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Randall, Tony

Randall, Tony

(b. 26 February 1920 in Tulsa, Oklahoma; d. 17 May 2004 in New York City), actor who played a wide variety of roles in films, theater, radio, and television; he is best remembered as the endearing fussbudget Felix Ungar in the long-running television comedy series The Odd Couple.

Born Arthur Leonard Rosenberg, the son of Mogscha Rosenberg, an art and antiques dealer, and Julia (Finston) Rosenberg, Randall grew up with one sister and graduated from Tulsa Central High School. He then enrolled in Northwestern University, where he studied speech and drama for one year. Coming to New York City to pursue his career as an actor, he studied at Columbia University and worked at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre with the renowned teacher-actor Sanford Meisner After taking many roles in radio soap operas, he made his Broadway debut in 1941 in a production of A Circle of Chalk, then appeared with Ethel Barrymore in The Corn Is Green and with Jane Cowl in Candida in the key role of Marchbanks. In 1938 Randall married his childhood sweetheart, Florence Gibbs; their marriage lasted until her death in 1992.

Randall was then called into the army, where he rose to the rank of first lieutenant during his stint in the Army Signal Corps (1941–1946). After his discharge Randall worked in radio, summer stock, and the Broadway theater, appearing with Katherine Cornell in productions of Antony and Cleopatra and The Barretts of Wimpole Street. He also won critical praise for his performance as Arthur Tanner in Edward Chodorov’s stage comedy Oh, Men! Oh, Women! (1954). After playing the role of Mac on One Man’s Family from 1950 to 1952, he took the role of Harvey Weskit, the brash best friend of the teacher Robinson Peepers (Wally Cox) in the situation comedy Mr. Peepers (1952–1955). Yet it was his stage performance as E. K. Hornbeck, the cynical reporter in Lawrence and Lee’s Inherit the Wind (1955), a powerful courtroom drama based on the famous 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial, that drew Hollywood’s interest. He made his film debut in the adaptation of Oh, Men! Oh, Women! (1957), taking on a different role from the one he had played on stage.

Thereafter Randall became a busy and reliable film actor in leading or large supporting roles. He earned laughs in the title role of a harried advertising executive in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), but he won the most critical and public attention as Rock Hudson’s bumbling confidant or colleague in Pillow Talk (1960), Lover Come Back to Me (1961), and Send Me No Flowers (1964), a trio of romantic comedies that teamed Hudson with Doris Day. He occasionally took on a dramatic role, as in No Down Payment (1957), in which he played an alcoholic car salesman in suburbia. His other film credits during this period included The Mating Game (1959, opposite Debbie Reynolds), Let’s Make Love (1960, opposite Marilyn Monroe), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960, as the King), Boys Night Out (1962), and The Alphabet Murders (1965, as Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot). He played his most unusual role—actually seven roles—in The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), a little-seen fantasy concerning a frontier western town transformed by a traveling Chinese carnival headed by the mysterious Dr. Lao.

In 1970 Randall made the career move that earned him a permanent place in the annals of television comedy. He was given the plum role of Felix Ungar, the obsessively fastidious, often exasperating, yet likable baby photographer whose recent divorce has sent him into an emotional tailspin. With nowhere to go he has come to live with his friend Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman), a hugely untidy, free-wheeling sports writer, also divorced. Neil Simon’s original 1965 stage play, with Walter Matthau and Art Carney, had scored a great success, and the 1968 film version, with Matthau and Jack Lemmon, had also done well. Given a basic situation ripe for comic treatment (neat freak versus slob), the television version delighted viewers for five seasons (1970–1975) and continued in reruns. Over the years Randall and Klugman were reunited on stage in the United States and London for performances of The Odd Couple, many of them benefits, and in 1993 they appeared in a television special, The Odd Couple: Together Again.

As Felix, Randall succeeded in combining aspects of his real life—his love of opera, his erudition, his liberal beliefs—with his character’s comical eccentricities, including his honking noises, his compulsive neatness and fuss-iness, and his emotional highs and lows. In 1975, after the cancellation of the series, he finally won an Emmy Award for his performance. (His comment: “I’m so happy I won. Now if I only had a job.”) He continued his television work with two less successful situation comedies: The Tony Randall Show (1976–1978), starring Randall as Judge Walter Franklin, alternating between his courtroom cases and his family, and Love, Sidney (1981–1983), in which he played middle-aged commercial artist Sidney Shore, who befriends a single mother and her young daughter. The character’s homosexuality, evident in the pilot, was carefully neutered for the series. Over the years Randall also became a familiar and welcome guest on television’s talk show and game show circuit, turning up frequently on Late Night with David Letterman, The Tonight Show, What’s My Line?, and many others. He also appeared in a number of made-for-television movies and as a guest or a host on television variety shows.

When his busy schedule in films and television permitted, Randall returned to the theater. In 1958 he starred on Broadway in Oh, Captain!, a musical adaptation of The Captain’s Paradise, the 1953 British comedy, playing a ferry captain with two wives in separate ports of call. In later years he took the leading role in David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly (1989) as an American diplomat who falls in love with a beautiful Japanese woman who turns out to be a male spy. He also played Ebenezer Scrooge in a lavish 1996 production of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol at the Paramount Theater in New York City. Occasionally he took roles in local theatrical companies across the United States.

In his public life Randall was an ardent champion of many causes over the years. For two decades he served as national chairman of the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation, and at every opportunity he voiced his opposition to smoking, especially in public places. He was vigorously opposed to apartheid and helped to raise money for AIDS research. His cultural interests were also varied and many; his devotion to opera made him an ideal choice to serve as a regular host of “Texaco Opera Quiz” broadcasts on radio and as an intermission commentator for the television series Live from the Metropolitan Opera from 1977 to 1980.

In 1991 Randall finally realized the dream he had been harboring for many years when he helped launch the National Actors Theatre, a not-for-profit, subscription-based company dedicated to making classical plays accessible to everyone. In its six seasons, with Randall as the artistic director and occasional performer, the National Actors Theatre offered new productions of such plays as The Crucible, Night Must Fall, Inherit the Wind, and The Gin Game. Occasionally Randall would assume a leading role in one of the company’s productions—he played Sir Peter Teazle in School for Scandal and appeared opposite Klugman in a revival of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys.

Another dream came true for Randall after his marriage to Heather Harlan on 17 November 1995, when he became the father of Julia Laurette in 1997 and Jefferson Salvini in 1998. He developed pneumonia after undergoing bypass surgery in December 2003 and died in May 2004. At the time of his final illness he was starring in Right You Are, a revival of Luigi Pirandello’s play by the National Actors Theatre.

Offstage and away from the cameras Randall was a witty, erudite, and sharply opinionated man whose reverence for the arts and concern for society shone brightly in his private life. As for his acting legacy, fans will always cherish the image of Randall’s portrayal of the fastidious Felix, fretting about Oscar and his slovenly ways.

Biographical information is in Tony Randall with Michael Mindlin, Which Reminds Me (1989), a collection of stories, tales, and anecdotes about his life in show business and about the many friends and colleagues who shared this life over the years. Discussion of Randall’s relationship with his costar on The Odd Couple is in Jack Klugman, Tony and Me: A Story of Friendship (2005). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 19 May 2004).

Ted Sennett

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