Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Odd Couple - and Big Mouth Howard Cosell

The classic TV series The Odd Couple is one of my favorite comedies. ABC televised it from September 1970 through March 1975. The network continually bounced the sitcom between Thursday and Friday nights using different time slots. The show received mediocre ratings during its original run of 114 episodes, but achieved much greater success during syndication.

The Odd Couple was set in New York City and starred Tony Randall as Felix Unger and Jack Klugman as Oscar Madison. Randall played a commercial photographer while Klugman portrayed a sports columnist for the fictional New York Herald newspaper. The TV show was based on a 1965 Broadway play of the same name written by Neil Simon. The initial season used a laugh track, but for subsequent seasons, the show was filmed before a live studio audience in Hollywood.

The two central characters were both divorced and shared a Manhattan apartment. Felix was quite meticulous, obsessed with cleanliness, and prone to sinus attacks. Oscar was rather sloppy and disheveled and would often wear a Mets hat backwards. Felix loved the opera while Oscar frequently gambled and smoked cigars. Randall and Klugman played their respective roles brilliantly. The duo had tremendous on-screen chemistry and the contrast between the opposite personalities of the characters worked perfectly. The episodes often featured sequences of rapid-fire dialogue filled with humorous one-liners. The banter between Felix and Oscar defined the show.

During some of the early seasons, the show used a variation of the following opening theme narration which ended with the classic question: "Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?"



Garry Marshall produced the TV series. The cast included two prominent supporting characters. One was Murray Greshler played by Al Molinaro. Murray was a policeman who was a regular in Felix and Oscar's poker game. The other was Myrna Turner played by Garry's sister Penny Marshall. Myrna was Oscar's secretary at the newspaper. Both Penny and Al would later surface on the sitcom Happy Days which Garry would also produce.

The Odd Couple utilized guest stars on several episodes. One of the most notable of these was Howard Cosell who was the most recognized sports announcer at the time. His Q score and notoriety were exploding as Monday Night Football on ABC grew in popularity. He also called many boxing matches and did segments for Wide World of Sports.

In a bit of ABC cross-promotion, Cosell made two appearances on the sitcom, both times portraying himself. As an aside, is there any TV personality in history more suited to playing himself/herself than Cosell? I would think not.

His first appearance came in a 1972 episode appropriately titled Big Mouth. In this show, Felix has landed a photography job for a cola advertisement spot featuring Cosell. The script contains several verbal clashes between Cosell and Oscar which played on the real-life disdain that Cosell and the New York Daily News sportswriter Dick Young demonstrated toward each other at that time.

The first part of the episode illustrates a typical exchange between Felix and Oscar. I especially like the way Felix exclaims "You took a cab to come here to borrow money?" As soon as Cosell enters, he and Oscar immediately start trading insults. Next, we have a super scene where Felix is ranting at Oscar who is at the typewriter working on a column which blasts Cosell. And note the way he "files" the article with Myrna.



The next clip includes a memorable "handshake" between Oscar and Cosell. Then there is the classic sinus and nasal twang routine resulting in Cosell calling Felix an "inane drone". Later, the script calls for Cosell to show off by rapidly rattling off the entire Colts defensive lineup from memory.



The final segment begins with Oscar learning that despite his request to pull the column, Myrna convinced the editor to run it. During the photo shoot, Cosell sees the article and storms out of the studio. In a broadcast scene, Cosell introduces Charlie - winner of the (classically titled) "Why I Want to Be Like Howard Cosell" contest. Cosell then tries to embarrass Oscar by putting him live on the air without warning. Oscar remains silent, overcome with stagefright, but Felix takes the microphone and jumps in with some elegant and longwinded play-by-play to bail out his best friend.

One more point of interest - According to a book by Mark Ribowsky, the lengthy departing remark from 8:09-8:36 mark on this clip was actually written by Cosell.



Cosell made a return appearance on The Odd Couple in the 1975 episode Your Mother Wears Army Boots. ABC executive producer Roone Arledge also played himself in that show as did opera singer Martina Arroyo. That episode also used the Monday Night Football angle with ABC hiring Oscar as a temporary fill-in for Alex Karras in the booth.

