Tony Randall, the deft comedic actor best known for playing fastidious Felix Unger on the 1970s sitcom "The Odd Couple" during his more than six-decade career on stage, screen and television, has died. He was 84.
Randall died in his sleep Monday at NYU Medical Center of complications from a long illness, according to his publicity firm, Springer Associates.
Randall had developed pneumonia after undergoing heart bypass surgery in December. He was hospitalized after starring for a month in "Right You Are," a National Actors Theatre revival of Luigi Pirandello's play.
In tribute to Randall, lights at all the Broadway theaters are scheduled to be dimmed at 8 tonight.
A versatile Broadway and radio actor who made his New York stage debut in 1941, Randall first gained national fame on television in the early 1950s with "Mr. Peepers."
The popular situation comedy, which aired on NBC from 1952 to 1955, starred Wally Cox as the shy and quiet Midwestern high school science teacher Robinson Peepers. Randall played Peepers' brash and self-confident best friend, history teacher Harvey Weskit.
Randall's success in television and on Broadway in the 1950s -- including playing the cynical reporter in "Inherit the Wind," Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's long-running dramatization of the Scopes "monkey" trial -- paved Randall's way to Hollywood.
Slim, with close-cropped dark brown hair and an Ivy League, junior executive look, Randall has been described as personifying the era's urbane and somewhat confused and neurotic white American male.
In 1957, he starred in the title role of the hapless TV ad man in the film adaptation of George Axelrod's satirical "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" co-starring Jayne Mansfield as the Hollywood sex symbol he enlists for a lipstick campaign. Frank Tashlin, the film's director, said directing Randall was like playing a Stradivarius.
Randall's comedic talent continued to shine in a series of supporting movie roles.
The part of a millionaire Broadway producer in the 1959 Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedy "Pillow Talk" earned Randall praise from Time magazine for being "one of the funniest young men in movies today."
He appeared in two other Hudson-Day comedy hits, "Lover Come Back" (1961) and "Send Me No Flowers" (1964). Also in 1964, he starred in the film fantasy "7 Faces of Dr. Lao," an acting tour de force in which he played six elaborately made-up and accented roles.
But Randall achieved his most enduring fame on television, as Felix Unger, the obsessive-compulsive neat freak photographer opposite Jack Klugman's slovenly sportswriter, Oscar Madison, in the TV version of Neil Simon's hit Broadway play "The Odd Couple."
"Am I a neat freak, like Felix? No, not at all," Randall told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. "I realize that's a compliment, to be so identified with a character. But it can be annoying. It puts you in the position of being typecast."
In an earlier interview with The Times, Randall described Felix "as compulsive about everything. The only thing I'm compulsive about is my work."
Jerry Paris, the actor-turned-director who directed early episodes of "The Odd Couple," praised Randall in a 1971 TV Guide article for being "one of the few great ones I've worked with."
Randall, Paris said, was "always thinking ahead [and] aware of all that's gone on, on both sides of the camera. And inventive. Give him a prop, he worries it, he plays with it, until he makes it work into a very special kind of way. Nothing is ever taken for granted. The man is constitutionally creative."
Although it has been rerun constantly over the years, "The Odd Couple" was not a hit during its run on ABC from 1970 to 1975.
"It never got out of the bottom 10," Randall said in a 1998 interview. "For five years we were on the air, and five years we were canceled every 13 weeks. But in those days it was a little bit different. There was a guy at the network named Martin Starger and he said, 'This is a good show, I'm not going to cancel it,' and he pulled for us. Today, nothing like that happens. Either you hit the big ratings immediately, or you're out. To nurse a show along and believe in it, that's unknown today."
Although he received five Emmy nominations for playing Felix, Randall did not win the Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a comedy series for the role until after "The Odd Couple" was canceled in 1975. To which he quipped: "I'm so happy I won. Now if I only had a job."
Randall went on to star in "The Tony Randall Show," a 1976-78 situation comedy in which he played a Philadelphia judge and widower with two children.
And from 1981 to 1983, he starred in "Love, Sidney," a sitcom focusing on the relationship between a bachelor commercial artist and a young actress (played by Swoosie Kurtz) and her young daughter who move into his Manhattan apartment. The show was based on a TV movie in which Randall's character was gay, but his sexual orientation was never mentioned in the series.
An art-collecting, opera-loving resident of Manhattan's Upper West Side since the 1940s, the glib and erudite Randall personified the sophisticated New Yorker.
"I've been here so long that somehow, over the years, I became Mr. New York to people," he acknowledged in a 1997 interview with the New York Times. "Most people are surprised I came from Tulsa."
