Sunday, November 16, 2014

Tony Randall, What a Character!

For many Tony Randall will always be Felix Unger on the classic TV show The Odd Couple. For those a little bit older he might be history teacher Harvey Weekitt on Mister Peepers. Yet others might best remember Tony Randall as any number of supporting characters in Sixties sex comedies. In fact, a running joke among my friends and me is that no film is truly a Sixties sex comedy until Tony Randall appears! Tony Randall appeared on television, in major motion pictures, on radio, and on the Broadway stage. Few actors were as versatile as Tony Randall. While he may be best known for playing supporting roles in feature films, he shined those times in which he played the lead. In fact, in some way it is debatable whether Tony Randall was a lead actor capable of playing character roles or a character actor capable of playing lead roles!

Tony Randall was born Arthur Leonard Rosenberg on 26 February 1920 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Young Leonard Rosenberg decided he wanted to be an actor when he was very young. In grade school he performed in his very first production. He enjoyed it so much that he decided that was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. Surprisingly, at  Tulsa Central High School he often lost parts in school plays for which he tried out. This was largely because of a stutter he had since childhood, something he fortunately overcame. While young Leonard Rosenberg got to do very little acting in high school, he did go to see plays every chance he got. He even got to meet Katharine Cornell backstage when she visited Tulsa with a touring production of Romeo and Juliet.

After graduating from high school Leonard Rosenberg enrolled as a speech and drama major at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He only attended one year before he moving to New York City to study acting at the Neighbourhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. Among his instructors were Sanford Meisner (who also trained such actors as Peter Falk, Grace Kelly, Steve McQueen, and Gregory Peck) and legendary choreographer Martha Graham. It was in 1941 that he made his stage debut in a production of the 13th-century Chinese play A Circle of Chalk in New York City. That same year he appeared in a revival of George Bernard Shaw's Candida in New York City. It was about this time that he took the stage name of "Anthony Randall", which would later be shortened simply to "Tony Randall". In 1942 he was in a rehearsal for a role Thornton Wilder's Skin of Our Teeth when he was drafted into the United States Army.

Tony Randall spent his time in the Army during World War II in the Signal Corps. He had been offered an entertainment assignment with Special Services, but turned it down. Mr. Randall attended Officer Candidate School and achieved the rank of 1st Lieutenant.  While in the Signal Corps he worked on a number of training films. He ended the war delivering classified documents to various government offices.

After the war Tony Randall resumed his acting career. He initially performed at the  Olney Theatre in Montgomery County, Maryland before returning to New York City. In New York Mr. Randall established a highly successful career in radio. With regards to radio, he might be best known for playing Reggie York on the classic radio show I Love a Mystery (later titled I Love an Adventure). Mr. Randall played regular roles on other radio shows as well, including The Henry Morgan Program, Portia Faces Life, Opera Quiz, When a Girl Marries, and Life's True Story. He also appeared on such radio shows as The Adventures of Frank Merriwell and  Best Plays.

Mr. Randall also returned to the stage following the war. In 1946 he was part of the touring company for Katherine Cornell's revival of The Barretts of Wimpole Street. He made his debut on Broadway in a revival of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra in 1947 and also appeared on Broadway in a revival of George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra in 1949. While many actors who achieved success in television and film would desert the stage, Tony Randall continued to appear on stage for much of his career. Mr. Randall was Gig Young's replacement in Oh, Men! Oh, Women! in the early Fifties. His first major role on Broadway came a few years later, when he played E. K. Hornbeck in Inherit the Wind in 1955. In 1958 on Broadway he played the lead in Oh Captain!.  For the role he was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical.

Over the years Tony Randall would appear many more times on Broadway. He was John Lithgow's replacement in M. Butterfly in the Eighties. In the Nineties he appeared in revivals of A Little Hotel on the Side, Three Men on a Horse, The Government Inspector, The School for Scandal, and others. In 1991 he founded the National Actors Theatre. He remained its chairman until his death in 2004. Under Mr. Randall's leadership the National Actors Theatre would prove very successful. Over the years its productions earned an extraordinary number of Tony Award nominations. Among those nominated for the Tony Award were Saint Joan, Timon of Athens, Inherit the Wind, and The Gin Game. Mr. Randall appeared in many of the National Actors Theatre's productions and directed its production of The Master Builder.

Despite his success on the stage, Tony Randall not only sought out roles in other media, but, as everyone knows, had great success in them. He made his television debut even as he was appearing on Broadway and still acting on radio. It was in 1950 that he made his television debut as Mac on the primetime television version of One Man's Family. He played the role until 1952. He followed it in 1952 with one of his best known television roles, that of  Harvey Weskit, history teacher and best friend of Wally Cox's Robinson J. Peepers on Mister Peepers. Mr. Randall's Harvey Weskit was a sharp contrast to Wally Cox's shy Mr. Peeepers. Harvey was a bit of a ladies man, both confident and at times even boastful. Mister Peepers proved to be a hit and was probably responsible for introducing Tony Randall to a national audience. The role also earned Mr. Randall his first Emmy nomination. He was nominated for Best Series Supporting Actor in 1954.

