Thursday, September 24, 2020

The TV Show The Odd Couple Turns 50

"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 some day he would return to her. With nowhere else to go, he appeared at the home of his friend, Oscar Madison. Several years 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?" (the first season opening narration of The Odd Couple)

It was fifty years ago today, on September 24 1970, that The Odd Couple debuted on ABC. The show would ultimately go onto be nominated for several Emmy Awards, wining three. It would also become one of the best remembered sitcoms of the Seventies, and continues to be seen in syndication and on streaming services.

The Odd Couple centred on commercial photographer Felix Unger (played by Tony Randall) and sportswriter Oscar Madison (played by Jack Klugman), who become roommates after Felix's wife kicks him out. In some ways the situation was a precarious one. Felix was almost obsessively neat and clean, while Oscar was a total slob. Felix was cultured, while Oscar was not. Despite this, the two men made the situation work and remained close friends.

The Odd Couple was based on Neil Simon's play of the same name, which premiered on Broadway on March 10 1965 with Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney as Felix. The play would prove to be a success, and won Tony Awards for Best Actor (for Walter Matthau), Best Author  (for Neil Simon), Best Direction of a Play, and Best Scenic Design (for Oliver Smith). The play led to the 1968 film adaptation starring Walter Matthau as Oscar and Jack Lemmon as Felix. Like the play, the movie proved to be a hit. Not only did it received positive reviews from critics, but it was the third highest grossing film at the box office for 1968.

The success of the movie version of The Odd Couple led producer Garry Marshall (who had produced the sitcom Hey, Landlord) and writer Jerry Belson (who had written for such TV shows as Make Room for Daddy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Lucy Show) to bring The Odd Couple to the small screen. Although now Tony Randall and Jack Klugman are identified with the roles of Felix and Oscar more than any other actors, in the beginning various other actors were considered for the parts. Dean Martin (who then starred in his own variety show on NBC every Thursday night) and Art Carney (who had originated the role on Broadway) were considered for the role of Felix. Jack Kruschen, Martin Balsam, Jack Carter, and Mickey Rooney were all considered for the role of Oscar. That having been said, from the beginning Garry Marshall knew he wanted Tony Randall as Felix and Jack Klugman as Oscar. While it might seem unusual looking back, both actors were reluctant to do the show at first. That having been said, there should be little surprise that they would be. Tony Randall had a successful movie career that included Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), the Doris Day and Rock Hudson sex comedies, Boy's Night Out (1962), and many others. Jack Klugman also had a highly successful career. He had appeared in such movies as 12 Angry Men (1967), Days of Wine and Roses (1962), and Goodbye, Columbus (1962), as well as numerous guest appearances. Fortunately, both Tony Randall and Jack Klugman decided to appear in the show.

As bizarre as it might seem now, a major concern of ABC was that viewers would think Felix Unger and Oscar Madison were homosexuals living together. This is the reason for the show's opening narration, which makes it clear that Felix and Oscar are two divorced men. It is also the reason that the name of Felix's ex-wife was changed from Frances to Gloria, the feminine name Frances being pronounced the same as the masculine name Francis. ABC's fear that people would think Felix and Oscar were gay would lead Tony Randall and Jack Klugman to film scenes with homoerotic dialogue and send them to ABC as a prank about once a year.

In addition to Felix and Oscar, The Odd Couple included supporting characters, some of who were played by actors who would go onto even more success. Felix's ex-wife Gloria was played by Janis Hansen, while Oscar's ex-wife was played by Jack Klugman's real life wife Brett Somers. Al Molinaro, who would later play Al on Happy Days, Officer Murray Greshler, one of Felix and Oscar's regular poker buddies. Penny Marshall played Oscar's secretary Myrna Turner. Of course, Penny Marshall went onto success as Laverne on the hit sitcom Laverne & Shriley, as well as career as a director of feature films. Penny Marshall was producer Garry Marshall's sister, although he did not show her any favouritism on The Odd Couple (or Laverne & Shirley, for that matter). Felix and Oscar's poker buddies rounded out the cast, including Garry Walberg as Homer "Speed" Deegan,and Larry Gelman as Vincent "Vinnie" Barella. Eventually Felix and Oscar would have steady girlfriends. Oscar dated Dr. Nancy Cunningham (played by Joan Hotchkis). Felix's steady girlfriend was Miriam Welby (played by Elinor Donahue). Felix and Oscar's regular physician was Dr. Melnitz. A colleague of Oscar's girlfriend Nancy, he tended be a bit of a curmudgeon.

In addition to its regular cast, The Odd Couple frequently featured celebrity guest stars. Both sportscaster Howard Cosell and Roone Arledge of ABC Sports appeared on the show as themselves. Among the other celebrities who played themselves were Richard Dawson, Hugh Hefner, Deacon Jones, married couple Allen Ludden and Betty White, Bubba Smith, and David Steinberg. Other celebrities played various roles in individual episodes of The Odd Couple. Jean Simmons played the princess of the fictional country of Liechtenberg, who dates Oscar. Roy Clark played Willie Boggs, one of Oscar's old friends who loved playing practical jokes. Reta Shaw played a former Army Colonel who serves as Felix and Oscar's housekeeper, when Oscar is sick and Felix is preoccupied with other things. Albert Brooks played a photographer with whom Felix is acquainted. Marilyn Horne played a co-worker of Oscar who turns out to have a talent for Oscar.