The son of an art and antiques dealer, Randall was born Leonard Rosenberg in Tulsa, Okla., on Feb. 26, 1920.
In school, one of his teachers sent home notes to his parents that said, "Please stop him from making faces." Acknowledged Randall in a 1959 interview: "I've always had a very mobile face."
After seeing his first play, a school production when he was 12, he was determined to become an actor. He studied speech and drama at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., but left after a year.
Following the advice of the head of the university theater, he moved to New York City, where he studied acting under Sanford Meisnerv and "movement" under Martha Graham.
Randall made his New York stage debut in 1941 playing the rebellious Chang Ling in an adaptation of the 13th-century Chinese fantasy "A Circle of Chalk" at the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village.
The same year, he played Marchbanks in George Bernard Shaw's "Candida," starring Jane Cowl. And in 1942, he appeared with Ethel Barrymore in Emlynv Williams' "The Corn is Green."
Randall was rehearsing for a role in Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth," under Elia Kazan's direction, when he was drafted into the Army in 1942.
After serving in the Signal Corps and rising to the rank of first lieutenant, he returned to New York, where he performed regularly on the Harry Morgan radio show. Radio was a major part of his livelihood in the 1940s, and he also played Reggie in "I Love a Mystery" and appeared in serials such as "Portia Faces Life," "When a Girl Marries" and "Life's True Story."
After touring with Katharine Cornell in "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" in 1947, Randall appeared with Cornell on Broadway the following year in "Antony and Cleopatra."
The same year, he played Adam in the Eva Wolasv comedy about sex in the Garden of Eden, "To Tell the Truth." Said one critic of his performance, "His voice is melodically masculine; he moves with the grace of a dancer, and he acts the part with humor."
In 1950, Randall appeared with Lilli Palmer and Sir Cedric Hardwickev in "Caesar and Cleopatra."
His success on television in "Mr. Peepers" from 1952 to 1956 led to dramatic roles in Desilu Playhouse and Goodyear Theatre and other dramatic anthology series. He also substituted as host on the Steve Allen and Arthur Godfrey TV shows.
A gifted raconteur, Randall was a talk-show favorite over the years. He made 104 appearances on "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson." He also made more than 100 appearances on David Letterman's late-night show, including once allowing himself to be covered in mud.
"I live five minutes away from the theater where David does his show, so whenever they have some crazy kind of stunt in mind, I can just walk over and do it," Randall told the Chicago Tribune in 1997.
"I was lucky enough to know Tony as an actor and friend," Letterman said in a statement Tuesday. "Whenever we needed a big laugh, we would bring in Tony. He always made us better for having worked with him. We will miss him very much."
For many years, Randall talked about the need for creating a nonprofit acting company that would present theatrical classics. Finally, he decided to raise the money and do it himself.
In 1991, the National Actors Theatre's three-play inaugural season was kicked off at the Belasco Theater on Broadway with a production of "The Crucible," Arthur Miller's Tony-winning 1953 drama about the Salem witch trials.
The first season's budget was $6.8 million. That included $1 million of Randall's own money and $5.8 million raised from corporations, foundations, individual donations and a benefit performance of "The Odd Couple."
"I kept talking about it and hoping that someone else would do it and then hire me," Randall, who served as artistic director, told the New York Times in 1997. "But finally I realized that no one would do it unless I tried to do it myself."
At the time of the interview, Randall's theater company had yet to see a profit and the actor was required to spend much of his time raising money.
"You've got to be an impractical dreamer to try to put something together like the National Actors Theatre," said Randall. "You've got to be a nut. If I was hardheaded and realistic, I wouldn't have started it. You've got to be a bit of a fanatic."
Randall said he was through with films and television series and, with the exception of occasional stage roles, he planned to dedicate the rest of his life to his family and the National Actors Theatre.
"No, this is it for me now," he said. "I'm finally doing what I want to do."
Randall's wife, Florence, whom he married when they were undergraduates at Northwestern University, died of cancer in 1992 after 54 years of marriage. In 1995, Randall married Heather Harlan, a former intern for the National Actors Theatre.
Randall and his first wife had been childless. But in April 1997, at the age of 77, he became a father for the first time when Heather, then 26, gave birth to their daughter, Julia. A son, Jefferson, was born in 1998.
"It's the greatest joy I've ever known," Randall said of fatherhood. "And to think I had to wait so long for it. But that's good. I might not have appreciated it when I was a younger man."
Randall is survived by his wife and two children.
Funeral arrangements are pending.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times