Fifty Years of “The Odd Couple” on TV (Part I)

“How do you write a play funnier than The Odd Couple? I wouldn’t dare try to.” — Neil Simon, 1982

Brace yourself, baby-boomers: As difficult as it may be to believe, it has been 50 years since the premiere of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple sitcom on ABC — on September 24, 1970, to be exact. The series’ 114 episodes have been kept alive via reruns on various local TV stations around the country, and on nostalgia cable networks, ever since the show’s cancellation five years after its opening episode. The stars, Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, were well-known journeyman actors for years before this pairing for the show sent them to a considerably higher level of public recognition and popularity.

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But this sitcom version of the hit play about two divorced friends, finding it impossible to live together, occurred only a fraction of the way through its long and winding history of adaptations on TV, film, and the stage. In fact, the time between opening night of the play at the Plymouth Theatre in New York, the filming and release of the theatrical film version, and the premier of the TV sitcom version, spanned only 5 ½ years. And there has been much, much more to the life of Simon’s most famous play and those incarnations since the end of the run in 1975, but perhaps its best to stick to chronological order here, albeit in a very condensed form:

On New Year’s Day, 1965, Neil Simon had been busy doing rewrites for his new play. He was already the toast of Broadway, but his work ethic was as strict as ever, leaving his home on Central Park West every morning and arriving at a rented office on E. 57th Street at about 10:00 a.m., where he’d often stay until nightfall, snacking on cookies and dry roasted peanuts.

He had by then moved on from his career as a TV comedy writer — with older brother Danny as his partner — which included writing for Phil Silvers, Garry Moore and Sid Caesar. The process was basically the same for all variety/sketch shows of the time: “You’re in there with seven other writers,” he later recalled. “You’re all sitting in the same room, fighting for recognition. Everyone’s throwing out lines and saying whatever pops into his head. A few nights later, you’re sitting home with your wife watching the show and she’s laughing and she turns to you and says, ‘That was a funny line. It must have been yours.’ You try to think back and you tell her you honestly don’t know whether the line was yours or somebody else’s.”

In his effort for his work to be seen and judged on its own merits, he wrote his first play, Come Blow Your Horn, which opened Feb 22, 1961, and ran for an impressive 677 performances. This was followed the following year by his writing the book for the musical Little Me, starring his former boss Caesar playing multiple roles.

Then Simon’s success reached the stratosphere. His semi-autobiographical play Barefoot in the Park, directed by Mike Nichols, opened on October 23, 1963, starring Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley, and was to run for 1,530 performances. The play was such a rousing success that Paramount Pictures bought the film and television rights to it, as well as the rights to Simon’s next play (which hadn’t been written yet). Thanks to poor advice from his business manager, Simon agreed. That next play would be The Odd Couple.

The concept for the play actually began with Danny. By the early 1960s, he had moved to Los Angeles to write for a number of TV comedy series, while Neil stayed in New York to pursue his career as a playwright. But Danny also went through a divorce, causing not only heartbreak, but anxiety about maintaining his ability to support his young son and daughter. At about the same time, a good friend of both Danny and Neil, agent Roy Gerber, had also broken up with his wife.

With alimony and child support to consider, Simon and Gerber decided to move in together to help cut down on expenses. They also ventured 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’s indifference about arriving home on-time for dinner — caused more than a few heated squabbles.

Neil witnessed this in person during a visit to California. Instead of going out to a restaurant, the roommates invited him to dinner, to be cooked by Danny.

“To me and to anyone else seeing it, the situation was hilarious,” Neil relates in his memoirs. “I told Danny it was the premise of a brilliant comedy, whether as a film or a play. He agreed and told me he intended to sit down and write it.”

Danny decided to give it a try, but he struggled with the play for months. He was not accustomed to writing alone. He preferred collaborating with at least one partner — usually Neil — or with a group of staff writers. Despite Neil’s constant encouragement and periodic phone calls to spur him on, Danny couldn’t seem to get past the first fifteen pages of the draft. Giving up, he offered it to his brother. “You know how to write plays,” he said, “I don’t. You write it instead.”

Neil agreed to take over, warning Danny that he would approach it from a different — and more objective — perspective. But he also promised to forward a percentage of any earnings from the play in perpetuity (the figure has been reported to be one-sixth of the royalties, eventually amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars for Danny, although decades later he still expressed his irritation over not getting the credit “From an idea by Danny Simon”).

And so the characters of Oscar Madison and Felix Unger were born, “making them opposites in many more ways than they were in life,” Neil said. The two real-life roommates actually liked each other and got on very well — except when Gerber arrived home late for dinner. But Neil also wanted to give them a group of friends who would gather at the apartment for a weekly, Friday night escape from their own wives (the poker game), giving them an opportunity to blow off steam, eat, and bond — but not without their own moments of irritation with each other.

Mike Nichols, who had guided Barefoot in the Park to such great success, was called upon to do the same with The Odd Couple. The cast was led by Walter Matthau as Oscar, and Art Carney as Felix — although Matthau himself wanted to play the fussy neat-freak, claiming that role would be more of a stretch for him as an actor. But his request was quickly brushed aside by both the author and director.

Despite the plethora of hilarious one-liners that grace the dialogue throughout, Simon revealed his own surprising perspective of the comedy. “I thought The Odd Couple was a black comedy. I never thought it was going to be popular, ever. I thought it was a grim, dark play about two lonely men.”

The show opened on March 10, 1965, facing rather stiff competition by Broadway shows that were already running, most of which had opened the previous season, but were still going strong with their original stars. These included: Barefoot in the Park, Fiddler on the Roof (starring Zero Mostel, Funny Girl (starring Barbra Streisand, Hello, Dolly! (Carol Channing), Golden Boy (Sammy Davis Jr.), and Victor Borge’s Comedy in Music.