Throughout the Fifties Tony Randall would make guest appearances on several shows, including Kraft TheatrePhilco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, Studio One, The Alcoa Hour, and The United States Steel Hour. As Tony Randall's film career took off in the Fifties, he was largely absent in the small screen in the Sixties. He did appear in episodes of Checkmate, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Milton Berle Show, and The Red Skelton Show. Mr. Randall also appeared in a 1962 television adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace, as well as the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation "The Littlest Angel".

It was in 1970 that Mr. Randall was cast in the role for which he may be best known, that of neat and overly fussy commercial photographer Felix Unger on The Odd Couple (based on Neil Simon's play of the same name). He played opposite Jack Klugman, who played his roommate, total slob Oscar Madison. Surprisingly enough for a show now regarded as a classic, The Odd Couple struggled in the ratings and was nearly cancelled at the end of each season. Regardless, the show was well regarded. For his role as Felix Tony Randall was nominated for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series four times before winning the award in 1975. Jack Klugman also earned Emmy nominations for his role as Oscar, winning twice. While The Odd Couple never did well in the ratings during its network run, it proved to be a hit in syndication where it has remained ever since. Tony Randall and Jack Klugman also became very close friends in real life. Messrs. Klugman and Randall would even later appear in revivals of the play, sometimes switching roles to where Mr. Randall played Oscar and Mr. Klugman played Felix!

Tony Randall appeared frequently on television in the Seventies. In addition to The Odd Couple, he played the lead role of Judge Walter Franklin on the short lived Tony Randall Show. He also guest starred on The Red Skelton Show, Here's Lucy, The Carol Burnett Show, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, and The Muppet Show. He was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He also appeared frequently on game shows from Hollywood Squares to The $20,000 Pyramid.

Tony Randall's last regular, starring role on television was the comedy Love, Sidney. The show was a continuation of the television movie Sidney Shorr: A Girl's Best Friend, in which Tony Randall played the title character, a gay man living with a single mother and her daughter. Both the TV movie and the television show were based on a short story by Marilyn Cantor Baker.  For the television show Sidney's homosexuality was initially downplayed to the point that many viewers may not have been aware that the character had originally been conceived as gay. Much of this may have been due to protests over a positive portrayal of homosexuality from such moral watchdog groups as the Moral Majority and the Coalition for Better Television. While hardly a hit, Love Sidney did well enough in the ratings to warrant a second season. The second season saw the show more fully explore Sidney Shorr's sexuality. Unfortunately ratings for the show fell and it did not see a third season. Love, Sidney remains historic as the first American TV show to feature a lead character who was gay.

Love, Sidney would be Tony Randall's last regular television series. He appeared in the television movies Hitler's S.S.: Portrait in Evil and Save the Dog!. In 1993 he reprised his role as Felix Unger opposite Jack Klugman as Oscar Madison in the television reunion movie The Odd Couple: Together Again. He was also a guest voice on the animated show The Magic School Bus. He continued to appear regularly on the late night talk shows, particularly The Late Show with David Letterman and Late Night with Conan O'Brien.

By the mid-Fifties Tony Randall was an established star of both television and Broadway. It was at that point that he conquered movies as well. In 1957 he made his film debut in the movie adaptation of Oh, Men! Oh, Women!, although he played the role of Cobbler rather than the role of Arthur Turner he had played on Broadway. It was that same year that Mr. Randall appeared in the film that made him a movie star. He played the lead role of Rockwell "Rock" P. Hunter in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?. In the film television advertising writer Rock Hunter must pretend to be the boyfriend of  famed actress Rita Marlowe (played by Jayne Mansfield) before she will agree to endorse Stay-Put's new brand of lipstick. A parody of Hollywood, advertising, and movie fandom, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? could also be considered a precursor to the Sixties sex comedies, a genre with which he would soon become identified.

Indeed, while Mr. Randall's next film would be the drama No Down Payment (1957), his film that followed it could be considered an outright Sixties sex comedy (even if it was released in the Fifties), The Mating Game. In The Mating Game Mr. Randall played the lead role of  Lorenzo Charlton, an IRS agent assigned to investigate the Larkin family only to fall in love with the eldest daughter (played by Debbie Reynolds). While whether The Mating Game is a Sixties sex comedy is perhaps debatable, Mr. Randall's next film is considered by many to be the Sixties sex comedy (even though it was released in 1959). In Pillow Talk Tony Randall played millionaire Jonathan Forbes, an old college buddy of Broadway composer Brad Allen (played by Rock Hudson) and one of the clients of interior decorator Jan Morrow (played by Doris Day). While it was not a lead part, it was a plumb role for Tony Randall. In fact, it would dictate the path of Tony Randall's career for the next few years, as he regularly played supporting roles (or, perhaps more accurately, "tertiary leads") in many Sixties sex comedies over the next few years.

Tony Randall appeared in Doris Day and Rock Hudson's next two films together, Lover Come Back (playing ad agency president Pete Ramsey) and Send Me No Flowers (playing Arnold Nash, the best friend of hypochondriac George Kimball, played by Rock Hudson). Tony Randall appeared in other Sixties sex comedies as well, including Let's Make Love (1960), Boys' Night Out (1962), and Island of Love (1963). Ultimately, Mr. Randall appeared in so many Sixties sex comedies that he is as identified with the genre as Doris Day or Rock Hudson.

