January 6, 2023: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
"Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?"
Because the feature film of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple opened in 1968 more than half-a-century ago in, it is conceivable there are some who believe it was never anything but a TV series. That’s due to the hilarious Tony Randall-Jack Klugman sitcom still going strong with 114 episodes in syndication, rarely off the air since it premiered in 1970. There were also two additional (and forgettable) remakes; The New Odd Couple, a 1982 flop with Demond Wilson (Sanford and Son) as Oscar and Ron Glass (Barney Miller) as Felix, and a 2015 misfire with Matthew Perry (Friends) and Thomas Lennon (Reno 911!). In truth, nothing could beat the ingenious casting of Klugman and Randall, each matchlessly suited to sloppy Oscar Madison and finicky Felix Ungar. They knew the parts inside and out as they had played the characters in prior stage versions, though separately – Klugman as a replacement in the original Broadway production, and Randall in Las Vegas, opposite Mickey Rooney, who Randall lobbied to play Oscar in the series (trust me, it would never have lasted five seasons with that combination).
But before either a film or a TV series, The Odd Couple was a smash hit on stage in the 1964-1965 season. The third Broadway play directed by the legendary Mike Nichols; it would prove the second of his seven Tony Awards for directing. Walter Matthau and Art Carney starred as Oscar and Felix, succeeded by a host of actors over its nearly two-and-a-half year run. When it came time in 1968 for the film, Matthau had already become a movie star by way of an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for 1966’s The Fortune Cookie, which left him an easy frontrunner to repeat his Tony Award winning performance as Oscar. Jack Lemmon, his Fortune Cookie co-star, had become a great friend during the filming and, due to that film’s box office success, it made perfect sense for him to play Felix in The Odd Couple. Eventually, the two would go on to appear with one another in ten films, with Lemon even directing Matthau to a Best Actor nomination for 1970’s Kotch.
Beginning in 1961 over a four-year period, Neil Simon had four shows produced on Broadway. His first, Come Blow Your Horn, ran for an impressive 677 performances, though rarely a sellout. Simon followed it with his book for the musical Little Me which, in spite of being funny as hell and yielding a great score, missed a bullseye (it’s had two Broadway revivals to try and get it right—both failed). Then his 1963 Barefoot in the Park would prove a phenomena, to this day the longest running of Simon’s thirty Broadway plays and musicals (he also wrote nearly the same number of screenplays). With the overwhelmingly positive reviews for The Odd Couple he was crowned king, hitting an even higher height a year later when he had the distinction of four of his shows running on Broadway at once (Andrew Lloyd Webber is the only other person to pull that off).* It can be said without equivocation that Simon is one of the most prolific and financially prosperous Broadway playwrights who ever lived.
Simon and Nichols, each flush with excitement from the explosive success of Barefoot in the Park, went to work quickly on The Odd Couple. The play was based on a time in the life of Simon’s older brother Danny, who would be portrayed years later as a character in his little brother’s autobiographical Broadway Bound (1986). Danny and a friend, Roy Gerber, had co-habited briefly to save a few bucks while in the process of divorcing their wives. It was a naturally funny situation when the two got on each other’s nerves in exactly the same way it did their wives. Only one problem: Danny, a TV sketch writer with extensive credits, couldn't make it sing as a play. With his brother's permission, Neil took it on and turned it into comic opera.
Theatre critic Norman Nadel painted a picture of how the combined efforts of Simon and Nichols uniquely set The Odd Couple apart from other comedies of the day. In his opening night review for the now defunct World Telegram and Sun, Nadel wrote: “The wonder of everything and everybody in this glorious play is that it never looks like situation comedy. It seems like life — bizarre perhaps, but recognizably, resolutely real.” Future (now former) New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich concurred, even as a fifteen-year-old child. He had been an usher during the play's tryout in his hometown of Washington D.C. and seen the play numerous times, much to his delight. “To this day, I believe that Nichols’s staging of The Odd Couple is the single funniest production of anything I’ve ever seen in the theater, let alone of this particular work.”
Rich saw the show at the end of a tryout period that began in Wilmington and had moved on to Boston. What he and D.C. audiences were unaware is that there were genuine problems dating back to the first day's rehearsal, when Simon and Nichols knew they were in trouble the minute Act Three was read out loud. Those fears were realized in performance, especially when the esteemed Boston critic Elliot Norton's otherwise positive review was titled "Oh, For a Third Act." It was Norton who, in an oft-told story, inadvertently came up with the fix. Agreeing to appear on a local TV show during the Boston run hosted by Norton, Simon was met with a question he didn't have an answer for: "I missed the Pigeon Sisters," Norton queried. "They were so darned funny and I wondered why you didn't bring them back?"
In his memoir Rewrites (1996), Simon doesn't say a lightbulb went off over his head at that moment, but rather "a two-mile-long neon sign." He pounced on the idea writing the sisters into Act Three, though it was not met with anything like an overnight sensation. It took patience, time and perseverance until Simon and Nichols got it just right. And once they did, the entire play gleamed, polished to a fine gem.
