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BRIEF ENCOUNTER

First bananas

David Hyde Pierce and Tony Randall play their sidekick roles as leads.

May 18, 2003|Alina Tugend

"Down With Love," which opens Friday, pays homage to the Doris Day-Rock Hudson sex comedies of the 1960s. The movie stars Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, with "Frasier's" David Hyde Pierce as the eternal sidekick -- a role Tony Randall played to perfection in such frothy Day-Hudson vehicles as "Pillow Talk" (1959), "Lover Come Back" (1962) and "Send Me No Flowers" (1964). In the new movie, Randall appears in a cameo as a chauvinistic boss. Directed by Peyton Reed, "Down With Love" sends up the style and even the coded sexual politics of the originals.

At Randall's Central Park apartment last week, Randall, 86, and Pierce, 44, chatted about how the role of the sidekick has or hasn't changed. Just don't call them second bananas.

David, how much did you model yourself on Tony's roles in the old movies?

David Hyde Pierce: I didn't exactly model myself; I didn't try to copy him. I watched, I think, every one of the films he did to prepare. I was really trying to get more the tone and the style of the pictures. One thing I did take away, which was the most helpful, was how seriously you played the comedy. That was the thing that I was so taken by ... without having seen those movies, you have sort of an image of them as being frivolous and lightweight and stuff, but what makes them truly funny is that they're played for utmost seriousness.

Actually, I have to say, I did steal one thing, and that was your walk. You call it your duck walk?

Tony Randall: No, it's my walk, and it's one thing I really can't stand about myself. It's so ungraceful.

Pierce: You see it when you really had up a head of a steam -- I just used it a couple of times and I don't think you can actually see my feet, but you know what it did, it launched me into the part. You know how sometimes when you change something physically, sometimes it makes you a different person and that was it ... it started from the ground up.

Randall: You can have it.

Tony, how would you have played that role if you were playing it today?

Randall: Probably exactly the way he did. The sidekicks in the old movies seemed to have more of an edge -- a little more antagonism toward their buddies -- than in "Down With Love." "Down With Love" had more male support and male bonding. Why do you think that is?

Pierce: It did, except there's a specific scene, where Ewan's character is watching TV and Renee's character sells him out as poison to all women, and my character takes great delight, and that's definitely not only in the writing, but also in the playing, and an homage to what Mr. Randall was doing in the old movies.

Randall: Oh, nonsense -- it's all in the writing. I think we had superior writing, which is no reflection whatsoever on these writers. "Pillow Talk" and "Lover Come Back" were written by a man named Stanley Shapiro, who at that time had a number of hit movies in a row. He was the most nervous little nail-biting creature you ever met in your life, incapable of making a phone call without first checking with his analyst -- he was so insecure and he put himself into my character.

Innuendo and sexual humor are so much a part of these movies, yet sexual politics in 2003 is so different than in the 1960s. How do you deal with that?

Pierce: There's innuendo that's very much more outspoken in "Down With Love" because they're modernizing it and in some ways exaggerating some of that stuff. But there's really the same kind of jokes, like the buddy-buddy stuff, where you and Rock would end up in bed together for some reason -- it's joking on two guys being in bed together, which is really the same thing we're doing.

Tony, some have said you became the quintessential sidekick that others modeled themselves on.

Randall: If you were playing opposite Rock Hudson, what could you do but be his sidekick? Six-foot-five, the most glorious-looking man, muscles everywhere -- he was dazzling to look at.

What is different about playing the sidekick role now, as compared to the '60s?

Pierce: I could talk about what hasn't changed, which is that for us, for me anyway, the reason it works is because it really is an ensemble. Because if the stars, if the leads didn't want it that way, it wouldn't work and it wouldn't be fun.

Why do you think the sidekick role is often the most memorable?

Pierce: I have never thought of myself as a sidekick in these roles. Maybe that's what's changed -- the term isn't used so much anymore. I think of myself as the lead.

Randall: Me too.

Does anyone else?

Pierce: No. But that's not important.

-- Alina Tugend

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