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!

Today, I am a blogger.

Considering how long it’s been taking me to get comfortable with 21st century technology, today marks a big step for me. I still don’t use a smartphone. I don’t text. I don’t tweet. But, as of today, I do blog! While it’s already become a commonplace thing to do (and, in some circles, mocked), I hope this weekly blog will prove to be both informative and entertaining. It will focus mostly on various aspects of pop culture, and from a historical perspective, whenever possible.

I’ve written five non-fiction and three fiction books. Hopefully, there is more to come from each side of my writing brain. I’ve always had diverse interests competing for my attention: science, history, world events, and, of course, pop culture–probably before it was even called pop culture. Ever since my childhood, I’ve absorbed whatever has fascinated and/or entertained me in movies, television, music, etc., and I’ve always been curious and eager to learn, rather than just experience it passively, without knowing the story behind the creation.

A little bit about how I got to be this way…

One day, when I was in the 5th or 6th grade, I was having lunch at home (back when we had an hour to go home every day for lunch), when I decided, for no reason other than curiosity, to listen to my parent’s 8-track tape of Beethoven’s Greatest Hits. I liked it! So, for the next few years, I became obsessed with Beethoven, reading about his life, and listening to records of his music, given to me as birthday and holiday gifts by somewhat confused but supportive family members. I didn’t really understand Beethoven’s music the way an adult with a more sophisticated set of ears would, and I probably didn’t read his biography from cover to cover, but I just thought he was cool. Plus, I kind of liked impressing my elders with my new musical preferences (even though it wasn’t much of a chick magnet in the 6th grade).

A year or two later, I gave a random listen to a Benny Goodman album, featuring the big band music my parents had grown up with in the 1940s. I loved that too, and promptly immersed myself in big band jazz. Around the same time, I discovered the Marx Brothers films on TV, and read about them as much as I could as well. I often talked my parents or older brothers into driving me from our home in suburban New Jersey into New York City, so I could attend all-day Marx Brothers film festivals. My current love of past and present comedy grew from the Marxes, Laurel & Hardy, and W. C. Fields. Again, it was always important to me to learn as I laughed, even if I had to teach myself. Watching “The Odd Couple” film and sitcom led me to buy a collection of Neil Simon’s plays. I memorized “The Odd Couple” and a few others, just for the love of his brilliantly funny dialogue. And, I learned how to write comedy from this–or so I like to think.

And then there were the Beatles. They’ve been a constant in my life since I was about three years old, dancing to “I Want To Hold Your Hand” even before I could sing it. The Fab Four are still a presence in some part of my consciousness every single day.

Many Beatles fans are also Anglophiles by extension, and I’m no exception. I spent my ninth birthday in London, where my family visited my brother during the college year he spent studying there. I fell n love with London and its environs and culture, all while peeking around every corner with the hope of catching an errant Beatle walking by or crossing the street.

And, most Anglophiles love British comedy, too, and again I’m no exception (how’s that for a segue?) Upon discovering “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and the wave of Britcoms that followed that classic series across the pond, I videotaped hundreds of hours, and eventually decided to do something constructive with all of that footage, resulting in my book “Best of the Britcoms.”

You get the idea, even though I’m leaving out quite a lot. But his is just my introductory blog, and with some luck I’ll fill in the gaps as I go from week to week, and from pop culture topic to pop culture topic. Some weeks I’ll use this space to delve more deeply into topic I’v discussed in my books; other weeks I might give new life to a passage from a book or magazine article I’ve written that never got to see the light of day. And there are a fair number of past and present movies, TV shows, and albums about which I’d like to offer my two cents. Hopefully, you’ll find yourself equally interested in may of the topic that clutter my mind on a regular basis, and will return each week to share a bit, and even learn a bit.

See you next week!

–Garry