Three days ago, actor Tony Randall died of pneumonia and complications of heart surgery in New York at the age of 84. Though he had a long and impressive stage and screen career, Randall is best remembered in the cultural imagination as Felix Unger, the uptight, obsessively tidy roommate of slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison (played by Jack Klugman) on The Odd Couple, the ABC series that ran from 1970 through 1975. Tonight, TVLand will be presenting a six-episode Odd Couple marathon (from 9 to midnight, ET).
I spent the day yesterday in the Museum of Television and Radio revisiting this classic show, which, 30 years later, still feels surprisingly fresh and sophisticated. Especially after the first season, when the one-camera setup and laugh track were replaced by a more freewheeling three-camera format and a live audience, Klugman and Randall’s star chemistry and skill at improvisation—many of the two-minute “tags,” short scenes that preceded the final credits, were made up on the spot—took the sitcom far beyond the simple slob-vs.-neatnik dialectic of the Neil Simon play that inspired it. Oscar and Felix were a couple whose “oddness” had less to do with their differing approach to laundering clothes (Felix: send to drycleaner. Oscar: wear in shower) than with the fact they were two divorced, heterosexual men sharing a Manhattan apartment, where they cooked, cleaned (or refused to clean), bickered, and negotiated the dilemmas of everyday existence together.
Some recent interpretations have wondered whether Randall’s uptight, opera-loving Felix functioned as a “stealth gay stereotype” in the still-closeted world of ‘70s prime time. But I would argue that the Oscar/Felix relationship occupied a more ambiguous space, one where Randall, in fact, spent his entire career: Outside the black-and-white absolutism of the “is he or isn’t he?” question, Randall broke new ground by choosing roles that existed precisely in the liminal zone between straight and gay.
In a series of sex comedies in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Randall was cast as Rock Hudson’s persnickety rival for the affections of Doris Day. These movies’ coyly suggestive tone, marked by a dual obsession with their hero’s dubious sexuality and their heroine’s unassailable virginity, have given them an afterlife as camp monuments to a particular Cold War brand of repressed sexual panic (parodied in last year’s Down With Love, a retro-style romantic comedy with Ewan McGregor and Renée Zellweger, which featured Randall in a cameo role). In Pillow Talk (1959), Randall introduces himself to Rock Hudson’s character with the line, “Need a light, cowboy?” and in Send Me No Flowers (1964), the two men end up sharing a bed together after being kicked out by their wives. (Sample dialogue: “Your feet are cold!” “Why don’t you cut your toenails?”) (Clarification, May 21, 2004: This examples discussed in this passage should have been attributed to Alan Vanneman’s article, “ Tony and Rock Go Down on Doris in Pillow Talk,” published in the online magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal.) Though these films always ended reassuringly with the shoring up of Rock and Doris’ heterosexual happiness, they raised doubts about a character’s sexual orientation, often expressed in the most tortured of circumlocutions. As Hudson explains to Day in Pillow Talk, “There are some men who are just, uh … well, they’ re very devoted to their mothers.”
Fifteen years later, the Oscar/Felix relationship in The Odd Couple had none of these strained, coy overtones. The question of who slept where was determined from the outset; indeed, Felix was loath to set foot in Oscar’s mythically messy bedroom, with stockings from his latest one-night stand still draped over the headboard. Of course, if slobhood is code for heterosexuality and neatness for homosexuality (a trope that persists today in shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy), The Odd Couple might be read as an unconsummated love story between a straight and a gay man. Whatever their preferences in the bedroom, it’s clear that Oscar and Felix are spiritually married, locked together in an almost Beckettian struggle between dependence and autonomy: “It’s your life,” Felix shrugs at one point, when Oscar makes yet another ill-considered decision. “When did you give it back to me?” Oscar parries.
After The Odd Couple ended, Randall appeared in the NBC series Love, Sidney (1981-83), about a lonely commercial artist who took in a single mother (Swoosie Kurtz) and her young daughter (Kaleena Kiff). Though Sidney Shorr is often cited as the first openly gay character on television, the character was actually put back in the closet by the network after the more daring 1980 pilot. In the end, the Sidney of the series was written as a mysteriously celibate bachelor.
In his personal life, Randall maintained an old-Hollywood-style discretion about the “truth” of his own and others’ sexual lives. (Rumors circulated around him due to his choice of roles and generally fey style.) He was married twice, once for over 50 years. After his first wife died, he married Heather Hanlan, 50 years his junior, with whom he fathered his first child at the age of 77. Even after Rock Hudson’s much-publicized death from AIDS in 1985, Randall distanced himself from rumors about his friend’s sexuality without ever disputing them outright: “People love to gossip,” was his catchall response when Hudson’s romantic life came up in interviews.
The Odd Couple’s executive producer, Garry Marshall, remembers that Midwestern focus groups were turned off by The Odd Couple because “they thought it was about homosexuals.” Jack Klugman has observed of the show’s existing outtake reels, which show up from time to time at festivals and retrospectives, that “You’ll see a lot of scenes of us kissing and hugging. That’s because the network was concerned people thought Oscar and Felix were gay, and we were trying to make them nervous.” The Odd Couple’s great innovation is not that it bravely trumpeted the presence of gay characters on TV; it’s that it casually rose above the whole question and had a good laugh at the expense of anyone who cared.