball. She’s the great lady of all time.”

She also did some sleuthing to learn about Klugman’s favorite cake. It was something called “Chocolate Devil’s Food Cocoa,” and came from Cushman’s bakery. Every Saturday during the musical’s run, Ethel picked one up at the store and shared it with Jack with tea between the matinee and the evening performance.

Odd Couple 1970s TV guide - Klugman Randall

Klugman, 48, was born in Philadelphia, one of six children of an indigent house painter. Jack’s father died (“of being poor”) when Jack was 12. Jack went to work selling newspapers on Market Street.

“At 13, I was taking horse bets. The dealer said, ‘These guys will give you slips of paper. Just put them in the tin’ Then I was taking bets on the phone. But I was gambling when I was 5, pitching pennies. Klugman’s weakness, or one of them (unlike his health-minded costar, he chain smokes cigarettes and cigars) is Las Vegas.

“The only time I truly lied to my wife was to go there and gamble,” he says. ‘We’d finished up on Friday, but I called her at home in Connecticut and told her we had to work on a script and that I’d be home on Sunday.” Klugman flew to Vegas and picked four racetracks, laying multiple bets. ‘Then at 6:30, I’d go and play blackjack.'”

Like all true gamblers, he’s superstitious. He lost the first four races, and decided “because you lied, you’re losing.” So he phoned his wife and admitted the deceit. “I went back and won a two-horse parlay,” he says.

“Listen, if I have a winning streak I’ll go back wearing the same clothes for eight days. Nobody will come near me, of course.” But Walter Matthau, he thinks, is even more reckless.

“Matthau will bet on anything. In the tough years, when we were always broke, I was playing pinochle with Matthau. Suddenly Walter said, bet you $50 my spade is higher than your spade.’ I said, ‘Walter, are you crazy or something?'”

Odd Couple - Oscar Madison and Felix Unger

Both Klugman and Randall keep saying that Couple should be shot in the East.

Does Jack like New York? “No, I just don’t like California.” Last season he took a house at Malibu Beach (“He’s a beach freak,’ says a friend). But the landlord claimed the Klugman family did so much damage he kept Jack’s entire security deposit. So now the Klugmans live in a motel apartment at Malibu.

“The kids can come in with sand on their feet,’ he says happily. “Last night I took a big martini and walked on the beach for an hour and then came back and flew kites with the kids.” Klugman is such a likable guy he even got along with Judy Garland, who was known for more than her temperament. When they made “I Could Go on Singing” together, he asked the director, Ronald Neame, if they could redo a scene he thought he’d done badly. “If you can get Judy to redo it, OK,” said Neame.

Judy Garland’s Quarrel

And she did. “Her quarrels were with management,” said Jack. “I remember Neame made her redo a scene over and over, and I was waiting to do one with her and chafing at the bit. He asked her to take it again. She asked why. He said, ‘Just because there’s this little thing inside me that says you’re wrong.’

“Judy, smiling all the time, replied: ‘Then I guess I’ll just have to kill that little thing inside you, won’t I?” Neame tried, “Let’s say it’s because I’m the director.”

Judy said, ‘No, let’s not say that. You’ve been on this picture four weeks and haven’t directed anything.’ She walked to the door, insisting, ‘You’re just making me the heavy again,’ while Neame shouted at her to return.

“Suddenly Judy whirled and, citing a director who’s known for his toughness with actors, screamed, ‘You’re a damned Henry Hathaway!'”

Klugman’s no damned anything — he’s a great big cuddly bear — but beneath the likable kid facade, he’s shrewd.

Tony, his costar, got paid a great deal more salary than he did during Couple last season. So what did Jack do? He hired Tony’s own agent, Abby Greshler, to represent him. Greshler came in to renegotiate his deal for a lot more money.

So if you see a big, unkempt bear of a man flying kites on the beach at Malibu, keep in mind that it’s not a hippie kid. It’s a super actor, fun man and smart businessman named Jack Klugman.

Ill-matched mates still enduring (1974)

Tony Randall and Jack Klugman return for the fifth year as Felix Unger and Oscar Madison in “The Odd Couple,” opening in the fall with a Sunday, instead of Friday, time slot.

The Odd Couple Jack Klugman and Tony Randall

By Don Royal

Ensconced in a new Sunday time slot at 6:30 pm, “The Odd Couple” launches its fifth season this fall of recounting the madcap experiences of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, two of Neil Simon’s most endearing and enduring characters.

As intercepted by Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, who also appeared in a stage version of the series. Felix, the prissy photographer, and Oscar, the sloppy sportswriter, have become part of the folklore of television comedy.

Tony Randall’s expertise in the role of Felix Unger is reflected in his three Emmy nominations since the inception of the series, adding luster to an acting career that has ranged from the Broadway stage to Hollywood films.

In the early days of television, Randall gained national acclaim and an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Mr. Weskitt in the popular “Mr. Peepers” series.

When recently asked how he “faced the challenge” of performing in “The Odd Couple,” Tony replied, “by eating properly and getting plenty of sleep and exercise. The only challenge is a physical one — being able to put in long hours on the set without ever doing anything less than my absolute best work.”

TV post-Peepers

Swearing never to do another series when “Mr Peepers” went off the air in 1955, Tony said he was persuaded by “the best material” he’d been offered in 15 years.

“The series scripts are very close to the original Neil Simon concept. Whenever anything comes up with the Simon label on it, I’ll do it.”

Tony is a collector of paintings and antique furniture and owns an impressive collection of classical and operatic albums. He has recorded two satirical albums spoofing the music of the ’30s, and, with Jack Klugman, has recorded “The Odd Couple Sings.”

Want to watch again? The whole series is available on DVD!

It was Randall’s casting in “The Odd Couple” that persuaded Jack Klugman to sign as costar. “With Tony in it, I figured this hadda be a class operation,” he says. “Then I read the pilot script and fell down.”

When Jack met with the producers for the first time he arrived all spruced-up with a new sports jacket, nice pair of slacks. The producers were overjoyed.

“We’ve been looking all over for this kind of sloppy stuff. It’s classic. We’d like to buy it from you.”

‘Those were my best clothes.” recalls Klugman. “Now you know how close to sportswriter slob Oscar Madison I am. I am Oscar.”

The Odd Couple opening credits/TV theme & narration

“On November 13, Felix Unger was asked to remove himself from his place of residence. That request came from his wife.

“Deep down, he knew she was right, but he also knew that someday, he would return to her.

“With nowhere else to go, he appeared at the home of his childhood friend, Oscar Madison. Sometime earlier, Madison’s wife had thrown him out, requesting that he never return.

“Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?”

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