Friday, September 24, 2010

 

“Oscar, Oscar, Oscar…”


By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.

On November 13, Felix Unger was asked to remove himself from his place of residence…that request came from his wife. Deep down, he knew she was right, but he also knew that some day he would return to her. With nowhere else to go, he appeared at the home of his friend, Oscar Madison. Several years earlier, Madison's wife had thrown him out, requesting that he never return. Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?

Forty years ago on this date, that question was first posed to television viewers on a Thursday evening at 9:30 p.m. Eastern. And decades later, the answer remains the same…no!


Actually, the now-famous opening narration wouldn’t turn up until midway through The Odd Couple’s first season…and the only reason why it was added is because the suits at ABC were nervous that viewers would think Oscar (Jack Klugman) and Felix (Tony Randall)…were homosexuals. So the history behind their sharing common quarters was added by producers Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson—because the only other alternative, as Marshall noted in commentary for the first season’s DVD release, would have been to add lyrics to Neal Hefti’s memorable theme music explaining the show’s premise, a la The Beverly Hillbillies. (There are actual lyrics to the theme, by the way — written by veteran tunesmith Sammy Cahn.)

ABC probably had a right to be concerned — Couple star Randall used to tell an anecdote about an encounter he had with a cab driver who drove him and his wife home from the airport…and the cabbie wanted to know who the woman was with Randall. When the actor explained to the man that the lady was Mrs. Randall, the hack was incredulous. “I always thought that…you and Oscar were…you know…”

Though sources differ as to just exactly how The Odd Couple first came into shape (one source suggests the inspiration came from Neil Simon’s one-time writing colleague, Mel Brooks), the consensus is that veteran scribe Simon came up with the idea for the two mismatched roommates after hearing stories about the living arrangements between his brother Danny and a theatrical agent named Roy Gerber — both of whom had recently been divorced. It was Danny who took first crack at the potential play, but then handed it off to Neil, who would see his creation premiere on Broadway on March 10, 1965 under the direction of Mike Nichols…and with Art Carney and Walter Matthau in the now-iconic roles of news writer Felix Ungar (later changed to Unger for the TV series — with Felix’s occupation also changed as well) and sportswriter Oscar Madison, respectively. Couple was a bona fide smash, running for 964 performances (plus two previews) and copping a Tony nomination for best play.

A year after Couple’s Broadway swan song, Paramount Pictures released a feature film adapted from the play in which Matthau reprised his stage role as Oscar but was partnered up with his The Fortune Cookie co-star Jack Lemmon as Felix (Carney turned the movie role down). (John Fiedler [Vinnie], Monica Evans [Cecily Pigeon] and Carole Shelley [Gwendolyn Pigeon] also transitioned to the film version.) The Couple film was a critical and financial hit, earning creator Simon an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay. Paramount then decided that Couple would be ideal for the small screen, and commissioned veteran Dick Van Dyke Show writers Marshall and Belson to develop and produce the sitcom for a fall 1970 premiere. Dean Martin and stage vet Carney were both considered for the role of Felix but the producers were able to land Randall for the part despite his reservations about getting back into television (his previous experience had been on the vintage TV classic Mister Peepers). It was thought that either Martin Balsam or Mickey Rooney would play Oscar (Randall was in favor of Rooney) but after Marshall saw Klugman in a performance of Gypsy he had to have him…and in fact, had to lobby the network heavily to get Jack because the actor was known more for dramatic roles than comedy.

Marshall and Belson kept most of the elements from the stage play intact in the show’s first season — even hiring Evans and Shelley to once again reprise their roles as the Pigeon sisters, and scripting episodes around the subject of Oscar’s now-famous weekly poker games with fellow players Speed (Garry Walberg), Roy (Ryan McDonald), Vinnie (Larry Gelman) and Murray (Al Molinaro). But the two men also made a few changes here and there — on TV, Felix was now a photographer (“Portraits a specialty!”) and his ex-wife (Janis Hansen, who became a semi-regular in season two) was Gloria where it had been “Frances” in the play and film. (Oscar’s son “Brucey” from the play/film vanished from the boob tube adaptation as well.) When Couple first premiered on the small screen, the opening title read Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple — but Simon blanched at this: he wasn’t associated with the show, and was reticent about having his name on a property without being able to vouch for the quality of the scripts. (Later, Simon became a more enthusiastic fan, even agreeing to appear in a cameo in one episode) So the show became just The Odd Couple (again by mid-season)…although Simon still continued to receive credit for the creation with a “Based on the play by” acknowledgment in the opening titles.

In its first season, Couple was a huge critical hit…but its ratings were painfully anemic. ABC moved the series to Friday nights in January of 1971, which helped some, enabling the show to become part of the network’s popular lineup that also included The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Room 222 and Love, American Style. Truth be told, The Odd Couple was never much of a ratings contender — it never ranked among the Top 25 shows for any season, and it ping-ponged around various time slots during its five-year run — in fact, the network would cancel the show after every season…only to give it a last-minute reprieve by fall on the basis of its strong showing in summer reruns. Also giving the show an assist in its attempts to stay on the air were the Emmys won by its stars during its run — Klugman copped the Best Actor in a Comedy Series trophy in 1971 and 1973, and Randall in the show’s final year, 1975 (in which he joked he no longer had a job).

