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Tony Randall

Tony Randall

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Also Known As: Leonard Rosenberg Died: May 17, 2004
Born: February 26, 1920 Cause of Death: died of complications from a long illness
Birth Place: Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA Profession: Cast ... actor artistic director
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BIOGRAPHY

Though he had a long, successful career on stage and screen, it was not until he made millions laugh as the fussy Felix Unger on "The Odd Couple" (ABC, 1970-75) that actor Tony Randall found the perfect role. Prior to his career-defining turn, Randall had appeared in a number of Broadway productions and foreshadowed Felix as an overbearing history teacher on "Mr. Peepers" (NBC, 1952-55). In features, he stole the show from Doris Day and Rock Hudson in the famous onscreen couple's three classic collaborations, hilariously playing the friend role in "Pillow Talk" (1959), "Lover Come Back" (1961) and "Send Me No Flowers" (1964). On the surface, his performances were played for laughs, but there was always an emotional vulnerability and complexity about his characters. Following the success of "The Odd Couple," Randall starred in two short-lived series, "The Tony Randall Show" (ABC/CBS, 1976-78) and the controversial "Love, Sidney" (NBC, 1981-83), where he played a not-so-closeted gay man which caused vehement response from religious groups. After that show was duly canceled, Randall swore never to star in his own series again and kept to his word. Meanwhile, he appeared less and less as he grew older, effectively retiring following a turn as a judge in "Basic Instinct" (1993). Of course, he was a frequent guest on talk shows, and held the record for appearances with David Letterman, proving that Randall's star continued to shine regardless of where he was in his career.

Born Arthur Leonard Rosenberg on Feb. 26, 1920 in Tulsa, OK, Randall was raised by his father, Mogscha, an art and antiques dealer, and his mother, Julia. After graduating from Tulsa Central High School, he spent a year studying speech and drama at Northwestern University, before moving to New York City to continue his studies at Columbia University and the Neighborhood Playhouse with renowned acting coach Sanford Meisner. Also at the time, he studied movement with Martha Graham and took voices lessons from Henri Jacobi. Following his years of training, Randall made his Broadway debut in "A Circle of Chalk" (1941), and soon turned in critically praised performances in "The Corn is Green" with Ethel Barrymore and "Candida" with Jane Cowl. Randall was set to star in Elia Kazan's "The Skin of Our Teeth," only to have his career interrupted after being called to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II. He served four years in the Signal Corps and was discharged with the rank of lieutenant. Randall wasted no time returning to acting, and moved back to New York where, after a brief stint on Harry Morgan's popular radio show, was ready to take on the theater world once again.

In the early 1950s, Randall appeared in a role that largely foreshadowed Felix Unger - overbearing Mr. Weskitt on the high school sitcom "Mr. Peepers" (NBC, 1952-55). After his stint on television, he returned to features with a breakthrough performance opposite Jayne Mansfield in "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" (1957), which followed with a leading stage role in the musical "Oh, Captain" (1958), based on the Alec Guinness film "The Captain's Paradise" (1953). He was hilarious in the lead role of a ferry captain who had a wife in every port, and although the musical was not a critical success, the actor received a Tony Award nomination for his performance. He followed with a successful trio of romantic comedies alongside Doris Day and Rock Hudson, playing the best friend role in "Pillow Talk" (1959), "Lover Come Back" (1961), and "Send Me No Flowers" (1964). Randall played multiple roles like Merlin, Pan, Medusa and the titular Dr. Lao in the comedy "7 Faces of Dr. Lao" (1964), before portraying more straightforward characters in "The Brass Bottle" (1964), "Robin and the 7 Hoods" (1964) and the mystery spoof "The Alphabet Murders" (1965).

Following more film roles in "Our Man in Marrakesh" (1966), "The Littlest Angel" (1969) and "Hello Down There" (1969), Randall found the role with which he would forever be identified, playing neurotic neat freak Felix Unger opposite the cigar-chomping slob Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman) on the TV version of "The Odd Couple" (ABC, 1970-75). For five years, Randall and Klugman entertained audiences with a deft blend of witty dialogue and physical comedy, and while the 1968 film version was made famous by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, both Randall and Klugman made the characters their own. In fact, Randall added his own touch of having Felix make strange noises during his sinus attacks and having him love opera as the actor did in real life. Over the course of the show's five seasons, Randall was nominated for five Golden Globes and two Emmy Awards, winning the later in 1975 for Best Actor in a Comedy Series. After "The Odd Couple" ended its esteemed run, Randall received his own show, "The Tony Randall Show" (ABC/CBS, 1976-78), where he played Walter Franklin, a stuffy judge and widower from Philadelphia. The show struggled to stay on air and was canceled after switching networks for its second season.

Though he spent most of the 1970s on the small screen, Randall did manage to tackle the occasional film role. He appeared as the operator of a NASA-like control center of a man's brain in the "What Happens During Ejaculation?" segment of Woody Allen's sex spoof, "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask") (1972). He next portrayed the father of four spoiled kids in the ensemble comedy "Scavenger Hunt" (1979) and was a tuxedoed performer in the critically derided comedy "The Gong Show Movie" (1980). Back on television, Randall played a single, middle-aged commercial artist in "Love, Sidney" (NBC, 1981-83), a character that was thought to be gay, though the series never overtly confirmed the speculation. Still, it was clear enough for most viewers and created controversy among religious and conservative groups. The series failed thanks in part to the uproar, and Randall refused to star in any more television series due to what he perceived as censorship. Instead, he returned to features and the stage, while often appearing on a number of talk and variety shows, including David Letterman's two late night shows on NBC and CBS, where Randall sat in the guest chair for a record 70 times or made unannounced cameos.

As he advanced in years, Randall was seen less and less on screen, though he did secure some voice work in the animated "My Little Pony: The Movie" (1986) and the sequel "Gremlins 2: The New Batch" (1990). Following a turn as a judge in "Basic Instinct" (1993) and a voice role as Mr. Grimm in "How the Toys Saved Christmas" (1996), Randall remained essentially retired from acting, though he did reprise Felix Unger opposite Jack Klugman's Oscard Madison - despite Klugman's throat cancer issues - for a black tie benefit performance of "The Odd Couple," which was followed by the television movie version, "The Odd Couple: Together Again" (CBS, 1993) with guest stars Penny Marshall, Jerry Adler and Dick Van Patten. Meanwhile, in 1992, Randall lost his wife of 55 years, Florence Gibbs, to cancer and remarried three years later to 25-year-old aspiring actress, Heater Harlan, when he was 50 years her senior. Regardless of the age difference, the pair had children in 1997 and 1998, which landed Randall in the tabloids for the first time in his storied career.

Meanwhile, Randall spent his later years advocating for causes, including an anti-smoking campaign, while launching the National Actors Theater in 1991 and donating $1 million to the theater in order to preserve and ensure the place of classical theater in everyday life. In fact, it was in one of his theater programs that he had met Harlan. After a long absence from the screen, Randall returned one last time for a cameo in the Ewan McGregor-Renee Zellweger romantic comedy, "Down with Love" (2003), a throwback to the 1960s sex farces that made Randall famous. In the visually stylish but under-performing romantic comedy, Randall spoofed his characters from "Pillow Talk" and "Lover Come Back." The role turned out to be the last time he appeared in film or on television. To the surprise of many, Randall died on May 17, 2004 of complications from pneumonia contracted after bypass surgery in 2003. Klugman - who believed he would predecease Randall due to his own throat cancer struggles - was devastated and wrote affectionately of his relationship with him in his memoir, Tony and Me: A Story of Friendship (2005).

By Shawn Dwyer

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