For a "non-actor", I feel that Cosell demonstrated rather impressive acting skills on these shows and added greatly to the entertainment. He sounded authentic with his distinctive and deliberate vocal pattern. The writers gave him many great lines, but Cosell was willing to play a caricature of himself and was quite successful in doing so. At various points in the 1972 show, Cosell describes himself as "the big man", "the great one", "the gifted one", "the single most identifiable voice in all broadcasting", and refers to "my own special talents". In the 1975 episode, he brazenly refers to Monday Night Football as "my show".

The production was surprisingly shoddy regarding the football games Cosell was broadcasting. The 1972 episode covers two Giants games and both times the displayed footage contains artificial turf. The show implies that the frist game was in New York and specifically describes the second game as being at Yankee Stadium, but it had natural grass. The Giants didn't play home games on artificial turf until 1976. Charlie calls a play as ending at the 49-yard line, but the footage shows a tackle around the 30-yard line. On the play Felix calls, he describes Roger Staubach being stopped for no gain, but the footage shows Duane Thomas being tackled. In the 1975 episode, Cosell describes a 19-yard pass by Joe Namath, but the footage shows the play covering only 11 yards. Finally, both episodes portray Cosell as an NFL play-by-play announcer rather than the unique "third man in the booth" role he actually filled on the ABC games.

Other guest stars with sports ties who played themselves on this series included Deacon Jones, Bubba Smith, Bobby Riggs, and Billie Jean King. Some additional celebrities who did likewise: Bob Hope, Dick Clark, Betty White, Richard Dawson, Hugh Hefner, and Wolfman Jack along with game show hosts Allen Ludden (Password) and Monty Hall (Let's Make a Deal).

Randall and Klugman each had long and successful acting careers, but both were best known for their roles on The Odd Couple as evidenced by virtually any obituary or tribute written for either one. Klugman won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series in both 1971 and 1973 for his role as Oscar while Randall took the same honor in 1975 for his role as Felix. During the entire 5-season run of the series, both Randall and Klugman were among the handful of nominees for this award every year.

In addition to the Me-TV networkThe Odd Couple is also currently available on the Cloo TV network and many clips from the series appear on Youtube.

This post is part of Me-TV's Summer of Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Go to http://classic-tv-blog-assoc.blogspot.com/ to view more posts in this blogathon. You can also go to http://metvnetwork.com/ to learn more about Me-TV and view its summer line-up of classic TV shows.

23 comments:

  1. "...dexterity of a lizard." Funny stuff. I had the pleasure of seeing Randall and Klugman perform in Simon's play twice. It's been many years since I sat down and enjoyed the TV program. Those two were great together.

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    1. Thanks, Patricia. Must have been a treat to see Tony and Jack perform in person.

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  2. Great post. I agree that the chemistry between Randall and Klugman is perfection. Having known a lot of sports writers, I especially enjoy Klugman's portrayal of Oscar.

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    1. Thanks, Amy. The sportswriter angle helped draw me into the show. The quality of the acting kept me there.

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  3. Great writeup, Jeff! I don't watch The Odd Couple enough - every time I catch an episode, I always seem to be surprised at how funny it is, and how well it's aged.

    I'm glad you mentioned the bit about how poorly they handled the footage of the football game. One of my pet peeves about TV from that era (and movies as well) is how primitive their use of "file footage" is. I saw an episode of The Saint the other night where Templar was attending a hockey game, and they used film from three different games in a three-minute span! I suppose we're some of the only ones who would notice, but still...

    I think a great improvement in modern TV and films is how well television news, sports, etc. is portrayed. The graphics, the camera angles, the reporters, the use of real networks and people - that's all a vast upgrade from the past.

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    1. Thanks, Mitchell. I'm glad you appreciated my commentary on the game footage. I debated whether or not to go down that path in the post, but eventually decided that I should do so... I agree completely with your last paragraph.

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  4. Jeff, I've seen the film adaptation of THE ODD COUPLE as well as a stage version--and, with apologies to the fine actors who played Felix and Oscar, they are NOT Felix and Oscar. Those roles can be only be inhabited by Randall and Klugman! THE ODD COUPLE was a very funny show, especially in its first few years. I remembered that Cosell made some guest star appearances, but not the plots of those episodes nor the marvelous, long-winded dialogue in the clip you included. What a perfect pick for the Me_TV Blogathon (and consistent with the theme of your blog, too!)

