Question: Just out of curiosity, were Jack Klugman and Tony Randall anything like their Odd Couple characters? I mean, was Klugman that big a slob and was Randall that fussy? Thanks for answering this. — Robbie R., Charlotte, N.C.
Televisionary: I can't say if Klugman was as much of a slob as sportswriter Oscar Madison, who he played on the hit ABC comedy from September 1970 to July 1975, but I can say that at the time, at least, he shared the character's deeply rumpled look. In fact, he said he couldn't shake it if he tried — and try he did.
Take the time he met with the Odd Couple producers to sign his first contract and showed up in a sports coat and slacks. "That's great," they said when they saw him. "We've been looking all over for this kind of sloppy stuff. It's classic. We'll buy it from you." Which would've been fine, except the coat was new and Klugman considered the pants to be his nicest. "They were my best clothes," he told TV Guide in 1971. "Now you know how close I am to Oscar Madison. I am Oscar."
Not that he should've been all that surprised, considering he had a history of that kind of thing. When working the stage, for example, he was part of a traveling company for a production of Mr. Roberts. "One guy in the cast wore a Burberry coat," Klugman recalled. "He'd take it off and throw it down any place, in a heap. When it was time to get off the train, he'd put it back on. It was perfect. Not a wrinkle. 'Aha,' I said to myself, 'it's the coat.' So I bought a Burberry coat, and I put it on, and on me it was a potato sack."
There was also his time rooming with Charles Bronson in New York, where they shared a $7-a-week room. "Charley was very neat," Klugman explained. "He taught me how to iron my shirts. I would iron a shirt and he would watch and I'd say, 'The collar? It looks good?' and he'd say, 'Very nice,' and I'd say, 'The cuffs? OK?' and he'd say, 'Very nice,' and I'd say, 'I got all the wrinkles out?' and he'd say, 'A very nice job.' I'd put the shirt on and whump! It would fall apart, a crushed paper sack."
Luckily for him, however, he had the talent to make up for the less-than-leading-man impression he made, enough to convince even the naysayers he faced over the years. His first day attending Carnegie Tech, for instance, his acting teacher took one look at him and said, "Young man, you are not suited to be an actor. You are suited to be a truck driver." Klugman did a scene for her and she said, "What a terrible mistake I made. Talent doesn't come in pretty boxes, tied in blue ribbon."
On the flipside, of course, was Randall, who was every bit as erudite as Felix Unger. When sitting down for an interview with a reporter, his conversation wandered from Othello's death speech to a treatise on psittacosis (parrot fever), World War II Army Signal Corps field telephones and switchboards, the meaning of the word "plangent," observations on Beethoven and how to properly transport a mushroom omelette while still keeping it soft. He studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse and modern dance with Martha Graham, shared the stage with "First Lady of American Theater" Katharine Cornell and the camera with Doris Day and memorized the score and libretto of every major opera.
As if that weren't contrast enough, here's what they replied when a reporter asked each actor to describe his perfect day: "My perfect day," Randall said, "might go something like this: up early, take my singing lesson, work out at the gym, stroll down to 57th to see what's new in the galleries, stopping off for lunch at La Grenouille. No, I don't care what I order, as long as it's French. Go home, make love, and have an early supper. That's so we have plenty of time to get to the opera — Verdi's Otello would be nice — with [James] McCracken and [ Sherrill Milnes.... To make it absolutely perfect, I'd be allowed to restate the third act."
Klugman's, as you might imagine, wouldn't have quite played out that way. "Well," he said, "up at 10:30, sop up the sun for a couple of hours and shoot out to Hollywood Park in time for the daily double. Zoom on home, shower, consume an enormous plate of linguini and clam sauce and fool around with the kids. Then I'd take off for the night racing at Los Alamitos — what else? — hit a fat long shot, go home and spend the rest of the night drinking and laughing with Don Rickles until my eyes bug out."
One key thing worth noting that the two gentlemen had in common was an unerring sense of what made a script or scene work — that and a tendency to speak their minds. And luckily for all involved, they pretty much agreed on the same points. Of the first 14 scripts they were handed, Randall said, two were "rotten." He told the producers he refused to do them. "Without my knowing it, Jack had told them the same thing about the same scripts," he said. "So out they went. People think Jack and I are in collusion. That's not true. We're simply two guys who take our work very seriously and who know we can't be good when the material is not right."
They must've gotten something right, since The Odd Couple remains one of the best comedies in TV history. Furthermore, TV Guide critic Cleveland Amory said that of the three big teams to play the two characters — Walter Matthau and Art Carney handled the roles on Broadway, while Matthau and Jack Lemmon did so on film — Klugman and Randall were the best. And when you're beating the likes of those three, you obviously know what you're doing.