Tony Randall: Furlongs Further Than Felix

Two anecdotes about the late Tony Randall (1920-2004), one of which illustrates how much he was loved by all, one how much he was loved by me.

I was in his elf-like presence exactly twice. The first was at a rally for Democratic Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988. That’s some demoralizing shit right there. It was the same event where I saw Tina Louise, which I mentioned here. Dustin Hoffman was there, I forget who else. Anyway, as I recall it was kind of an ill-attended event (which is probably how I managed to secure an invitation). And the man of the hour was very late. So everyone’s in this hotel ballroom getting plowed waiting for this lackluster candidate to show up. But TONY RANDALL is there. And you wouldn’t believe the love for him the crowd displayed when he took the stage, just a huge heartfelt affectionate cheer for him, simply for existing. He rewarded us by helping us kill the time ’til Dukakis arrived by leading us in endless verses of a song with a familiar tune whose only lyrics were “George Washington Bridge”. But really, I think it wouldn’t be a bad goal for all of to aspire to be that loved. Though we ain’t gonna make it.

16 years later I got to meet him in a work situation. It’s one of the great regrets of my life that I didn’t tell him how much his performances meant to me. I’d grown up on The Odd Couple, I did impressions of him as Felix Ungar, I could probably have recited to him every line he uttered on the show. In his voice. Making his faces. But it wasn’t opportune; he was a busy man, he was sick at the time (he died just a few weeks afterward) and my job was to greet him and escort him from Point A to Point B. Still…I got to shake Tony Randall’s hand. Which is more appropriate: to not have washed my hand for a week out of veneration, or to have washed it immediately with anti-bacterial hand sanitizer out of tribute?

Was Tony Randall the WASPiest Jew who ever lived? That honor may fall to Jonathan Harris. But at any rate, if you didn’t know it already his name was actually Aryeh Leonard Rosenberg, and he was the son of a Tulsa art and antiques dealer. There seemed to be more of Tulsa about him than the synagogue, but there was more of the art gallery about him than either. After briefly studying speech and drama at Northwestern (where met met his first wife Florence Gibbs), he moved to New York as quickly as he could. There he attended classes at Neighborhood Playhouse with eminent teachers like Sanford Meisner and Martha Graham. He took instruction in ballet and opera as well as acting over the years, all of which informed his interpretation of Felix in The Odd Couple (the character in Neil Simon’s original play has nothing in particular to do with culture).

Randall’s terrific voice, diction, and physicality made huge impressions and pretty much immediately he went to work with eminences like Jane Cowl and Ethel Barrymore in regional theatrical productions.

“I Love a Mystery”, NBC, 1939

Randall’s voice also got him work on radio, first as an announcer at a local station in Worcester, then as a regular on the Carlton E. Morse show I Love a Mystery (1939-41). This all went on to influence the 1974 Odd Couple episode “The Big Broadcast”!

Randall served four years in the signal corps during World War II (not unlike the 1973 Odd Couple episode “That is the Army, Mrs. Madison”), then acted with Katharine Cornell’s company, first in a touring production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1946), then her Broadway production of Antony and Cleopatra (1947-48). Then he was in Cedric Hardwicke’s production of Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (1949-50).

In 1950, Carlton Morse hired him again for the tv version of his soap One Man’s Family. Then came his first sitcom Mister Peepers (1955-57) with Wally Cox. At the very same time he was making a splash as Hornbeck in the original Broadway production of Inherit the Wind (1955-57).

These put him on the fast track to movie stardom. When I was a kid in the ’70s, at a time when he starred in several tv sitcoms in rapid succession, it was impossible for me to regard him as a movie star, though I did catch him in the occasional old flick now and again. But older people primarily thought of him that way. For a dozen years he was associated with a series of light comedies almost always with blonde costars like Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds, Shirley JonesJanet Leigh, Kim Novak, Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield, often playing second fiddle to a more “virile” leading man like Rock Hudson or James Garner. These included Oh, Men! Oh, Women (1957), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), The Mating Game (1959), Pillow Talk (1959), Let’s Make Love (1960), Lover Come Back (1961), Boys’ Night Out (1962), Island of Love (1963), Send Me No Flowers (1964), The Brass Bottle (1964), Fluffy (1965), and Hello Down There (1969). By this time (in the wake of, for example, The Graduate), the kind of mild sex comedies Randall was associated with were considered passe at the box office.

Tony Randall headshot

Randall had been perfect for those comedies because he seemed sexually unthreatening and so it helped sell content that was racy for its time. He was a nice young man, perhaps a little whiny. Many people thought he was gay, an impression he was happy to play off of in a handful of roles, but one he more generally felt the need to refute. Other than these “best friend” roles though Randall was a bit tough to cast.

Tony Randall as a Satyr, or Pan, or something in “The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao”. It’s best if I don’t show him as Dr. Lao.

But he did have another thread running through his career. At times he seemed to fancy himself a chameleon in the Alex Guinness/ Peter Sellers mold. Ham parts with dialects and heavy make-up. And frankly when he attempted these parts he merely came off as weird. He didn’t quite achieve the effect, and his Tony Randallity seeps through the skein of character like a vivid mural emerging from under whitewash. These movies include The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960), The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1960), and Agatha Christie’s The Alphabet Murders (1965), in which he played Hercule Poirot. In the TV movie Hitler’s SS: Portrait in Evil (1985) he plays a gay, Jewish clown (“Laugh, Clown, Laugh!” That’s another one for you Odd Couple fans). In Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit (1989), he played an English clergyman and then goes in drag as the maid who turns down the bed. It’s good fun, hilarious, in fact, but not what you might describe as “good” or “convincing”, though Randall in such parts is a hoot nonetheless.

He was best at playing some version of himself, as in his three sitcoms The Odd Couple (1970-75), The Tony Randall Show (1976-78), and Love, Sidney (1981-83). And he was much in demand AS himself. He was on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson over 100 times, on David Letterman’s late night shows over 70 times. He played himself on fictional Jerry Langdon’s talk show in Martin Scorese’s The King of Comedy (1982).

In 1989 he returned to Broadway as a replacement in M.Butterfly (1989) and the experience seems to have convinced him to return to his roots in the theatre. At this stage (1991) he took the biggest risk of his career by founding The National Actor’s Theatre, which occupied much of his remaining years. For the first decade or so, the company was based in the Broadway district at the Lyceum and Belasco Theatres. For its last few productions its shows were done downtown at Pace University. In 1995, three years after the death of his first wife, Randall raised a million eyebrows by marrying one his interns, Heather Harlan, 50 years his junior — and fathering two children by her! You old dawg you!

His last real role was in the 2003 film Down with Love, with Renee Zellwegger, Ewan MacGregor, David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson. He also has a cameo in a 2005 film called About Time, which was released posthumously. His character in that one was named “Mr. Rosenberg”, in homage to his given name.