Actor Tony Randall Dies; Fussy Half of 'Odd Couple'
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2004; Page B05
Tony Randall, 84, the wispy-looking, rubber-faced comedian who scored his greatest fame as the fussbudget Felix Unger on the television sitcom "The Odd Couple," died May 17 at a hospital in New York. He had pneumonia, a complication from heart bypass surgery in December.
Mr. Randall, who had a long career in radio, television, stage and film and was a major promoter of opera, said he wanted to be known for more than playing Felix Unger. His press representatives warned reporters against humming the familiar "Odd Couple" theme in his presence.
Eager to talk about his other interests, he went on talk shows and made 70 appearances on David Letterman's "Late Show." He accepted Letterman's invitations with only an hour's notice and once allowed himself to be covered in mud -- a far cry from his image as the super-fussy Felix. He spoke enthusiastically about his other Letterman exploits, once asking, "Did you see the one where I came out in a baggy Batman suit?"
Mr. Randall achieved significant popularity in the early 1950s on the situation comedy "Mr. Peepers." He played the overbearing history teacher Harvey Weskit -- foreshadowing Felix Unger -- and parlayed his fame into movie roles.
In "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" (1957), he was the unlikely co-star of busty bombshell Jayne Mansfield. That was followed by roles as the fussy foil to Rock Hudson and Doris Day in romantic comedies such as "Pillow Talk" (1959), "Lover Come Back" (1961) and "Send Me No Flowers" (1964).
Showing his range, he was an alcoholic car salesman in Martin Ritt's drama "No Down Payment" (1957); played the seven title roles in "7 Faces of Dr. Lao" (1964), about a cunning Chinese medicine show impresario; and portrayed Agatha Christie's Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in "The Alphabet Murders" (1965). He also was the determined brain who directs the body's sex organs in Woody Allen's "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask" (1972).
He had long been a fixture on Broadway. Among his notable roles was the cynical reporter based on H.L. Mencken in the hit drama "Inherit the Wind" (1955), about the Scopes "monkey trial." The fidgety actor said that part was one of his toughest because "I had to be onstage for 15 minutes without any lines."
He had studied voice for years and lent his baritone to the lead role in the Jay Livingston-Ray Evans musical "Oh, Captain!" (1958). The show, which ran 192 performances, was based on the Alec Guinness film "The Captain's Paradise," about a ferry captain with a wife in every port.
Mr. Randall was primarily a television star. Perhaps no role suited him better than that of Felix Unger, the compulsively tidy photographer who rooms with his best friend and fellow divorcee, the unkempt sportswriter Oscar Madison.
Neil Simon had a long-running Broadway hit in "The Odd Couple," with Art Carney and Walter Matthau, and Jack Lemmon and Matthau were in the 1968 film version. But Mr. Randall and Jack Klugman became most identified with the roles, largely through syndication.
The Randall-Klugman program ran from 1970 to 1975, and in its last year, Mr. Randall won an Emmy Award for outstanding lead actor in a comedy series. The show was canceled at the same time, leading him to quip: "I'm so happy I won. Now if I only had a job."
Off-camera, he was a dapper, cultured presenter and master of ceremonies. He hosted "Texaco's Opera Quiz" broadcasts and was the intermission commentator on "Live From Lincoln Center."
Mr. Randall was born Leonard Rosenberg in Tulsa, where his father was an art dealer. He was drawn to acting after a ballet troupe swooped into town for a dazzling performance. He soon was getting laughs for his talents at mimicry, but one of his teachers was unimpressed. More than one note went home saying, "Please stop him from making faces."
He attended Northwestern University for a year before going to New York to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. He studied under drama instructor Sanford Meisner and choreographer Martha Graham in the late 1930s.
As Anthony Randall, he worked on radio soap operas and acted onstage opposite theater stars Jane Cowl in George Bernard Shaw's "Candida" and Ethel Barrymore in Emlyn Williams's "The Corn Is Green."
Returning from Army Signal Corps service during World War II, he briefly worked at the Olney Theatre in Montgomery County before heading back to New York.
He had small parts in two shows starring Katharine Cornell. One of them was Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" as Scarus, a soldier of Antony. A young Charlton Heston, Eli Wallach and Maureen Stapleton also were in the cast.
From 1952 to 1955, he had a large supporting role on the NBC sitcom "Mr. Peepers," which starred Wally Cox as a Midwestern science teacher. Mr. Randall played Cox's brash, overconfident pal and received an Emmy nomination.
That led to other television work, including several dramas and stints as a fill-in host for Steve Allen and Arthur Godfrey on their programs.
After "The Odd Couple," he played a stuffy Philadelphia judge on the sitcom "The Tony Randall Show," which aired on ABC and then CBS from 1976 to 1978. In "Love, Sidney," on NBC from 1981 to 1983, he was a single, middle-aged commercial artist, and it was implied but never specified that he was gay.
When the show aroused controversy from conservatives, he fumed. "If they want to attack things," he said, "why aren't they attacking the Ku Klux Klan?"
Mr. Randall frequently toured with road companies and was outspoken about cuts in arts funding during the Reagan administration. In 1991, he founded the National Actors Theatre in New York with $1 million of his own money. Focusing largely on revivals of classics, the company received mixed reviews as it produced "The Crucible," "Night Must Fall," "The Gin Game," "The Seagull" and other works. But Mr. Randall's name and passion attracted boldfaced talent, including Martin Sheen, Charles Durning, Julie Harris, George C. Scott and Matthew Broderick.
In 1992, his wife of 54 years, the former Florence Gibbs, died of cancer. In 1995, he married Heather Harlan, who worked for the National Actors Theatre and was five decades his junior.
After the marriage ceremony, Mr. Randall told the media: "It was so simple and so touching. He spoke of two people becoming one. I'm afraid I'm a sucker for that sort of thing."
The new bride declared her love and then added: "I wanted to be married. I'm an old-fashioned girl. I'm so old-fashioned I married a man three times my age."
At age 77, he fathered his first child. Survivors include his wife and their two children.
Mr. Randall spent recent years as a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, saying he was well-qualified because he had attended so many funerals. Politically outspoken against Republicans, he joked that although he hoped his funeral would be attended by far-flung dignitaries, his friends should bar President Bush and Vice President Cheney, "because everyone knew how much I hated them."
In his autobiography, "Which Reminds Me," he suggested his own epitaph: "I'm not going to take this lying down."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company