Paul Dooley, who created the role of Speed, one of the poker players, told me that the responses to certain lines and bits were met by roars he had never heard in a theatre (or since). Something about Nichols’s direction, matched with the innate talents of Carney and Matthau, made for a one-of-a-kind experience in the theatre. And for those who might think Carney ill-suited to the very proper, very neat Felix, think again. Yes, he was famous for his sewer dwelling Ed Norton on The Honeymooners, but if you recall, Norton was particularly fastidious and always got on Ralph’s nerves — just like the way Felix bugs Oscar. And getting the part was a good thing for Carney, as in 1965, he was experiencing a mid-career slow down. He suffered from depression and had a drinking problem, and he needed The Odd Couple to boost his bona fides. For Matthau, who had been in eighteen plays on Broadway over seventeen years, as well as making close to twenty films and a stream of live television shows, The Odd Couple would be the first time he would have his name above the title. At forty-four years old, this was something of new beginning for him as well. Matthau also enjoyed telling anyone who’d listen that when he first read the script, he responded to the offer to play Oscar by begging to play Felix instead. "I could phone Oscar in," Simon recalled Matthau telling him. "But to play Felix, that would be acting." Simon's response? "Walter, do me a favor? Act in someone else's play. Do Oscar in mine."
Even though he took the part, it didn't keep Matthau from grumbling and fantasizing. In an interview shortly after Odd Couple opened, Matthau was still insisting "I'll prove to everybody I can play Felix. After we've run a year, Carney and I are going to exchange parts. He liked the idea too."
However, the article ends with Mike Nichols saying, "Oh, Walter has wanted to play Felix all along. I think it is a bad idea I thought it was a bad idea the first time he broached it. I will continue to think it's a bad idea, and by no means will I allow them to change around and switch roles next year." And that was the end of that.
Sadly, during its initial run, Carney descended into a depression spiral, his drinking escalating. As Simon put it, "Art was going through some domestic problems of his own and playing Felix was like playing himself, a man trying to revive his life after a failed marriage." He began missing performances and Paul Dooley, his understudy, went on for him numerous times. “When I was first cast as Speed, I was offered to understudy either Oscar or Felix, it was my pick,” Dooley recalled to me. “I told my agent I wanted Oscar, since it was the better part and got a hell of a lot more laughs. Mostly the audience is on Oscar’s side because Felix really is a pain in the neck. But my agent told me that Walter Matthau was never going to call in sick and that I had a much better chance of going on for Art Carney. He proved correct when Art missed a lot of shows and eventually checked himself into a hospital for the sake of his health. I played the part for more than a month before they got a “name,” Eddie Bracken to take over as Felix.”
Bracken played for the remainder of the run opposite three different Oscars, among them Jack Klugman who replaced Matthau, followed by Pat Hingle and Mike Kellin. The play’s national tour had the incongruously aged Dan Dailey (51) and Richard Benjamin (28), who had been given his first big break by Nichols and Simon, cast a year earlier in the national tour of Barefoot in the Park. Hundreds more pairings followed due to the familiarity of the title and the low costs of its one-set, eight-person cast. Over the years, a seemingly endless number of stock productions have put forth a multitude of combinations: Tom Poston and Tim Conway, Dick Shawn and Jack Carter (that one was directed by Jack Klugman) and, in their native Canada at the ripe old ages of twenty and twenty-four, Martin Short and Eugene Levy as Felix and Oscar (would love to have seen that). You may even be surprised to learn that Art Carney returned to the play, only this time as Oscar, opposite Don Knotts's Felix.
But out of all these, here’s my absolute favorite pairing:
Surprisingly, there has only been one Broadway revival in 2005 with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick hot off The Producers. In spite of mixed reviews, it did excellent business, though not a good time was had by all. Few of its participants look back fondly on it for reasons you'll have to ask them.
Wait, wait. I take it back. There was another Broadway revival, only it was with a female Oscar and Felix (as well as a quartet of women poker players, now playing Trivial Pursuit). Conceived for Joan Rivers and Nancy Walker, who did an initial read-through, they turned down playing it (too bad). Danny Simon was set to direct, with perhaps payback in mind since Neil did kind of owe him. There was a fierce determination on big brother's part to mount this new take on the property, only it turned out Danny wasn't up to it. He was fired by Neil during the cross country tryout tour, which had to have been painful on a number of levels. By that point, Sally Struthers and Rita Moreno were Florence (Felix) and Olive (Oscar), with Broadway their last stop in the summer of 1985, twenty years after the original. Simon favorite Gene Saks was now at the helm, who not-so-coincidentally directed the film of The Odd Couple. The new production was met with Frank Rich’s New York Times review that stated it “often seems as gratuitous as a new formula for Coke,” a reference to a then-recent botched attempt by the soft drink colossus to change something that had no business being changed.
An ill-advised film sequel, The Odd Couple II starring Matthau and Lemon, was produced in 1998, thirty years after the original, concerning Oscar's son and Felix’s daughter getting married (the less said the better). The Odd Couple: Together Again (1993) was an earlier slapped-together TV movie with Randall and Klugman, who, two years prior, had performed in a benefit performance of the play on Broadway for Randall's fledgling National Actors Theatre. Check out the supporting players of this one-night only cast: Cleavon Little, Martin Sheen, Abe Vigoda and Jack Weston as the poker players and Kate Nelligan and Joanna Gleason as Cecily and Gwendolyn Pigeon. Wow. Klugman and Randall so enjoyed slipping back into Oscar and Felix that they did it five years later for a four-month London run. They also returned to Neil Simon by reviving The Sunshine Boys on Broadway in 1997, again for Randall's National Actors Theatre. By then the pair were well into their senior years; Randall seventy-seven and Klugman seventy-five.
As for future Felix and Oscars, who knows? I was put to mind of a potential new production recently while watching Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in The Banshees of Inisherin... though that might be a bridge too far.
* The four shows Simon had running at once in 1966 were Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, The Star-Spangled Girl and Sweet Charity. Lloyd Webber accomplished it forty-one years later in 2017 with Cats, Phantom, School of Rock: the Musical and a revival of Sunset Boulevard.
If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. To receive all future columns by email, hit the blue FOLLOW button above and feel free to comment below or write me at Ron@ronfassler.org.