The Odd Couple would see a few changes from its first to second season. The first season was shot using a single-camera and used the same set for the apartment as used in the 1968 film. Beginning with the second season, The Odd Couple was shot with multiple cameras in front of a live studio audience. In the show's first season, its on screen title was Neil Simon's The Odd Couple, even though Mr. Simon really did not have anything to do with the show aside from writing the play upon which it based. With the second season its on-screen title was simply The Odd Couple. Neil Simon would later appear in the episode "Two on the Aisle" as himself.

The Odd Couple received its share of critical acclaim upon its debut. It was also nominated for several Emmy Awards throughout its run. In its first season it won the Oscar for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series for Jack Klugman. In its third season Jack Klugman won for The Odd Couple a second time. In its fifth season Tony Randall took home the Emmy for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series.

While The Odd Couple received a good deal of acclaim, it was never a hit in the ratings. During no season did it finish in the top thirty shows for the season. Fortunately, it did well enough in the ratings to be renewed each year. It also developed a very loyal fan base. The show ultimately lasted five seasons. While The Odd Couple had only received middling ratings in its network run, it proved to be a hit in syndication. The show remains in syndication to this day and is available on various streaming services.

Unlike many shows in the mid-Seventies, The Odd Couple would have a series finale. In the final episode Felix, having apparently broken up with his steady girlfriend Miriam, remarried his wife Gloria. 

The popularity of The Odd Couple would lead to further television shows based on the original play. In fact, the first debuted the season after The Odd Couple went off the air. The Oddball Couple was a Saturday morning cartoon centred on an neat freak cat named Spiffy and a slovenly dog named Fleabag who are roommates. The Oddball Couple ran for two seasons on ABC. Another revival of The Odd Couple debuted on ABC in 1982. The New Odd Couple cast African Americans in the lead roles. Ron Glass (who had earlier appeared on Barney Miller and would later appear on Firefly) played Felix while Desmond Wilson (who played Lamont on Sanford and Son) played Oscar. The New Odd Couple did not prove to be a success and only ran one season. Yet another revival of The Odd Couple debuted on CBS in 2015. It starred Matthew Perry (best known as Chandler on Friends) as Oscar and Thomas Lennon as Felix. It ran for three seasons.

Tony Randall and Jack Klugman would reprise the roles of Felix and Oscar in stage revivals of the play The Odd Couple over the years. In 1993 they appeared in the television reunion movie The Odd Couple: Together Again. In the movie Felix's wife Gloria temporarily kicks him out because he keeps interfering in the wedding plans for their daughter. Felix then moves back in with Oscar. TheTV  movie also saw Gary Walberg return as Speed and Penny Marshall (then a highly successful director) return as Myrna.

Although The Odd Couple might not seem as edgy as some of its contemporaries (such as All in the Family), in some ways it was a revolutionary show. Prior to The Odd Couple divorce was rarely even mentioned on American sitcoms. The 1967 sitcom Accidental Family had featured Lois Nettleton as divorcée Sue Kramer, the first divorced, regular character on an American sitcom. Debuting the same season as The Odd Couple, Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show was originally going to be a divorcée, but CBS rejected the idea. In centring on two divorced men, The Odd Couple was then breaking new ground.

While The Odd Couple might not have been as edgy as some of the socially relevant sitcoms of the era (such as All in the Family and Maude), it left a more lasting imprint than most of them. The Odd Couple would have a very successful run in syndication and remains available on streaming services. It also inspired three different revivals. And while many actors have played Felix and Oscar over the years, I have to suspect when most people picture the characters in their heads it is Tony Randall and Jack Klugman that they see. The reason for the show's success is not hard to find. Its leads were two of the greatest actors of all time, and the two men had genuine affection for each other. They remained friends for the rest of their lives. The show also boasted a great supporting cast, including everyone from Penny Marshall to Gary Walberg. It also featured some of the best scripts of any sitcom in the history of American television. The Odd Couple was a genuinely funny show and remains so fifty years later. I have to think people will still be watching it fifty years from now.


Caftan Woman said...

We (my three sisters and I) saw Tony and Jack twice on stage in The Odd Couple when their tour came to Toronto. The first time was prior to Jack's cancer battle, and the second was after. Both times, the familiar jokes had lost none of their power to make us roar with laughter.

Mike Doran said...

Tony Randall won his Emmy for the fifth season; the ceremony happened just at the point when ABC announced The Odd Couple's cancellation.
Randall's acceptance speech was an all-time favorite:
"I sure am glad I won. Now if I only had a job ..."

Evil Woman Blues said...

The divorce angle is perceptive. Married couples going their own separate ways was a taboo topic back then as was homosexuality. While the TV show was a comedy, the movie it was based on was a tragi-comedy. I watched it in 1968 at a drive in theatre with my parents who were happily married but I always lived with a gnawing fear that they would get divorced. It sprang more from media perceptions and the wrecked lives of neighbors who were divorced than anything else. For me, even at a young age and to the present as I have watched the movie at least 10 times, The Odd Couple's underlying theme is that divorce is devastating on men's psyche. Remember, as funny as it was, the shenanigans started when Felix was going to commit suicide, not a happy moment. And who cannot sense Oscar's misery when he is constantly behind in his child support payments as his children live in California and never see him. All I imagined were his kids sitting at home crying while his wife was out dating. The TV show never addressed this aspect of the movie.