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Wednesday, May 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Actor Tony Randall, 84, 'Odd Couple' neatnik

Film and TV work


Highlights of Tony Randall's film and television career:

Films

"Down With Love" 2003

"Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask" (1972)

"Fluffy" 1965

"7 Faces of Dr. Lao" 1964

"Send Me No Flowers" 1964

"Lover Come Back" 1961

"Pillow Talk" 1959

"The Mating Game" 1959

"No Down Payment" 1957

"Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" 1957

Television:

"Love, Sidney" 1981-83

"The Tony Randall Show" 1976-78

"The Odd Couple" 1970-75

"Mr. Peepers" 1952-1955

The Associated Press

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When Tony Randall won an Emmy for playing Felix Unger in "The Odd Couple" just after the TV series was canceled, he deadpanned, "I'm so happy. Now if only I had a job."

Mr. Randall actually never stopped working in a career that spanned more than 60 years, starring as Lamberto Laudisi in Luigi Pirandello's play "Right You Are" until a month before entering the hospital. He developed pneumonia after undergoing triple heart-bypass surgery in December and died in his sleep at New York University Medical Center on Monday at 84.

The lights were dimmed last night in Broadway theaters as a tribute to a comic actor of rare talent and suave timing. "I tell you, that's a tribute he deserves," Jack Klugman, Mr. Randall's "Odd Couple" co-star, said yesterday. Above all, Klugman said, the actor "loved the theater, and his love and dedication to it is what created the energy and the talent."

Mr. Randall's gifts as a raconteur and a biting wit that was often self-deprecating put him in demand on the talk-show circuit. He made 104 appearances on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." He also made more than 100 appearances on David Letterman's late-night show, including once allowing himself to be covered in mud.

A versatile Broadway and radio actor who made his New York stage debut in 1941, Mr. Randall gained national fame on television in the early 1950s with "Mr. Peepers," which starred Wally Cox as a Midwestern science teacher. Mr. Randall played Cox's brash, overconfident pal and received an Emmy nomination.

His success in television and on Broadway in the 1950s — including playing the cynical reporter in "Inherit the Wind" — paved Mr. Randall's way to Hollywood.

In 1957, he starred in the title role of the hapless TV ad man in the film adaptation of George Axelrod's satirical "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" co-starring Jayne Mansfield as the Hollywood sex symbol he enlists for a lipstick campaign.

His comedic talent continued to shine in a series of supporting movie roles. The part of a millionaire Broadway producer in the 1959 Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedy "Pillow Talk" earned Mr. Randall praise from Time magazine for being "one of the funniest young men in movies today."

He appeared in two other Hudson-Day comedy hits, "Lover Come Back" (1961) and "Send Me No Flowers" (1964). Also in 1964, he starred in the film fantasy "7 Faces of Dr. Lao," an acting tour de force in which he played six elaborately made-up and accented roles.

But he achieved his most enduring fame on television as Felix Unger, the obsessive-compulsive neat-freak photographer opposite Klugman's slovenly sportswriter, Oscar Madison, in the TV version of Neil Simon's hit Broadway play "The Odd Couple."

"Am I a neat freak, like Felix? No, not at all," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. "I realize that's a compliment, to be so identified with a character. But it can be annoying. It puts you in the position of being typecast."

"The Odd Couple" was not a hit during its run on ABC from 1970 to 1975. Although he received five Emmy nominations for playing Felix, Mr. Randall did not win the Emmy for the role until after the series was canceled in 1975.

His other TV series were "The Tony Randall Show," which cast him as a Philadelphia judge; and "Love, Sidney," about the relationship between a bachelor artist and a young actress (played by Swoosie Kurtz) and her daughter who move into his Manhattan apartment. The show was based on a TV movie in which Mr. Randall's character was gay, but his sexual orientation was never mentioned in the series.

Mr. Randall was born Leonard Rosenberg in Tulsa, Okla., in 1920 and studied speech and drama at Northwestern University. He broke through on Broadway in 1941 with a role in "A Circle of Chalk," but the war interrupted a fledgling career, and he served four years in the Army Signal Corps.

When he left the service, he found radio and stage work, but it was "Mr. Peepers" that made him popular and, in turn, led to a nonstop schedule.

In 1991, Mr. Randall realized a long-held dream by putting up $1 million of his own money to found the National Actors Theatre, a nonprofit company that sought to bring the classical repertory back to Broadway on a consistent basis and at accessible prices. Its productions have included Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" and Henrik Ibsen's "The Master Builder."

When an ailing George C. Scott faltered during Mr. Randall's 1996 production of "Inherit the Wind," Mr. Randall appeared out of the audience, knowing the role of Clarence Darrow from memory, and filled in.

An art-collecting, opera-loving resident of Manhattan's Upper West Side since the 1940s, he personified the sophisticated New Yorker. "I've been here so long that somehow, over the years, I became Mr. New York to people," he said in a 1997 interview with The New York Times. "Most people are surprised I came from Tulsa."

A longtime opera buff, Mr. Randall entertained radio listeners' questions on the Metropolitan Opera's intermission quiz. He was also socially active. He lobbied against smoking in public places, marched in Washington against apartheid in the 1980s and helped raise money for AIDS research.

He was married to his first wife, Florence, for 54 years; she died of cancer in 1992. He later wed Heather Harlan, an intern at the National Actors Theatre who was 50 years his junior. Mr. Randall and his first wife had been childless; when he became a father for the first time at 77 — after Heather, then 26, gave birth to their daughter, Julia — he found himself the focus of a spirited debate about the wisdom of having a child so late in life. The Randalls were not deterred by the controversy and had a son, Jefferson, in 1998.

"It's the greatest joy I've ever known," Mr. Randall said of fatherhood. "And to think I had to wait so long for it."

Material from the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post is included in this report.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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