Tony Randall, 84; Versatile Actor Won Fame as Felix Unger in 'The Odd Couple'

Times Staff Writer

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 evening at NYU Medical Center of complications from a months-long illness, according to his publicist, Gary Springer.

Randall had developed pneumonia after undergoing triple heart-bypass surgery in December. At the time, he had just completed a month starring in "Right You Are," a revival of Luigi Pirandello's play for the nonprofit National Actors Theatre, which Randall founded in 1991.

As a tribute to Randall, Broadway theaters were dimming their lights at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

"I tell you, that's a tribute he deserves," Jack Klugman, Randall's "Odd Couple" co-star, told The Times. "I didn't think they recognized how important he was, and I'm glad they're doing it."

Above all, Klugman said, Randall "loved the theater, and his love and dedication to it is what created the energy and the talent."

Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theatres and Producers, said in a statement Tuesday: "Tony Randall's passion for live theater was unmatched. He was a vociferous advocate for the proposition that serious plays are the lifeblood of our culture."

Actor David Hyde Pierce, who just finished 11 years playing pompous psychiatrist Niles Crane on the TV sitcom "Frasier," said in a statement: "We've lost a great actor, a great comedian, and a great role model. Who am I going to steal from now?"

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 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 his 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?" The movie co-starred Jayne Mansfield as the Hollywood sex symbol Hunter enlists for a lipstick campaign. Frank Tashlin, the film's director, said that 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."

Day said in a statement Tuesday: "Tony was so brilliant, funny, sweet and dear, that it was as if God had given him everything.

"He was the funniest man in movies and on television, and nothing was as much fun as working with him."

Randall 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 the obsessive-compulsive photographer opposite 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 had described Felix "as compulsive about everything. The only thing I'm compulsive about is my work."

Klugman, who won two Emmy Awards for playing Oscar, told The Times on Tuesday: "He was the best Felix that ever was; he was so brilliant.

"When I watch the show, I realize how wonderful he was."

Working with Randall, Klugman said, "was always a rewarding experience, because he gave you everything he ever had. He never cared about stardom or taking the top position. He gave me the funniest lines. He just wanted the show to be good."

Director Garry Marshall, who was the executive producer of the series, said in a statement: "Tony Randall was a great man, a great talent and a great influence on my life. He taught me how to write, he taught my sister Penny how to act and he taught millions of people how to laugh."

Although it has been rerun many times over the years, "The Odd Couple" was not a hit when it first aired 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," Randall said. "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 award for outstanding lead actor in a comedy series for the role until after the show 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 that Oklahoma city 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 decided to become an actor. He studied speech and drama at Northwestern University, 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 Meisner 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" in the dramatic workshop of 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 Emlyn 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 Randall's livelihood in the 1940s. 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 her on Broadway the following year in "Antony and Cleopatra."

The same year, he played Adam in "To Tell the Truth," an Eva Wolas comedy about sex in the Garden of Eden.

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 Hardwicke in "Caesar and Cleopatra."

His success on television in "Mr. Peepers" from 1952 to 1956 led to roles on 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 appeared more than 100 times on "The Late Show With David Letterman," including one appearance in which he was 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.

In a statement Tuesday, Letterman said: "I was lucky enough to know Tony as an actor and friend. 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 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 began at the Belasco Theater on Broadway with "The Crucible," Arthur Miller's Tony Award-winning 1953 drama about the Salem witch trials.

The first season's budget was $6.8 million. That included $1 million of Randall's 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."

Randall continued to spend much of his time raising money for the Actors Theatre, which moved two years ago into the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University in Manhattan.

"You've got to be an impractical dreamer to try to put something together like the National Actors Theatre," Randall said. "You've got to be a nut. If I was hardheaded and realistic, I wouldn't have started it."

The actor said in his 1997 interview with the New York Times that he was through with films and television series and, with the exception of occasional stage roles, planned to dedicate the rest of his life to his family and the Actors Theatre.

"No. This is it for me now," he said. "I'm finally doing what I want to do."

Randall was also active in social causes. He lobbied against smoking in public places, marched in Washington against apartheid in the 1980s and helped raise money for AIDS research.

His first wife, Florence, whom he wed when they were undergraduates at Northwestern, died of cancer in 1992 after 54 years of marriage. In 1995, Randall married Heather Harlan, a former intern for the Actors Theatre.

Randall and his first wife had no children. In 1997, at the age of 77, the actor 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.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 25, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction Randall obituary -- The obituary of actor Tony Randall in Wednesday's California section said he performed regularly on the Harry Morgan radio show. It was actually the Henry Morgan radio show.
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