The next morning, with unanimous raves from the critics splashed across the New York papers, hundreds of ticket buyers converged at the Plymouth Theatre. By 10:00 a.m., an estimated 200 were on line. Simon described himself as “kind of numb” but “deliciously delighted” by the immediate success.

The Odd Couple cost $150,000 to produce. By the next day after its premiere, a spokesman reported that $20,000 worth of tickets had been sold, and had already earned a half-million dollars in advanced sales. And, remember, the film rights had been purchased by Paramount Pictures for $400,000.

With the show playing to a sold-out house through the spring and into the summer, all was well, except for the personal turmoil that had begun to take its toll on Art Carney. By late September, the breakdown of his marriage, bouts of depression, and heavy drinking made it impossible for him to continue as Felix. It was announced on October 6 that he had left the show, been hospitalized, and would not return to the play.

On October 25, Eddie Bracken began as Carney’s replacement, but by then Matthau was about to leave the show, to star in writer/director Billy Wilder’s film The Fortune Cookie. Filming began on October 31.

Matthau’s departure, planned to cover the few months needed to star in the film, obviously required a replacement as well. Danny Simon mentioned this to journeyman actor Jack Klugman. The two had worked on the short-lived NBC sitcom Harris Against the World in the Autumn of 1964, for which Danny was story editor.

When Klugman was given The Odd Couple script to read, “I read the play and laughed so hard I literally fell off the couch. I thought it was sensational and gave Danny and enthusiastic “Yes!”

Klugman took over role on November 8th, 1965. His salary, however, was $1,500 a week, far less than Matthau’s $5,800 a week. Klugman didn’t begrudge Matthau’s salary; he saw his performance and was knocked out by it — so much so that he wondered if there was anything he could do to make the part his own once he took over. He watched Matthau several times, “until finally I saw it: near the end of the second act, Felix and Oscar are really having it out and Oscar says, ‘…and then you move in, my oldest and dearest friend…’ That’s when it hit me: this is the soul of the play.”

Eight weeks into filming The Fortune Cookie, Matthau suffered a severe heart attack, which set back production an additional eight weeks. It became clear that even if he could complete his role for the film, The Odd Couple would need the Oscar on a long-term basis. Klugman was asked to sign on for an additional year, with an offer for a mere $250-a-week raise. He asked for double, which still would fall $3,800 short of Matthau’s salary. To his surprise, the answer was no. “Of course, they never thought I would quit,” Klugman recalled. “Even my own agent, Milton Goldman, didn’t think I would quit. But I did. I quit the next week.”

On February 28, 1966, Pat Hingle took over as Oscar. In the meantime, a touring version of play had begun, starring Dan Dailey as Oscar, and Richard Benjamin as Felix.

The Broadway production closed on July 2, 1967 after 964 performances. But there was more to come. Much more.

The Odd Couple’s successful run on Broadway — and elsewhere around the world — led to the film version, which served as a nearly line-by-line recreation of the stage hit, thus enabling those who were unable to see it onstage enjoy the lovably identifiable characters and crackling comic dialogue.

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Matthau would repeat his role as Oscar, with Jack Lemmon (Matthau’s co-star in The Fortune Cookie) playing Felix. It was a perfect teaming of two top-notch comic actors.

“Writing the screenplay of The Odd Couple was the easiest job I ever had,” Neil Simon said. “I used virtually all the dialogue from the play in the film script, and in order to take the action outside the apartment into the streets of New York, I made minor adjustments in the dialogue, so that playing a scene on Riverside Drive near Grant’s Tomb seemed perfectly natural.

“When Jack Lemon did his moose calls to clear up his sinus problems, it was far funnier taking place in a luncheonette, because it provided an opportunity for all the customers to look curiously at Jack each time his horn blew again. It made Walter Matthau equally funnier because every time Jack honked, Walter half smiled and looked away, pretending he didn’t really know this man he was sitting with, and why was he doing those weird duck imitations?”

By this time, the play was being performed far and wide, including London. The actor playing Oscar in the 1969 West End production? Jack Klugman. Playing Felix was the great comic actor Victor Spinetti, a common face on British TV and films (including major supporting roles in the Beatles’ films A Hard Day’s Night and Help!).

Klugman recalled, “I did The Odd Couple in London where it also received rave reviews, which was unusual because American comedies are generally not well received in London. But I wasn’t surprised English audiences liked this play. They’re sophisticated. And let’s face it, it doesn’t take a seasoned critic to see that The Odd Couple is a brilliant American comedy.”

“This ticket will be hotter than Olivier’s Othello,” one of the reviewers said.

“He was right,” Klugman confirmed. “We played to standing room only for an entire year. When Neil Simon finally saw the London show, he wrote a very nice letter to me. Then I heard he went back to Arnold Saint-Subber, his producer, ‘Maybe we should have given Jack the extra two hundred and fifty bucks!’ ”

Victor Spinetti recalled decades later, “I loved playing Felix in The Odd Couple. One day I as playing the Saturday matinee and the phone rang and it was [film director]Franco Zeffirelli. He said, ‘I come to see your show tonight, I want ten tickets.’ I said, ‘But it’s a sell out.’ So there was a knock at the door and there was Joan Crawford and I said to Franco, ‘Can I call you back, Joan Crawford’s just here?’ and this voice on the phone went ‘You ****!!!’ And it really was Joan Crawford and she said, ‘I’ve seen this show in New York and I’ve seen it in Los Angeles and you brought something to this part that I’ve never seen before, and that’s vulnerability.’

Part II of this article, including the inside story of the ABC series, is coming in just a few days. Watch this space!

Written by

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

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