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    1. Thanks, Rick - and good points. Initially, I waffled between doing an overview of the series in general or focusing on the first Cosell episode. I sort of compromised and did a mix of both - glad you appreciated the end result. And congrats on your role in making this blogathon happen. So many talented bloggers and quality posts!

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  5. I'm sort of a sporadic Odd Couple watcher, but know the Cosell episodes well. They are hysterical. The chemistry between the Klugman and Randall was amazing, and seemed quite real. I saw them on Larry King years ago, after Klugman had lost some of his voice, and they were quite happy hanging out together. I'm sort of Team Oscar, because I'm not sure I could handle the OCD Felix for too long, but I have to say, as a big Quincy fan, I have to switch mental gears when I watch Klugman as Oscar. So different, and somewhat the same. Also, Garry Walberg, who played Lt. Monahan on Quincy, showed up on the Odd Couple a few times. It always makes me smile when I see him.

    Great post!

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    1. Thanks, Amanda. And how tremendous is the fact that TV series such as this are available in many forms (syndication, DVD, YouTube, etc.) allowing the super chemistry and skillful acting of Randall and Klugman to live on.

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  6. I love your focus in this post--how fun! I love the Deacon Jones episode--the scene where Felix tries talking to Deacon while both men sit at the bar is hilarious! Thanks for writing this piece.

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    1. Thanks, Joanna. So many classic scenes and great guest stars in this series.

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  7. "Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?" The answer to this question has always, of course, been "no."

    The Odd Couple is the exception to the rule that Garry Marshall really churned out some crappy TV shows. It's still timeless, it's still funny...and it's all due to the incredible chemistry between Randall and Klugman - who always seemed as if they were having a ball working together. There are some Odd Couple episodes that literally make me cry with laughter (the "Password" show being one of them). Got the opportunity to re-visit this Cosell show the other night and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

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    1. Thanks, Ivan. I agree that the Password episode (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1kPnfV_Aus) was tremendous and could have easily served as the focal point of a blog post.

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  8. I always remember "The Odd Couple" as very popular in its day, so it surprises me that its ratings weren't that great. Jack Klugman and Tony Randall will always standout as one of TV's great sitcom buddy teams - and were so much more likeable as Oscar and Felix than Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon (an excruciatingly annoying Felix!).

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    1. Thanks, Eve. While doing research for the post, I was also quite surprised to learn about the original run ratings. The show was actually at risk of being cancelled after some of the early seasons.

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  9. Love this show - really wish it was treated better than it has been on DVD. But your post brought back a lot of great memories.

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    1. Thanks, David. I had fun researching and putting together the post.

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  10. What a great show. I remember watching the last few seasons as a kid when they were originally aired. Klugman and Randall were a great team -- one of the all-time best. I was really upset when the show was canceled. And you are so right about Howard Cosell -- he was perfect at playing himself! I loved Penny Marshall on this show as well.

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  11. OH! Love this show and I was laughing at everything you described and the clips! Well done! :-D I remember those episodes as if I'd just seen them. Wonderful choice for the blogathon. I though Cosell had great comedic timing with that distinctive voice and cadence of his.

    On a separate note - I bought the DVD set of the first season of THE ODD COUPLE but never bothered to get subsequent seasons because I'd read (and heard) that they were terribly chopped up due to copyright issues. Do you know if that's true?

    Aurora

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    1. Thanks, Aurora. I do not own any DVD sets for this series, but I have read that many singing scenes were chopped due to music rights issues. I did find this list of what was supposedly cut from the DVDs: http://www.hometheaterforum.com/topic/276315-anyone-have-a-full-list-of-odd-couple-music-substitutions-and-editing/

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  12. As great as Randall and Klugman were in the television show, I think it bears noting that they didn't originate the roles; Jack Lemmon and Walter Mathau did on Broadway and were, in their own ways, also brilliant.

    I find it quite a tribute to Neil Simon that the characters he created for the Odd Couple were rich enough to support multiple fine interpretations, spanning from the stage to the screen.

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