Tony Randall can go from mild-mannered sang-froid to animated apoplexy at less than a moment's notice. When the subject of Sidney Shorr comes up, he doesn't sing froid; he gets verrry upset, and his eyes grow into a pair of Colonnas. Sidney Shorr, it seems, has become a highly controversial figure even though he has yet to see the light of air.
"They're attacking us every day," says Randall, "and we haven't even started making the shows, because of the writers' strike. Not one word of a script has been written. Not one syllable!" he says, waving a finger in the air and leaping forward to the very edge of his seat.
It's hardly unusual to find Randall railing against something, since he could lay claim to the title of America's Favorite Fussbudget for his TV series roles, most notably that of Felix Unger in "The Odd Couple." Though not a hit in network first run, "Couple" has shown surprising strength in syndication. In recent Arbitron ratings for Washington, for instance, "Odd Couple" reruns at 11:30 on WTTG tied for first-place in the time period with Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show."
"Odd Couple" was never well written (it was an early Garry "Happy Days" Marshall production), but the part of Felix fit Randall perfectly, and he has come to embody the consumate crab, a lovable nitpicker, a perfect priss, a defender of the good graces is graceless times. On talk shows like Carson's Randall plays a similar role. In the pursuit of his preachy anti-smoking crusade, he once bullied fellow guest and former football hulk Alex Karras into throwing away his cigar.
Tony Randall does not come across as the kind of person who could be squelched into silence by a television network or a Hollywood movie company. No, not him. He will be heard on the subject of Sidney Shorr.
Who is Sidney, what is he, and why is everybody saying such terrible things about him? Originally Sidney was the title character of an NBC movie yet to be televised, about a middle-aged and virtually inactive homosexual who provides shelter and solace for a downtrodden young actress and her illegitimate daughter.
NBC liked the movie, or somebody at NBC liked the movie, and commissioned a series, "Love, Sidney," based on the character. Then one of the larger suburbs of metropolitan hell broke loose. The Rev. Donald Wildmon, founder of the National Federation for Decency and now head of thee Coalition for Better Television, saw Sidney as another wedge being driven by television into the sacred institution of the American family.
Wildmon said it was "utter stupidity" to launch a show about a homosexual even as the networks were allegedly reeling from the coalition's threat (since sheepishly withdrawn) of a sponsor boycott over smutty TV and he warned, in TV Guide, that the network wouldn't be able to "get any sponsors" for the program in the newly sanitized TV climate.
Instead of telling Wildmon to shut up, which would not be polite, NBC has tried to get Randall to shut up. The network wants to play down the volatile elements of the show. "If you hear Tony Randall talk, he will say Sidney is an aging Jewish homosexual," says an NVC spokesman, "but when you hear NBC talk, you will not hear any of those words at all." One NBC press release describes Sidney simply as "an older man."
At a recent critics' coven in Los Angeles, one reporter described Randall as all but ducking into doorways to avoid discussing the show. But prior to that, Randall talked about Sidney after testifying, as chairman of the National Myasthenia Gravis Foundation, at hearings of the House Subcommittee on Health Appropriations.
At the conclusion of his testimony, Randall heard committee chairman Rep. William H. Natcher (D-Ky.) tell him that though there were no immediate rewards for voluntary charitable help like his, "40 or 50 years from now, they'll let you sit in the front row in heaven."
That made Randall smile heartily. But never mind heaven, Tony -- what about Sidney Shorr? Is he homosexual? "Ab -solutely. 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," Randall sputters. "Sidney is a man in his late 50s, as Am I. He lives alone: he lived with his mother all his life. And the poignancy of the situation is that now, at this age, he gets a family, something he could never have had before.
"The movies is the best movie I've ever made. The best. It's so good they don't know what to do with it. There is some talk of releasing it theatrically before the series goes on the air." There is also some talk that NBC will dump the movie completely, in an effort to avoid more controversy.
