Thursday, July 21, 2016

It was perhaps the greatest comic premise ever. In 1964 Paramount asked Neil Simon if he had promising ideas, and he sent them back this:

Two divorced men, one a slob and the other compulsively neat, move in together to save money so they can pay their alimony – but they soon learn they have the same conflicts with each other that they'd had with their wives.

Paramount was no dummy, as movie studios go. It bought the rights immediately.

The concept wasn't completely new for Simon. His first hit play, Come Blow Your Horn, concerned a naive young man who moves in with his swinging bachelor older brother. Simon's next hit, Barefoot In The Park, dealt with two newlyweds moving into their first apartment, and getting accustomed to each other. So the “Simon Situation” of opposites thrown together was already established (and would still be going strong well into the '70s in scripts like The Goodbye Girl).

But it was the brilliant simplicity of The Odd Couple, with its central relationship mocking a marriage, that really established the formula.

Variations go back at least to Laurel & Hardy. The Honeymooners had done a classic episode where Ralph is laid off and Alice has to take a job, resulting in Ralph staying home and tending to the housekeeping. This led to the inevitable and irresistible scene of Alice coming home after a hard day's work to be greeted by Ralph in an apron wanting to go out: “It's okay for you Alice, you get to go out and see people. All I do is sit here and stare at these four walls all day!”.

Such parodies of the oft-maligned 1950s marriage may seem dated to some, but got huge laughs at the time. Perhaps even more significant for our purposes was an episode where Ralph and Norton are forced to share a train compartment – guess who gets on Ralph's nerves? You can clearly see The Odd Couple situation here in utero.

Through coincidence or fate, The Odd Couple debuted on Broadway in early 1965 with none other than Art Carney, The Honeymooners' Norton, in the role of Felix the neatnik. And Oscar the slob was played by the actor for whom Simon conceived the character, Walter Matthau. (Matthau was not terribly eager to play Oscar. He told Simon he'd rather play Felix, as it was a challenge; Oscar was too easy, he wouldn't even have to act for it. Simon replied, “In this play you'll be Oscar. Go act on your own time.”)

The Odd Couple was an immediate hit, winning Matthau a Tony and landing him the role of Whiplash Willie in Billy Wilder's The Fortune Cookie with Jack Lemmon – and a new team was born.

Matthau's successor as Oscar was Jack Klugman.

Jack Klugman on Broadway in The Odd Couple, with Eddie Bracken as Felix.

Although Carney seemed overshadowed in The Odd Couple's success, for a moment it looked like it might pay off in a big way for him – there was talk of pairing Carney with Jackie Gleason in a film version. Gleason had expressed interest in doing The Odd Couple – but not as Oscar. He wanted to play Felix. Maybe he needed to be seen as fastidious rather than sloppy, or maybe he sought a Matthauesque acting challenge – who can guess the reason? Carney was willing to move over to Oscar, but this casting was dropped in favor of Lemmon and Matthau, who had shown they could work superbly together in The Fortune Cookie.

Despite unimaginative direction by Gene Saks (the possibility of Wilder as director was dismissed as an unnecessary expense) the film version was a smash. In his memoirs Paramount production chief Robert Evans credited its success with keeping the studio from being shut down.

Almost immediately talk started about a TV adaptation of The Odd Couple. Tony Randall was soon cast as Felix, while Mickey Rooney was offered the role of Oscar (the two had appeared together in a stage production in Las Vegas, and Randall felt they had good chemistry).

Rare photos of the 1967 production of The Odd Couple at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas:  Featured with Randall and Rooney are Buddy Lester as Murray the cop (he's armed, so we hope it's Murray he's playing) with boxing champ Sugar Ray Robinson and Bing Crosby's son Gary.

But Rooney turned the offer down. Shortly before this had turned down the role of Archie Bunker in All In The Family. Nice going there, Mick.

So the series producer, former Dick Van Dyke Show and Lucy Show writer Garry Marshall, pushed his choice for Oscar: Jack Klugman. This suggestion was quickly nixed by ABC, who insisted Klugman was a dramatic actor and couldn't play comedy (a notion that predictably infuriated the cantankerous Klugman – besides, hadn't they seen him on Broadway?). But Marshall stood firm, and ABC's inability to come up with an acceptable alternative resulted in Tony Randall and Jack Klugman as The Odd Couple for five seasons.

Garry Marshall died earlier this week. The obituaries invariably mentioned his megahits Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley (itself a disguised Odd Couple) and Mork & Mindy (ditto), and his various film successes. A few noted his frequent comic cameos (usually much better than the film or TV episode he was gracing with his presence) and one or two cultists like myself remembered his great scene as the casino rep in Albert Brooks' Lost in America.

But The Odd Couple is his crowning achievement. For me Randall and Klugman are the all time greatest TV comedy team (and yes, I'm including Gleason and Carney). A team we wouldn't have had if Gary Marshall hadn't dug in his heels and insisted on casting a “dramatic actor” in a comedy.

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