A Thumbnail History of “The Odd Couple”

In my previous post, we took a look at sitcoms that were given new life after their original runs ended. I deliberately left out one series that has been given several lives, The Odd Couple. This is because the full life of The Odd Couple reaches back over fifty years, and has seen so many incarnations on stage, screen, and TV, it deserves its own blog at the very least–if not a full-length book (don’t think I haven’t considered it). So, here’s a much-abbreviated history of what is arguably the most successful American comic creation of the past half-century. It’s a play close to my heart, and one that I memorized back in high school, just for my love and reverence for Neil Simon’s brilliantly hilarious dialogue (I know a few of his other plays by heart as well. He’s my comedy hero).

Danny and Neil.

The original play was based on  Simon’s older brother Danny–a top comedy writer and teacher for decades–and agent Roy Gerber. In the early 1960s, both had been divorced, with alimony and child support to consider. They decided to move in together to help cut down on expenses. They also ventured on double dates, some of which Danny insisted on hosting and cooking for, again to save money. But their differing personalities–Danny being partial to keeping the apartment neat and clean, and Gerber indifferent about arriving home on time for dinner–caused more than a few heated squabbles. Encouraged by Neil to turn their clashing habits into a play, Danny tried, but couldn’t get past page fifteen or so, and offered Neil to take over. Neil gave Danny a small percentage of the royalties (totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years), but no story credit, which perturbed Danny to a considerable degree.

The play, starring Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney as Felix, opened at the Plymouth Theatre in New York on March 10, 1965. During the casting process, Matthau expressed his desire to play Felix, considering the role would be more of a stretch for him than playing Oscar, but Simon and director Mike Nichols refused his request. He held out hope that at some point later in the run the two lead actors might get to switch roles, but that never happened.

Carney as Felix, with the Pigeon Sisters (Monica Evans and Carole Shelley).

The play received rave reviews, following Simon’s previous smash hit, Barefoot in the Park (also directed by Nichols, and starring Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley). Ticket sales for The Odd Couple allowed the show to recoup the initial investment after only 29 performances. Paramount Pictures, eager to film Barefoot in the Park, plus whatever play Simon would write next, bought the film rights to both plays after Simon gave the studio only a one-sentence description of The Odd Couple. He would later regret agreeing to the deal.

In October, seven months after opening night, Art Carney left the production due to depression and nervous exhaustion, and/or a worsening drinking problem stemming form his failing marriage. He was let out of his contract, replaced by Eddie Bracken. Matthau left the play in November to film The Fortune Cookie, directed by Billy Wilder and co-starring none other than the future film version of Felix, Jack Lemmon. Who replaced Matthau as Oscar on Broadway?  None other than the future TV version of Oscar, Jack Klugman. Matthau intended to return to the play, but suffered a heart attack during the filming of The Fortune Cookie. Klugman was asked to stay on for another year, but quit three months later in a salary dispute. Pat Hingle then took over as Oscar. The original Broadway run ran a total of 964 performances.

The film version of the show retained the original stage dialogue nearly word for word. One of the few outdoor scenes was shot at Shea Stadium, just before a Mets-Pirates game. The production crew was given a half-hour to film the scene. The script called for the Mets to make a triple-play, just as Oscar gets called to the phone to answer a question from Felix about that night’s dinner. Oscar misses the play, and is not pleased. Pirates star Roberto Clemente was asked to hit into the triple-play, but he refused. Bill Mazeroski agreed. The scene required two takes for the last-place Mets to execute a perfect triple-play for the camera.

It’s no small feat that the span of time between The Odd Couple opening on Broadway, the release of the film, and the premiere episode of the TV series was only 5 1/2 years. Unfortunately for Simon, by agreeing to sell the film and TV rights to Paramount years earlier (after listening to bad advice from his business manager), he didn’t earn a penny from the profits of the TV series.

The program, starring Klugman and Tony Randall, debuted on September 25, 1970 on ABC (coincidentally on the same night the network premiered an all-black sitcom version of Barefoot in the Park). Originally filmed with a laugh track added to each episode, the stars hated the results, and demanded that the series be filmed before a live audience, which it was beginning in the second season. In addition, they were also among the first sitcom stars to participate in the writing sessions. With an ever-constant demand for stories, some of the more far-fetched plots stemmed from Randall’s interest in opera and ballet, and Klugman’s fondness for horse racing. The series ran for five seasons before its cancellation in 1975.

A second TV version, with an all-black cast, premiered in 1982. Demond Wilson (Sanford and Son) starred as Oscar, and Ron Glass (Barney Miller) as Felix. The series lasted only thirteen episodes.

In the early 1980s, Joan Rivers and Nancy Walker pleaded with Simon to write a female version of The Odd Couple, imagining themselves playing the leads. After some reluctance, he agreed to listen to the two actresses read the original play out loud, after which he agreed to adapt it for female versions of the characters. Ultimately, Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers became Olive and Florence, starring in the show on Broadway in 1985. It received mostly disappointing reviews, but ran for 295 performances.

Thirty years after the film version delighted audiences, Simon wrote the film sequel, The Odd Couple II, in 1998 (beware any film that includes a Roman numeral in the title). The project reunited Lemmon and Matthau, with the story of Felix’s daughter marrying Oscar’s son, and the two leads making a disastrous effort to get to the wedding. It was panned by critics, and was a failure at the box office.

A more successful revival of the original play came to Broadway in October of 2005 for a limited run, starring Nathan Lane as Oscar and Matthew Broderick as Felix, with Brad Garrett (Everybody Loves Raymond) as Murray the cop. Lane and Broderick were hot on the heels of their run in Mel Brooks’ Tony Award-laden The Producers, so their reunion in The Odd Couple resulted in the new production breaking Broadway advance ticket sales records at the time. It ran for 249 performances.

In 2015, yet another TV version appeared, starring Matthew Perry as Oscar and Thomas Lennon (Reno 911) as Felix.

The updated version was enjoyable in its own way, but it didn’t bear much resemblance to the play, film, or the Klugman-Randall version, but it did run for three seasons of 13 episodes each.

Have we seen the last revival of The Odd Couple? Odds are, not yet!

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