Remembering Tony Randall

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  May 18, 2004 at 3:09 PM
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LOS ANGELES, May 18 (UPI) -- Actor Tony Randall, who died Monday night at age 84, was widely regarded as a gifted comedy specialist, but within his profession he was known as a consummate, versatile man of the theater.

Randall -- known for his outspokenness on subjects ranging from smoking to the superiority of classical music over rock 'n' roll -- was unwilling to let producers and critics pigeonhole him as a "comic" actor.

"I'm an actor," he said. "Any actor skilled in his profession should be able to do comedy parts, but that's where the similarity ends."

Randall received his professional training at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York in the late 1930s, studying acting with the renowned Sanford Meisner and movement with Martha Graham. He broke into the profession in the 1940s on Broadway and on radio.

He appeared on the stage in such productions as "Circle of Chalk," "Candide," "The Corn Is Green," "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" and "Inherit the Wind." He received his first Tony nomination in 1958 for "Oh, Captain." He was nominated four times in the 1990s for revivals of "St. Joan," "Timon of Athens," "Inherit the Wind" and "The Gin Game."

On radio, he appeared on "The Henry Morgan Program" and "Opera Quiz." His earliest TV work included regular roles on the drama series "One Man's Family" and the comedy series "Mr. Peers," both on NBC.

In Hollywood, Randall had featured roles in writer-director Nunnally Johnson's comedies "How to Be Very, Very Popular" and "Oh Men, Oh Women," before winning his first starring role opposite Jayne Mansfield in the sex-comedy "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?"

He went on to make a string of similarly themed movie comedies, including the Rock Hudson-Doris Day classics "Pillow Talk," "Lover Come Back" and "Send Me No Flowers."

Reacting to news of Randall's death, Day issued a statement recalling her co-star's talent and professionalism.

"Tony was so brilliant, funny, sweet and dear, that it was as if God had given him everything," she said. "He was the funniest man in movies and on television, and nothing was as much fun as working with him."

Randall also co-starred with Debbie Reynolds in "The Mating Game" and with Marilyn Monroe in "Let's Make Love."

Along the way, Randall established the persona that would eventually morph into the fastidious, super-smart Felix Unger -- opposite Jack Klugman's slovenly, street-smart Oscar Madison -- in the television series "The Odd Couple."

Both actors brought solid credentials to the show, and both became major stars during the show's five-year run (1970-75) on ABC. Randall and Klugman were both nominated in each of the show's seasons for the Emmy for lead actor in a comedy series -- Klugman winning in 1971 and 1973, Randall bagging the prize in 1975.

His sophisticated wit was on display on May 19, 1975, when he picked up the trophy after the show had been canceled.

"I'm so happy I won," he said. "Now if I only had a job."

He was not out of work long.

In 1976, he began a two-year stint in "The Tony Randall Show" -- first on ABC, then on CBS -- as a Philadelphia judge looking for romance after the death of his wife. In 1981, he starred in "Sidney Shorr: A Girl's Best Friend," a TV movie about a lonely homosexual New Yorker who takes in a young woman who then becomes an unwed mother.

The movie formed the basis for the series "Love, Sidney," which ran for two seasons on NBC (1981-83), but with no overt reference to the character's sexuality.

Randall became a popular guest on TV talk shows. He was a favorite of "Larry King Live" and "Late Show with David Letterman," and his appearances on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" led to a cameo role, as himself, in Martin Scorsese's 1983 black comedy "The King of Comedy."

Randall published his autobiography, "Which Reminds Me" -- co-written with Michael Mindlin -- in 1989.

Two years later, he founded the National Actors Theatre in New York, reportedly financing the enterprise with $2 million of his own money. He reunited with Klugman for a 1991 stage production of Neil Simon's play to raise funds for the not-for-profit theater company.

The team played the same show as a benefit in Palm Beach and Los Angeles in 1992, and toured the United States as Felix and Oscar in 1995. They took the show to London in 1996. They also starred in the 1993 TV movie "The Odd Couple: Together Again."

In a recent interview, Klugman said he and Randall were still close.

"We keep in constant touch," he said. "We're always looking for projects to do. We're like brothers. I adore him."

Fans may have preferred him as Felix, but Randall often said his favorite career role was the middle-aged U.S. diplomat who falls in love with a Japanese woman -- who turns out to be a man in disguise -- in the Broadway production of "M. Butterfly."

Randall died at New York University Medical Center from complications of a prolonged illness. He had undergone bypass surgery in December 2003 and was hospitalized with pneumonia in January.

He was a working actor to the end. Prior to his bypass surgery, Randall had starred -- from Nov. 25 through Dec. 21 -- in a National Actors Theatre revival of Luigi Pirandello's "Right You Are."

Even as he recovered from surgery and pneumonia, Randall worked from his hospital bed, said a spokesman for the theater, planning the National Actors Theatre annual benefit on April 19.

A spokesman said Randall died quietly in his sleep, with his wife Heather by his side.


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