But the biggest boon to Couple was the decision to switch from a one-camera format to three cameras at the start of the second season. Tony Randall went on any show that would have him as a guest during the series’ freshman year to complain how much he despised Couple’s use of a laugh track…and beseeching fans of the show to write to ABC to voice their opinion as well. Producers Marshall and Belson finally agreed with the show’s stars to film in front of a live audience after both Randall and Klugman touted their extensive theater experience, and the show improved tenfold as a result. The support of a live audience sharpened the two actors’ performances, and also provided them with the opportunities to both wildly improvise and ad-lib.

By its sophomore season, writer-producer Marshall (Belson had sort of taken a back seat by that time, though still employed as an “executive consultant”) began experimenting with adding new characters — a steady girlfriend for Oscar in the form of Dr. Nancy Cunningham (Joan Hotchkis), though she had first appeared in Season One, and semi-regular appearances from Felix and Oscar’s ex-wives, Gloria and Blanche. (Blanche was played by Jack Klugman’s real-life wife, Brett Somers — the couple would later separate but unlike their TV counterparts, never divorced.) There were occasional visits from Felix’s son Leonard (played by both future teen heartthrobs Willie Aames and Leif Garrett) and daughter Edna (played at times by Pamelyn Ferdin and Doney Oatman)…and although Felix was making a valiant effort to reconcile with Gloria, he also found time to date Dr. Miriam Welby, played by Elinor Donahue and introduced at the start of season three. (The “Welby” was a wink to Donahue’s former Father Knows Best pop, Robert Young, then starring on the network's Marcus Welby, M.D..) Viewers were also introduced to Oscar’s secretary, Myrna Turner…played fortuitously by the producer’s sister Penny in another example of how there’s no place like Hollywood for rank nepotism. (Marshall left Couple at the end of Season Four after landing a plum assignment on a failed sitcom, Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers. Her Myrna character got married to a boyfriend named Sheldon in the fifth-season opener…played by Marshall’s real-life spouse at the time, Rob Reiner.)

The Odd Couple became a classic sitcom due mainly to its bare-bones simple premise of contrast — the constant cultural clash between fastidious neat freak (you could make an argument that the character was one of TV’s first afflicted with OCD) Felix and irresponsible slob Oscar. The two characters had the same chemistry as other memorable comedy teams from the past, like Laurel & Hardy, Lucy & Ethel and Ralph Kramden & Ed Norton. Sure, they got on each other’s nerves and quarreled constantly — but deep down, there was no denying the genuine friendship and affection Felix and Oscar had for one another. Part of it was acting, of course — and part of it was a mutual respect that actors Randall and Klugman shared…when Jack won his first acting Emmy for the show, he acknowledged Randall’s contribution by wryly observing that “the neat half is yours.” (Klugman later lamented the fact that he never fully expressed how much Randall’s friendship meant to him in a 2005 book entitled Tony and Me.)

Both Randall and Klugman transcended the simplicity of their roles by adding facets of their real-life personalities to the characters as well. Randall’s famous prickliness also included a love of ballet and opera, and Couple occasionally constructed episodes around these two passions, spotlighting guest stars like Richard Fredericks, Marilyn Horne and Edward Villella. Klugman — a self-confessed sports nut and compulsive gambler — also got his pick of guests from the sports world, notably personalities such as Howard Cosell (who was introduced as Oscar’s nemesis), Deacon Jones, Bobby Riggs and Bubba Smith. Many of the classic moments on Couple involved big-name guest celebrities—like the time Felix and Oscar partnered for TV’s Password, a classic episode that featured host Allen Ludden and his real-life spouse Betty White. The two men also appeared on Let’s Make a Deal on another occasion, trying to win Felix a new bed from host Monty Hall (Oscar’s old college chum). Other eclectic notables to guest on Couple included Dick Clark, Wolfman Jack, Hugh Hefner, Jaye P. Morgan, Dick Cavett, Paul Williams and Richard Dawson.

After five years on ABC, the network decided to give Unger and Madison their walking papers — which is why The Odd Couple was one of the rare series able to tie up “loose ends” with a justly famous finale that found Felix and Gloria reconciling and Oscar without a roommate for the first time in a half a decade. Though they would occasionally revisit their roles in television commercials (notably for Yoplait and Eagle Snacks) and on stage, Randall and Klugman wouldn’t officially reunite as Felix and Oscar on television until 1993 for The Odd Couple: Together Again — a project that has almost as many supporters among Couple fans as detractors. After the series’ cancellation, the format was adopted for other boob tube vehicles: there was a cartoon version entitled The Oddball Couple (1975-77; with the voices of Frank Nelson and Paul Winchell) and a “black” version known as The New Odd Couple (1982-83), with Ron Glass and Demond Wilson in the Felix and Oscar roles. Neil Simon found Couple durable enough to try a stage version in 1985 with a gender switch — The Female Odd Couple, starring “Florence” Ungar and “Olive” Madison. Simon even concocted a 1998 sequel to the 1968 film adaptation, a critical and financial flop despite the presence of original stars Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.

