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Tony Randall, 84; Versatile Actor Won Fame as Felix Unger in 'The Odd Couple'

May 19, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Tony Randall, the deft comedic actor best known for playing fastidious Felix Unger on the 1970s sitcom "The Odd Couple" during his more than six-decade career on stage, screen and television, has died. He was 84.

Randall died in his sleep Monday evening at NYU Medical Center of complications from a months-long illness, according to his publicist, Gary Springer.

Randall had developed pneumonia after undergoing triple heart-bypass surgery in December. At the time, he had just completed a month starring in "Right You Are," a revival of Luigi Pirandello's play for the nonprofit National Actors Theatre, which Randall founded in 1991.

As a tribute to Randall, Broadway theaters were dimming their lights at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

"I tell you, that's a tribute he deserves," Jack Klugman, Randall's "Odd Couple" co-star, told The Times. "I didn't think they recognized how important he was, and I'm glad they're doing it."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 25, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Randall obituary -- The obituary of actor Tony Randall in Wednesday's California section said he performed regularly on the Harry Morgan radio show. It was actually the Henry Morgan radio show.

Above all, Klugman said, Randall "loved the theater, and his love and dedication to it is what created the energy and the talent."

Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theatres and Producers, said in a statement Tuesday: "Tony Randall's passion for live theater was unmatched. He was a vociferous advocate for the proposition that serious plays are the lifeblood of our culture."

Actor David Hyde Pierce, who just finished 11 years playing pompous psychiatrist Niles Crane on the TV sitcom "Frasier," said in a statement: "We've lost a great actor, a great comedian, and a great role model. Who am I going to steal from now?"

A versatile Broadway and radio actor who made his New York stage debut in 1941, Randall first gained national fame on television in the early 1950s with "Mr. Peepers."

The popular situation comedy, which aired on NBC from 1952 to 1955, starred Wally Cox as shy and quiet Midwestern high school science teacher Robinson Peepers. Randall played Peepers' brash and self-confident best friend, history teacher Harvey Weskit.

Randall's success in television and on Broadway in the 1950s -- including playing the cynical reporter in "Inherit the Wind," Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's long-running dramatization of the Scopes "monkey" trial -- paved his way to Hollywood.

Slim, with close-cropped dark brown hair and an Ivy League, junior executive look, Randall has been described as personifying the era's urbane and somewhat confused and neurotic white American male.

In 1957, he starred in the title role of the hapless TV ad man in the film adaptation of George Axelrod's satirical "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" The movie co-starred Jayne Mansfield as the Hollywood sex symbol Hunter enlists for a lipstick campaign. Frank Tashlin, the film's director, said that directing Randall was like playing a Stradivarius.

Randall's comedic talent continued to shine in a series of supporting movie roles.

The part of a millionaire Broadway producer in the 1959 Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedy "Pillow Talk" earned Randall praise from Time magazine for being "one of the funniest young men in movies today."

Day said in a statement Tuesday: "Tony was so brilliant, funny, sweet and dear, that it was as if God had given him everything.

"He was the funniest man in movies and on television, and nothing was as much fun as working with him."

Randall appeared in two other Hudson-Day comedy hits, "Lover Come Back" (1961) and "Send Me No Flowers" (1964). Also in 1964, he starred in the film fantasy "7 Faces of Dr. Lao," an acting tour de force in which he played six elaborately made-up and accented roles.

But Randall achieved his most enduring fame on television, as the obsessive-compulsive photographer opposite Klugman's slovenly sportswriter, Oscar Madison, in the TV version of Neil Simon's hit Broadway play "The Odd Couple."

"Am I a neat freak, like Felix? No, not at all," Randall told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. "I realize that's a compliment, to be so identified with a character. But it can be annoying. It puts you in the position of being typecast."

In an earlier interview with The Times, Randall had described Felix "as compulsive about everything. The only thing I'm compulsive about is my work."

Klugman, who won two Emmy Awards for playing Oscar, told The Times on Tuesday: "He was the best Felix that ever was; he was so brilliant.

"When I watch the show, I realize how wonderful he was."

Working with Randall, Klugman said, "was always a rewarding experience, because he gave you everything he ever had. He never cared about stardom or taking the top position. He gave me the funniest lines. He just wanted the show to be good."

Director Garry Marshall, who was the executive producer of the series, said in a statement: "Tony Randall was a great man, a great talent and a great influence on my life. He taught me how to write, he taught my sister Penny how to act and he taught millions of people how to laugh."

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