Tony Randall, Bright, Zestful And Always Endearing
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2004; Page C01
Tony Randall was the Laurence Olivier of light comic actors. Or, since he was unmistakably American, the Marlon Brando. Certainly Randall had serious aspirations and even founded a repertory company to do "the classics" in New York. But he will be best, most lovingly and longest remembered for his portrayal of Felix Unger, prince of fussbudgets, in the TV version of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple."
Randall won an Emmy for playing Felix, but he received it after the show had been canceled. That led to a memorable acceptance speech: "I'm so happy I won," he said. "Now if I only had a job."
The actor and the role fit each other so perfectly that it was easy to forget that Jack Lemmon had played Felix in a big hit movie adaptation of the play. As Tony became Felix, so Felix crept into Tony, with Randall seeming ever more erudite in his talk-show appearances -- impeccable in his diction, posture and manners. He talked on talk shows from Jack Paar's through David Letterman's, and indeed, his career in television spanned nearly the entire history of the medium.
And so though Broadway lights were dimmed at 8 last night in recognition of Randall's work in and for the theater, perhaps television should be dimmed at the start of prime time in memory of a performer whose appearances were virtually always good news. There'll be no more. Randall died Monday night in New York, of complications from a heart bypass, at the age of 84.
Irrepressibly bouncy and youthful, Randall to the end willingly made himself the butt of jokes on Letterman's CBS "Late Show," sometimes popping up for a quick gag cameo on as little as one hour's notice. When appearing as a full-fledged guest, he always came armed with anecdotes, vocabulary-builders or health tips; for years, as Johnny Carson's guest on "The Tonight Show," he needled Carson about his smoking. For whatever reason, Carson finally quit.
Randall had an infectious agelessness that made him an ideal and energizing guest. Whatever the role through the years, whether as himself or as some other character, he brought zest and zip to the part. Pauline Kael, who found him "talented and inventive," noted that in the Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedy "Lover Come Back" (1961), "Tony Randall uses a lot of vocal tricks and gives the movie some energy."
For a time it appeared Randall would become a comic-romantic leading man in movies of the '50s, his most auspicious starring role having been opposite Jayne Mansfield in the 1957 Madison Avenue satire "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" But his movie career was more quixotic than meteoric, polka-dotted with such oddities as George Pal's "The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao" (1964), in which Randall played all seven. He seemed more interested in performing than piloting a career anyway.
He got to do pretty much as he pleased, and in the process he pleased audiences immensely. Even when playing a ham or a hooligan, as in MGM's wide-screen version of "Huckleberry Finn" (1960), he was nearly impossible to dislike.
His most famous film roles were the second bananas he played not only in "Lover Come Back" but in the Day-Hudson vehicles "Pillow Talk" (1959), the film that launched a genre, and in "Send Me No Flowers" (1964). He competed with Hudson for Day's attentions in "Pillow Talk" and, of course, lost. More often he was an ally of the leading man, as in George Cukor's "Let's Make Love" (1960), starring Yves Montand and, most noticeably, Marilyn Monroe.
American TV viewers first took notice of Randall when he played high school teacher Harvey Weskit, the pompous rival of meek Wally Cox in the immensely charming live sitcom "Mr. Peepers," a critical and popular success from 1952 to '55. "Mr. Peepers" was one of the gentlest shows ever to capture a large audience on TV, and Randall managed even to be obnoxious in a basically gentle way.
At some point in the '50s, Randall filmed a sample episode of an erstwhile ABC sitcom called "Three of a Kind" in which he was to play three identical brothers, according to Lee Goldberg's definitive "Unsold Television Pilots." But there would be plenty of work for Randall in television during the years ahead. He always seemed at home on the intimate medium, knowing just how far over the top he could go and still be welcomed by a vast audience he could not see.
Felix Unger was Randall's most familiar role, but in its day, Sidney Shorr was his most controversial. Shorr was a lonely, middle-aged homosexual in the TV movie "Love, Sidney," but when NBC announced plans to turn the movie into a series, the character's sexual identity virtually vanished. Now he was just a nice fellow who let a starving actress and her daughter share his New York apartment.
Conservative and fundamentalist groups denounced "Love, Sidney" in advance when it was announced for NBC's fall schedule in 1981. In Washington that July to testify before the House Subcommittee on Health Appropriations (he was then chairman of the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation of America), Randall railed against those assailing the show. "They're attacking us every day," he said, "and we haven't even started making the shows. . . . Not one word of one script has been written. Not one syllable!"
Randall was adamant, though, that Sidney Shorr was indeed gay. "Absolutely!" he said. "He's also Jewish, but nothing's made of that -- although I suspect that may be a factor in some of these attacks. It's all ridiculous. It's ridiculous!" He called the attackers "wicked" and "dangerous." This was long before Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian on ABC's "Ellen" and, of course, long before the current furor over same-sex marriage licenses.
"Love, Sidney" may have profited from the controversy, but not by much. It lasted less than two seasons on the network, which shrank with fear from Randall's assertion that Sidney was gay even if it was never talked about on the show itself.
In real life, Randall was twice married, the second time to a woman 50 years younger. With her, Randall fathered his first child at the age of 77, an accomplishment that seemed entirely in keeping with the image of healthful living he loved to project. "My father . . . never stepped into a dentist's office until he was 70 years old," Randall boasted.
Even though he didn't especially like being known as Felix Unger, "The Odd Couple" did so well in syndication (better than in its network first run) that the character would haunt him forever. Indeed, Felix has even outlived him. Sometimes an actor, sometimes an impresario, sometimes an opera buff and often a talk-show guest, Randall also fits into that peculiar category called, for lack of anything more descriptive, "television personality." He was hardly ever off television for very long, and in all his incarnations on TV he overflowed with personality.
At the end of Randall's testimony to the House subcommittee, its chairman, Rep. William H. Natcher (D-Ky.), said it was too bad there were no immediate palpable rewards for generous charitable work such as his. But, Natcher told Randall, "Forty or 50 years from now, they'll let you sit in the front row in heaven." Actually, it would be only 23 years, but the rest of Natcher's prediction was probably correct.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
The roles of a lifetime: In 1981 Tony Randall was Sidney Shorr in the TV series "Love, Sidney."
(AP Newsfeatures Photo)