Fifty Years of The Odd Couple on TV (Part 3)

Image for post
Image for post

In the first two parts of this look at the history of The Odd Couple, we went back to the beginning, with the origins of Neil Simon’s 1965 hit play on Broadway, the 1968 film adaptation, and the 1970 TV series. That covers quite a bit of ground in just over five years, but even after the end of the sitcom version, the life of The Odd Couple as a treasured comedy entity had a long way to go, and its journey has not been without a number of ups and downs.

The 198283 TV season was marred by a writer’s strike, forcing networks to scramble in a search to get new series on the air quickly, and cheaply. In this environment, The New Odd Couple premiered on October 29, with a largely all-black cast, starring Demond Wilson (formerly of Sanford and Son) as Oscar, and Ron Glass (formerly of Barney Miller) as Felix. Due to the strike, eight of the episodes used scripts from the original series, but even after the strike ended, ABC, seeing how the program had failed to gain an audience, cancelled it after 18 episodes.

As for the original play, that too underwent a major transformation in the early ’80s, by Neil Simon’s hand.

“For years I had received dozens upon dozens of letters from all over the country, asking me to allow an all-woman production of the play of The Odd Couple,” he wrote in his memoirs.Those making this request included numerous stars based in both Los Angeles and New York, who wanted to tour the production and then bring it to Broadway. None of the letters, however, made any mention of how they would do it. Did they intend to simply change the names of Oscar and Felix to Olive and Florence, and have them drink Diet Cokes instead of beer? It could be done, I thought, but not that way; I would have to rewrite it completely. I’d keep the exact same structure as the original, but make the characters women — real women, not women behaving as men played by women.”

The two individuals who became the most emphatic in their interest to see (and perform) a female version of the play were Joan Rivers and Nancy Walker. Rivers’ husband, Edgar Rosenberg, presented it to Simon, who abruptly dismissed the idea. “Nancy and Joan wanted to do the play. I still didn’t think it would work.” Despite this, the actresses spent a month preparing their case, and Simon finally agreed to see them. After a reading through portions of the original play (plus Simon’s wife at the time, Marsha Mason, reading all of the other roles), they had the playwright laughing enough to happily give in, and soon began reworking the play. Thus, Oscar did indeed become Olive, and Felix became Florence.

As reported at the time, “Mr. Simon has done a good deal of rewriting. ‘It’s basically still The Odd Couple, but it will seem like a new play,’ he says. “I had to update it and make it more relevant to women’s needs today.’ ”

The show was to be directed by Danny, who held the initial read-through with Walker and Rivers, but he was dismissed during the tryout tour (which included San Francisco and Los Angeles). Curiously, Walker and Rivers also disappeared from the project at some point, to be replaced by Sally Struthers and Rita Moreno.

Image for post
Image for post
Florence (Struthers) and Olive (Moreno).

Upon its New York premiere in June of 1985, the critics were less than impressed with the effort, citing that Simon’s attempts to update the material with 1985 references, as well as giving the characters a sex-change, resulted in a clunky script.

As Frank Rich critiqued in The New York Times,The playwright is not at his best when imagining female characters, and Olive and Flo at times sound like Oscar and Felix in drag. As a result, the gender switch proves less a spur to new levity than a gimmick that leaves a trail of distracting loose ends…

“Mr. Simon does inject some updated references…but they’re affixed perfunctorily, like stickers slapped on an old valise, to characters sociologically rooted in the early 1960s. What’s even more disappointing is the playwright’s dismantling of some of the emotional underpinnings that made his original Odd Couple an affecting play rather than merely a compendium of jokes. At the memorable conclusion of the male version, we realize that the irresponsible Oscar has matured after spending three weeks in symbiotic disharmony with the exasperating Felix. This Odd Couple just trails off at the end, leaving Olive an unregenerate exemplar of trivial pursuits.”

Rich did approve of a “new” creation, i.e. transforming the giggly, British Pidgeon Sisters of the original play into two Spanish (and quite dim) brothers, arriving for their double date with Olive and Florence. The critic described the scene “As superbly timed by the actors and the director Gene Saks, it fills the Broadhurst with hilarity that cannot be found anywhere else on Broadway (unless it’s during the Act II opening of the Simon-Saks Biloxi Blues).”

Image for post
Image for post

Fellow critic Walter Kerr, also of The New York Times, wrote: “For whatever curious reasons, the minute you make this particular transposition, the plot disappears. There are some gags left, old ones that seem friendly and new ones that seem forced. But where the rock-solid story-line once proudly stood, there’s just a great big hole. The comedy plants itself four square on the stage of the Broadhurst and defies its author, director, and players to make it make sense…

“Sally Struthers’s Florence, for instance, may still insist on doing the night’s dishes before she toddles off to bed — and she is funny letting a phone cord uncoil itself dizzily or laboring to pry the lid from the box into which the Trivial Pursuit cards must go — but the fact of the matter is that her advertised neatness doesn’t extend to her own personal appearance or social graces. She’s really much more the slob than Rita Moreno is in Oscar’s role, topped as she is with a blond haystack and a 5-year-old’s hair ribbon, sucking up a Dr. Pepper through a straw so interminably that you’re inclined to think she may strike oil…”

Kerr concluded with, “The original Odd Couple has a magnificent track record, including the fine film made of it by present director Gene Saks, and I feel sure it’s going to keep right on giving it year after year. This year, however, I think you’ll be a lot happier with Mr. Simon’s and Mr. Saks’s “Biloxi Blues.”

