Star of stage, screen won an Emmy for famous TV role

This article was updated on May 19, 2004.

Versatile actor and culture maven Tony Randall, whose career in theater, film and television spanned more than 60 years — and who made the TV character of Felix Unger into a pop icon — has died at 84.

Randall died in his sleep Monday night at NYU Medical Center, due to complications from a prolonged illness.

The opinionated, urbane actor stamped so much of his persona onto “The Odd Couple’s” fastidious freelance photog Felix — his knowledge of opera, his erudition, his militant opposition to smoking — that the perception grew that the role, created for the stage by Neil Simon, was Randall’s doppelganger. Randall shied from the comparison, however.

“I see the part of Felix as a male Jewish mother, manipulating others, as hysterical people do,” hesaid.

“The Odd Couple’s” other half on TV, Jack Klugman, who had known Randall since 1954, said he was pleased to learn the lights on Broadway were to be dimmed Tuesday night in memory of Randall.

Klugman said: “He was a loyal friend, a wonderful husband and father. I remember we were doing ‘The Odd Couple’ onstage in London when he got word his wife was pregnant. He burst into my dressing room and shouted, ‘The machinery works!’ ”

His accomplishments spanned genres and media. His first love, however, was the theater, and his most memorable stage role was as journo E.K. Hornbeck in Lawrence & Lee’s 1955 Broadway hit “Inherit the Wind.”

Indeed, theater was the genesis of most of Randall’s best work. His big break in film came in 1957 in Frank Tashlin’s “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?,” based on George Axelrod’s Broadway play, in the lead role fashioned for the screen. He was touring in the late ’60s with “The Odd Couple” when he was approached about the TV series.

Toward the end of his career, he founded the National Actors Theater, realizing his dream of establishing a classical repertory company.

Born Leonard Rosenberg in Tulsa, Okla., he seemed predisposed toward acting at a young age: One of his teachers sent home a note saying, “Please stop him from making faces.”

He attended Northwestern U., majoring in speech and drama, and headed to New York, after marrying college sweetheart Florence Mitchell, to study acting under Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse. At the same time, he studied movement under Martha Graham and voice with Henry Jacobi.

Randall’s stage debut came in 1941, in “A Circle of Chalk.” He appeared with Ethel Barrymore in “The Corn Is Green” and with Jane Cowl in “Candida.”

When he was replaced by Dean Martin at the last minute in 1958 film “The Young Lions” due to what he believed was agency interference, Randall became a witness in the government’s case against MCA, which resulted in the breakup of the powerful agency.

It would be in romantic comedy that Randall’s talents would become most valued. In quick succession, he starred in 1959’s “Pillow Talk” and “The Mating Game,” “Let’s Make Love” (1960, with Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand), “Lover Come Back” (1961), “Boys Night Out” (1962), “Island of Love” (1963), 1964’s “The Brass Bottle” (with Barbara Eden — and with Burl Ives as the genie) and “Send Me No Flowers.”

In “Pillow Talk,” “Lover Come Back” and “Flowers,” Randall played the comic sounding board for Rock Hudson and Doris Day.

“He was the funniest man in movies and on television, and nothing was as much fun as working with him,” Day said.

Randall’s last film appearance was in 2003’s “Down With Love.” When Daily Variety’s Army Archerd visited the set of the pic starring Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor and David Hyde Pierce, Pierce said he didn’t have a work call that day but just wanted to watch Randall work. “I idolize him,” the actor said.

Randall starred in several film comedies through the ’60s and ’70s, but it was in TV, particularly on the long-running “Odd Couple,” that Randall’s comic talents shone.

ABC skein, which co-starred Klugman as slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison to Randall’s persnickety Felix, ran five seasons and garnered Emmys for both stars: After being nominated in the show’s first four years, Randall’s lone win came in 1975, after the show had been canceled. At the Emmys, he quipped, “I’m so happy I won. Now if I only had a job.”

Subsequent NBC sitcom “Love, Sydney” (1981-83; two Golden Globe noms) also was critically lauded. Randall took great pride in the TV movie on which the skein was spun — “Sidney Shorr: A Girl’s Best Friend” — in which he played a homosexual who shares his home with a single mom and her daughter. For the series, however, conservative groups forced the net to change Randall’s character from gay to “confirmed bachelor.”

His film roles in the ’80s and ’90s were mainly in made-fors or docus, or parts where the actor played himself (1983’s “The King of Comedy”). He reunited with Klugman for TV movie “The Odd Couple: Together Again” (1993).

About the time Randall’s first wife, Florence, died, he returned to theater. He toured in “The Music Man” and appeared on Broadway in “M. Butterfly” (1989) before founding and serving as artistic director for the National Actors Theater.

The company’s productions rarely earned strong reviews and often foundered at the box office. Critical and B.O. successes — George C. Scott in a revival of “Inherit the Wind” (1996) and Matthew Broderick in “Night Must Fall” (1999) — were the exception rather than the rule. And Randall was criticized for appearing in too many of the company’s shows. The company moved Off Broadway in 2002, where it found success with Al Pacino starring in Bertolt Brecht’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.”

In 1995, Randall married actress Heather Harlan, who was interning at the NAT. He is survived by his wife and their two children.

(Charles Isherwood in New York and Army Archerd in Hollywood contributed to this report.)

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