Of course, in the Sixties Mr Randall appeared in other sorts of movies than sex comedies. In fact, among his best known films from the era is the comic fantasy The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964). The film is arguably Tony Randall's acting tour de force, as he not only played the title role of Dr. Lao, but also Merlin, Pan, the Serpent, Medusa, Apollonius of Tyana, and the Abominable Snowman. It was also in 1964 that he starred in another comic fantasy, The Brass Bottle, in which he played architect Harold Ventimore, who inadvertently finds himself in possession of a bottle containing a djinn (played by Burl Ives). Tony Randall also played Hercule Poirot in the 1965 adaptation of The Alphabet Murders and "the King of France" in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960). He also starred in the films Fluffy (1965), Our Man in Marrakesh (1966), and Hello Down There (1969).

After the Sixties Tony Randall's film career slowed as he concentrated on television and the stage, although he continued to appear in a few movies over the years. He appeared in a cameo in the comedy Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972) and was part of the ensemble cast of Scavenger Hunt (1979). Mr. Randall played himself in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1982). Fittingly he played an important role in the 2003 homage to Sixties sex comedies Down with Love. His last film was the comedy It's About Time (2005). Perhaps fittingly Tony Randall's character shared his given surname, Mr. Rosenberg.

Few actors had a career like Tony Randall. He moved seamlessly from medium to medium, often working in film at the same time that he was working on stage or on television. And while there can be no doubt that Tony Randall was one of the great character actors of the Fifties and Sixties, he was more than capable of playing the lead, as shown by Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, The Mating Game, The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, and Our Man in Marrakesh. While today people are often inclined to think of Mr. Randall as Felix Unger, he actually played a wide array of very different characters throughout his career. On I Love a Mystery Reggie was an idealistic Englishman who also happened to be remarkably strong. On Mister Peepers Harvey Weskit was a good natured, yet swaggering ladies man. In Pillow Talk Jonathan Forbes was a spoiled little rich boy. In Boys' Night Out George Drayton can't complete a sentence without his wife finishing it for him. While Tony Randall rarely played villains, he was more than capable of doing so. In the Checkmate episode "The Button Down Break" he played an overly ambitious advertising man sent to prison for murder by Checkmate Inc. and now plotting revenge on them. Mr. Randall could not have gotten further away from Harvey Weskit if he had tried.

It must be pointed out that as well as being a talented actor, Tony Randall was also an actor of both courage and conviction. After playing lead roles in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and The Mating Game, some actors might have scoffed at ever playing supporting roles again. Tony Randall didn't, playing second banana to both Rock Hudson and James Garner while continuing to play the lead in other films. Sixteen years before Ellen DeGeneres's character came out on Ellen and seventeen years before Will & Grace, Tony Randall played a gay man in Love, Sidney. In the early Eighties this was an enormous risk for any actor, let alone one who was an established star of film, stage, and television. It must also be pointed out that Tony Randall could have easily continued his career in television beyond the Eighties, but instead he chose to establish The National Actors Theatre. Throughout his life Tony Randall had always been an ardent supporter of the arts.

Tony Randall's career spanned 63 years and there is little wonder that it did. He was a versatile actor who could play a wide array of roles, from swaggering womanisers to henpecked husbands. He was also an actor who could switch between lead roles and supporting roles with little problem. What is more, he was comfortable in several different media. Many actors can be described only as movie stars or TV stars, but Tony Randall mastered several different media. Tony Randall wasn't just a movie star or a TV star. He was a star of movies, television, radio and the stage.


FlickChick said...

Love, love, love this man!!! When Cole Porter wrote "You're the Top" it could have been written about Tony Randall. He made everything 100% better just be being there. A great post about a memorable character.

Irish Jayhawk said...

How can ya not just adore this guy, right? So incredibly versatile and what a hard working actor over those 63 years! I'm a huge fan of those 60's sex comedies too so that's my favorite of his roles. Awesome post, Terry! Thanks again for adding this to our blogathon... :-) Kellee

Caftan Woman said...

I assume there are still talk shows on television, but why watch them when there's no chance of Tony Randall appearing?

Tony Randall, the touring actor, came to Toronto often and we would never miss the chance to enjoy his work live.

With your detailed look at the versatility of his career, I'm convinced that Tony Randall's picture should be next to "actor" in the dictionary.

Steve Bailey said...

Delightful summation of a delightful character actor. Love that opening to "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter," where Randall doubles for the 20th Century-Fox orchestra: "Oh, the fine print they put in an actor's contract these days!" said...

I had no idea he had such a successful and long career on the stage! I always enjoy his performances, and it was a lot of fun to read your post. Thanks for a great post on this wonderful actor! --Cameron from


I always think of Tony as the great character actor in Doris Day / Rock Hudson movies. Nice to know (much) more about him. By the way, The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao was the first film I watched on TCM, and I ddin't remember Tony was the star of it!