The Female Odd Couple closed after 295 performances.

What, then, was there left to do with this American classic? In the mid-’90s, with the 30th anniversary of the film version not far off, plans began to gel for a sequel to the 1968 version starring Matthau and Lemmon. Who would play the roles in the sequel? Tony Randall and Jack Klugman? No, but in 1996, the duo again starred in the original play for a three-month run at the Theatre Royal in London, to raise money for Randall’s National Actor’s Theatre.

So, who would reprise Matthau and Lemmon’s roles from the 1968 film in a 1990s sequel? Matthau and Lemmon, of course.

Howard Koch, the producer of the original film, had tried for years to raise interest in a sequel, with Simon as the screenwriter. Simon had the first 37 pages written for The Odd Couple 2 “sitting in the drawer” for ten years. Finally, in March of 1997, Paramount executives announced the go-ahead for the sequel (although Koch was no longer involved).

Image for post
Image for post

The updated story of Oscar and Felix has them traveling to the wedding of their children — that is, Felix’s daughter Hannah (a name not mentioned in the play or TV series) marrying Oscar’s son, Brucie. Oscar has been living in retirement in Florida, while Felix has remained in New York. They meet in New York and fly to California together. Upon their arrival, their efforts to reach the wedding venue meet one disaster and diversion after another.

Filming took place throughout the summer of 1997; the film premiered in April of ’98, receiving scathing reviews and poor box office.

Stephen Holden, reviewing the film in The New York Times, said, “The idea of hiring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau fresh from their successes as grumpy old men to reinhabit the roles that established them as inspired comic sparring partners three decades ago sounds promising. But the movie turns out to be a dispiriting, flavorless travesty, the equivalent of moldy tofu mystery meat and rancid skim milk…

“Mr. Simon’s screenplay is so clunky and devoid of real jokes that the actors are reduced to desperate mugging and shouting to try to pump some energy into their bickering dialogue…You’ll heave a sigh of relief when both Felix and Oscar eventually end up safely back in that Florida retirement community. It’s the only place they belong.”

Still and all, the setback was best forgotten. On a brighter note, the original play returned to the New York stage in 2005 amid much fanfare. Why? The two stars were reason enough for ticket sales to break records: Nathan Lane as Oscar, and Matthew Broderick as Felix. The duo had starred in Mel Brooks’ 2001 Broadway musical version of his 1968 film The Producers. The stage production starring Lane and Broderick won a record 12 Tony Awards, and ran for just over 2,500 performances.

Image for post
Image for post
The Dream Team of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.

And here they were, back together, as Oscar and Felix. As soon as tickets became available for order, all box office hell broke loose. In under three days, ticket buyers paid over $5 million via phone and online. On July 3, The New York Times reported, “As of early last week, the show had nearly $18 million in advance sales, the highest ever for a Broadway play.” Another $3 million would be added to the total before opening night.

Critic Ben Brantley noted that the excitement was the result of a number of factors, but he didn’t consider the quality of the new production to be worthy of hoopla:

“Consider the basic ingredients of the bland, mechanical new revival of Neil Simon’s ‘Odd Couple,’ starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, at the Brooks Atkinson Theater; a play that may be the most famous American comedy of the last 50 years, thanks largely to its reincarnation as a television series that flickers on forever in the twilight of syndication; and two actors perceived as being to Broadway what Redford and Newman once were to Hollywood — chemistry-igniting buddies whose pairing automatically spells box office…”

Image for post
Image for post
The poker buddies.

As of this writing, and thanks to YouTube, you can view an entire performance of the revival (divided into 12 separate postings), shot with admirable skill by an audience member. The most recognizable supporting player would be Brad Garrett, whose portrayal of Murray the Cop couldn’t help but resemble his turn as sad sack Robert Barone (also a cop) on the hit sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond.

The production ran for 28 previews and 249 performances.

In February of 2015, yet another TV version of The Odd Couple premiered, this time on CBS. Updated to contemporary times, the series, shot before a live audience, was a pet project of Matthew Perry, who had been having rather poor luck on TV of late, starring in two failed sitcoms since the end of the powerhouse Friends. In addition to starring as Oscar, Perry took on co-producing and co-writing chores for the show. Thomas Lennon, one of the masterminds behind the classic Reno 911, starred as Felix.

Image for post
Image for post

The program was not enthusiastically embraced by TV viewers, but it ran for three abbreviated seasons of 13 episodes each (and with unusually long gaps between each season).

To honor Garry Marshall’s guidance of the original TV version, the director — who had suffered a stroke, slightly imparing his speech — was asked to take part in an episode of the new incarnation, to play Oscar’s father. The program underwent a number of changes in supporting characters and its cast, before being cancelled in May of 2017.

Neil Simon, from whose brilliant creative mind The Odd Couple, and dozens of other award-winning comedies came, passed away on August 28, 2018 at the age of 91.

And that, believe it or not, pretty much brings us up-to-date with the ongoing history of The Odd Couple, which may very likely continue to live on forever in one form or another — and deservedly so.

Until next time…

Written by

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store