Critics who saw the movie in Los Angeles thought it touching and hardly indecent.There are only two vague references to the character's homosexuality in the film and, according to NBC, there will be even fewer such references in the TV show -- like none.
Mike Casey, a spokesman for Warner Bros. -- producers of the film and the series -- says from Los Angeles that although in the movie "the character does have a homosexual past that is referred to in two subtle references, there is no plan to bring that element of his character into the series. Audiences who have seen the film may be aware of it, but there are no plans now to make any further reference to his homosexuality."
But a producer of the show later said that they'd incorporate Sidney's homosexuality into the plot if they felt like it.
And so on.
Randall nearly snarls at the thought of the reformers and their attacks. "I guess they know what they're doing," he says. "My guess is they are only helping us with all this publicity. I think of them as cynically insincere, people who are using this to promote themselves. If they want to attack things, why aren't they attacking the Ku Klux Klan?
"And this vicious attack they call 'moral'"!
It's another OUTRAGE!!
Randall, though dressed in a definitely natty blue blazer and polka-dotted tie, has reached the exalted state of high dudgeon, from which he plummets to a hush: "If people knew what this show was about, they wouldn't be attacking me," he says. "It's about compassion. It's about love. It's about the need people have for family. [Shifting into high again.] And they're saying it's anti-family! Ridiculous! It's wicked! Wicked! They're wicked people! They're dangerous!"
The program was born in, of all things, a letter sent to Randall from a friend, whose sister had dreamed up the idea of Sidney and his situation. Randall at first got no interest from the network. But he got behind the idea and into former NBC president Fred Silverman's office.
"He's the guy I talked into doing it to begin with," says Randall with the kind of satisfied smirk he used as Felix Unger on "The Odd Couple."
"I marched into Fred's office and I said, 'Do it! Do it!' And he said, 'Why?' And I told him, 'Because it's good!' And he said, 'Okay! I'll do it!'" When the notion of a series came along, Randall was at first reticent, because the last time he did a series ("The Tony Randall Show," 1976-78), it flopped on not just one network but two (ABC and CBS). And, he says, "I swore, 'Never again. Never.'"
But he got Warner Bros. and the network to agree to three things -- "not money, because that's always about the same anyway" -- which were that the show be filmed in New York, where he lives, that he have a measure of artistic control, and that Warner Bros. put up $150,000 in "seed money" toward a "classical theater" Randall wants to establish in New York. You know, the classics.
Previously Randall had to journey to Halifax, Nova Scotia, "in the dead of winter" for the thrill of playing in Ibsen and Chekov, who are pretty much dead-of-winter playwrights, when you think about it. Randall, who has been a durable and ingratiating television performer since "Mr. Peepers," that fondly remembered sitcom classic of the early 1950s, has had to put his foot down before.
It took a campaign by Randall and costar Jack Klugman, and letters from thousands of viewers, to get Paramount and ABC to drop the canned laugh track from "The Odd Couple" and substitute a living, breathing (and laughing) studio audience. This didn't make the show a hit, until a couple of years after its network run ended and it went into syndication. In cities like Washington "Odd Couple" is bigger in reruns than it was the first time out.
"Oh," says Randall, "much bigger! We were never big. We never had a rating. Klugman always used to say, "When we come back in syndication, then we'll be a hit,' and he was right."
There remains about Randall, even in his excitability phase, something affable and authoritative; it's still fun to watch him push Johnny Carson around during his occasional appearances on "The Tonight Show"; often he browbeats Carson for smoking. "Well, it's a good act," Randall says of this performance, though he says seriously, "I'm a nut on that, on smoking."
Agelessness has long been part of his image. He wears it well. "I am in perfect health," he declares, with the finality of a French king. "I inherited a very healthy constitution. My father was never in a dentist's office -- never STEPPED into a dentist's office -- until he was 70 years old."
Randall swallows another canary and smiles. "And I'm mentally sound, too," he says.His eyes have by this time returned to their sockets.