When Neil Simon passed away this weekend at age 91, the world lost one of the 20th Century’s greatest comedy minds. Simon got his start writing for radio along with brother Danny Simon, and the pair soon moved into the then-new medium of television, hired by producer Max Leibman for the staff of YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS starring Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and Howard Morris. This seminal variety show ran from 1950-54 and featured the talented comedy minds of writers Mel Brooks , Selma Diamond, Mel Tolkin, and Reiner on its staff. The Simons siblings moved to Caesar’s next venture CAESAR’S HOUR (1954-56) along with most of the writing staff, joined by newcomers Larry Gelbart and Aaron Ruben .
The Simons joined the staff of THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW (1955-59) for its final season, chronicling the escapades of con artist Sgt. Bilko. During this time, Neil began working on a semi-autobiographical play that became COME BLOW YOUR HORN. First produced in 1961, the play was a Broadway smash, and Simon was soon The Great White Way’s most celebrated playwright. He won his first Tony Award in 1965 for THE ODD COUPLE, and it’s this work that’s become his most enduring, with numerous adaptations in all media, including television, where we’ll focus.
The original stage production starred Art Carney as fussy Felix Unger and Walter Matthau as sloppy Oscar Madison, who reprised the role in the 1968 film version opposite Jack Lemmon as Felix. But when Paramount introduced their sitcom adaptation in 1970, they struck comedy gold by casting Tony Randall as Felix and Jack Klugman as Oscar. Randall was well-known for his comic chops, but Klugman was a revelation. Mostly known for his dramatic roles in film (12 ANGRY MEN) and television (including four episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE), Klugman had taken over the part of Oscar on Broadway and made it his own. The chemistry between Randall and Klugman was comedic dynamite, and the two actors began a lifelong friendship.
There were some minor changes made (for instance, Felix is now a photographer), but the basic premise remains. Neat freak Felix is thrown out by his wife Gloria and moves in with his messy, recently divorced pal Oscar. The pair constantly drive each other nuts with their opposite personalities. Felix is a bundle of neurosis, a confirmed hypochondriac (Randall’s “honking” allergy fits are classic!), and pines to return to Gloria. Oscar fancies himself a ‘ladies’ man’ despite his slovenly appearance, loves his poker games (which Felix always manages to foul up), and has a love/hate relationship with ex-wife Blanche (who’s portrayed by Klugman’s real-life spouse Bret Somers). Felix is the yin to Oscar’s yang, which sets the stage for hilarity during the show’s five-year, 114 episode run.
The series really hit its stride in Season 3 with some truly classic episodes. “Big Mouth” pits sportswriter Oscar against MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL anchor (and notorious curmudgeon) Howard Cosell, “Password” features Felix and Oscar on the TV game show hosted by Allan Ludden (with Ludden’s wife Betty White on the opposing team), “I Gotta Be Me” finds the mismatched roommates entering group therapy. My favorite is “My Strife in Court”, with the duo mistakenly arrested for ticket scalping, and this classic bit played to perfection by Randall:
THE ODD COUPLE has gone through many permutations over the years: a Saturday morning cartoon, a short-lived African-American version starring Ron Glass (BARNEY MILLER) as Felix and Demond Wilson (SANFORD & SON) as Oscar, a Simon-written female take on the characters, and the recent CBS series that was half good (Thomas Lennon’s Felix) and half not-so-much (Matthew Perry’s Oscar). Many cite Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the film version as the ultimate Felix and Oscar, but far as I’m concerned nobody played the characters better than Tony Randall and Jack Klugman in one of the funniest sitcoms television has ever produced.
RIP Neil Simon (1927-2018)