Here are five reasons why we’ll remember Tony Randall
Years before ”The Odd Couple,” Randall made his name as a prissy pal to the leading man in several movies, notably, the three Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedies – ”Pillow Talk” (1959), ”Lover Come Back” (1961), and ”Send Me No Flowers” (1964) – that seem campy now but pushed the boundaries of sexual farce at the time. Sophisticated viewers might have read Randall’s characters as gay; even more sophisticated ones might have read them as foils whose job was to make the closeted Hudson seem more butch by contrast. In any case, his comic support was indispensable to those movies, as well as to the persona of fastidious sidekick extraordinaire David Hyde Pierce, whose career is unthinkable without Randall’s example. Pierce seemed to recognize as much with his performance in the Randall role in 2003’s ”Down With Love,” a parodic homage to the Hudson-Day movies, which also featured a winking cameo by Randall himself.
Think Randall lacked range? Check out his multiple transformations in ”The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao” (1964), aided by fantasy filmmaker George Pal (”The War of the Worlds”) and makeup artist William Tuttle, who won an honorary Oscar for his work. In a feat worthy of Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness, or Eddie Murphy, Randall plays eight roles in the movie, a one-of-a-kind fable about a Chinese circus ringmaster (Randall) who transforms the lives of kids and adults in a dreary Old West town. While not a hit at the time, ”Dr. Lao” has become a cult favorite and still has the power to enchant kids and grownups 40 years later.
The Comic Icon
”On November 13, Felix Unger was asked to remove himself from his place of residence. That request came from his wife.” You’re already hearing Neal Hefti’s jaunty theme music in your head and imagining apron-clad neat-freak Randall squabbling with Jack Klugman as slobby Oscar Madison. The roles in Neil Simon’s ”The Odd Couple” had been played before by Art Carney and Walter Matthau on Broadway and by Jack Lemmon and Matthau on film, but after the 1970-1975 run of the ABC sitcom, Felix and Randall were inseparable in viewer’s memories. When he finally earned an Emmy, shortly after the show’s cancellation, he said: ”I’m so happy I won. Now if I only had a job.” Actually, he worked seemingly without pause for the rest of his life, but he was still indelibly Felix to fans.
Randall may have been the best late-night talk show guest ever. He certainly was a favorite of Johnny Carson and David Letterman, and he claimed a record number of appearances on both men’s shows (more than 70 on Letterman’s ”Late Show” on CBS, plus more on his previous NBC show). When he appeared on the inaugural episode of ”Late Night with Conan O’Brien” a decade ago, it was as if the talk show gods were giving their blessing to the fledgling host. (He even had a cameo as himself, as a talk show guest, in Martin Scorsese’s ”King of Comedy.”) Hosts loved him for his skills as a conversationalist (he could talk about his highbrow fondnesses for opera and theater and still be funny), his willingness to do anything (in 1994, he appeared on ”Late Show” as a mud-drenched correspondent from the Woodstock ‘94 rock festival), and his convenience. ”I live five minutes away, so they know they can get me,” he told an Ohio newspaper in 1996, referring to Letterman and O’Brien. ”They need someone they call. I can’t say no because they send a car. It works out fine. It’s never rehearsed.”
Randall never slowed down; he kept acting right up until his heart operation last December that led to his final hospitalization and his death at age 84. When he was 71, he used his own money to found the National Actors Theatre, a Broadway company dedicated to performing classic plays. It was there that he met his second wife, Heather Harlan, an actress 50 years his junior. (His first wife, Florence, died in 1992 after 54 years of marriage.) They wed in 1995, and she bore him the first of his two children two years later, when he was 77. As he approached 80, the New York Times reports, he took up rollerblading. Some may have looked askance at the May-December pairing, but it surely gave others comfort. Somewhere out there is an ideal roommate for everyone, even for aging Felix Unger types.