As a television-obsessed child growing up in the '70s, I was fortunate to be able to see The Odd Couple both during its original network run and its subsequent re-popularity via syndication. While the show has been made available on DVD (disappointingly — but that’s a post for another day) it’s a shame that no cable network exists to provide a home for its timeless comedy. But the wonderful thing is in that revisiting some of the episodes for this essay, I found myself laughing longer and harder than I have in quite some time — and on this 40th anniversary of a true television classic, I just want to thank all the people responsible for providing me and millions of other devoted fans a lifetime of laughter.

_______________________________________________________________

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. blogs at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear…and his favorite dessert, like Oscar Madison’s, is Boston cream pie.



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Comments:
Great piece, Ivan, on one of my all-time favorite shows!

Two favorites spring to mind, one you mention: the Password episode (Aristophanes ... Ridiculous!), the other the New Year's flashback episode recounting the fateful night of Oscar and Blanche's split from each of their perspectives as well as Felix's.

Today the show has become dangerous as purchase of any season will certainly chain you to your couch and kill an entire weekend.
 
I remember seeing the tail end of the series when it still aired in original episodes and in syndication. It's a shame it's not seen in syndication now, given the crap that TVLand and Nick at Nite has turned into. How many hours do both of those channels spend on The Nanny now? It's ridiculous. Klugman and Randall's brilliance puts Two and a Half Men to shame.
 
Hello Ivan.

I haven't been able to post on your site lately because your comment bloc no longer has the 'Name/URL' option, and I can't get on any other way.

Anyway, to the point:
You are repeating Jack Klugman's acount of the Odd Couple's timeslot woes from his book, as well as his account of its annual cancellation. This all comes from his book, which I have read and love.

One small problem: I have that big collection of old TV Guides in a chest-o-drawers at home, along with just about every reference book ever published about TV.

Here are the facts:
-- Back in the '70s, it was customary for the Big 3 Networks to announce their fall schedules in the early spring, generaly in March, about a week apart. In fact, for a while the 'selling season' had an unofficial start date of Washington's Birthday, February 22. TV Guide always ran these announcements as soon as they had them, no more than a week after they were made.
As the '70s progressed, these announcements started to come a little later each year; by 1974 (Odd Couple's last season), they were coming out around mid-April. I have the Guides with the fall lineups for all five of Odd Couple's seasons.
The Odd Couple was on every one of those fall schedules.
It was not cancelled.

Actually, if you think about it, this story has a hole you can drive an SUV through.
We all know how long it takes to get a weekly series up and running, even in today's insanely rushed times.
The main reason for the early schedule announcements back then was to give producers time to build a stockpile of episodes, so they'd have options on which ones were stronger than others, and thus best to front-load in the weekly schedule.
It simply wouldn't be feasible to hold off on a renewal till the end of summer.

And that brings us to the business of Odd Couple's 'ping-ponging' time slots. I checked Brooks & Marsh, which confirms that the show occupied four tims slots in five years:
1) Thursday at 9:30 for a half-season.
2)Friday at 9;30 for one and a half seasons.
3)Friday at 8:30 for one season.
4) Back to Friday at 9:30 for one season.
5) To Thursday at 8:00 for a half-season.
6) Back again to Friday at 9:30 to the end of the run.
That's six placements, but only four different time slots.Also, Odd Couple was only moved in midseason the two times noted above; for three of its five seasons, it stayed put at one time all season long.

I'll give Klugman some wiggle room on this one; ABC still had the shortest affiliate lineup back then, and it's possible that many stations showed Odd Couple as a delayed broadcast at varying hours. But the cancellation story - no. And I've got that chestful of old TV Guides to prove it.

I seem to have taken a testy tone here, and I don't mean to. I guess it's the frustration of not being able to get through to you at your home base. But I did want to get through to you (or somebody) about this and I'm grateful for the chance.

Oh yes: The Odd Couple is on MEtv every night.
 
I've never even heard of MEtv.
 
Hello Mr. Copeland.

The MEtv reference was for Ivan, with whom I've discussed it before on his blog (before the problem I mentioned above).

Briefly, MEtv is part of a group of digital stations here in Chicago that program old series the way TV Land and Nick-At-Nite used to.
MEtv (ch26.2) does comedies.
MEtoo (ch26.3) does dramatic series.
THiS (ch26.4) handles off-brand movies.
As a group, these stations do some of the most inventive promos in the business.

So that's the explanation, for what it's worth.

Anyway, I stand by my account in this post about The Odd Couple's rating and timeslot history.
 
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