An aura of gold and silver pervades the stage these days at the Lyceum Theatre, where that renowned odd couple, Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, are starring in the National Actors Theatre revival of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, directed by John Tillinger.
The gold is for Randall, who made his Broadway debut 50 years ago as Scarus opposite Katharine Cornell at the Martin Beck Theatre in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. The silver is for the Simon comedy's 25th anniversary. It opened on Broadway on December 20, 1972, at the Broadhurst Theatre with Sam Levene and Jack Albertson as Al Lewis and Willie Clark, vaudeville veterans who worked as a team for 43 years, split up in anger and, after a decade of mutual silence, reunite briefly for a television program.
Randall, who founded the National Actors Theater in 1991, says he chose The Sunshine Boys as his company's 14th production because it seemed a perfect match for him and his favorite co-star. "It's hard to find a play for two men who are, shall we say, no longer 26," Randall says. "And we love working together."
Another reason, Randall says, was because The Sunshine Boys, like The Odd Couple, has a theme common to many of Simon's plays. "It's about male bonding," he says, "of real love between men. I find it very touching. And it relates to the love I feel for Jack. We've been together so long now we're like brothers."
The two stars are best known, of course, for their work as that other Neil Simon duo, the fussy photographer Felix Unger and the slobby sportswriter Oscar Madison, in the television sitcom version of "The Odd Couple." The TV show, which ran on ABC from 1970 to 1975, has become a happy regular as a syndicated rerun, attracting large and laugh-filled audiences. The Sunshine Boys marks their third time together for the National Actors Theatre. They reprised their Odd Couple roles in an early benefit for the company, and they later starred in Three Men on a Horse.
Randall says that understanding the character of Al Lewis the one he plays and the one who broke up the act was at first difficult. "When rehearsals began, I didn't know where I was going," he says. "I let the play work on me and slowly suggest its own conception." Al Lewis, he says, "tries to keep his dignity. There's a rivalry between the two men, a game of one-upmanship, and Willie is better at it. Al feels guilty around Willie because he's the one who split up the act. He retired and left Willie high and dry. And he's always felt bad about it. He knows how much he hurt Willie." But despite the rivalry, Randall says, there's a lot of love between the two men: "It's just that they don't know it." The love between Randall and Klugman, though, is a very conscious one.
"I'm the luckiest actor in the world," Klugman says, "because I get to work with Tony. He is the most giving actor. He listens. He reacts. Being onstage with him is like putting on an old, comfortable, favorite sports jacket."
Klugman, like Randall, is a Broadway veteran. Among his theatre credits are the original 1959 Gypsy with Ethel Merman, Golden Boy and the original 1965 Odd Couple (he replaced Walter Matthau as Oscar). His film career includes Twelve Angry Men and The Days of Wine and Roses. But he is perhaps best known for his two highly popular television series, "The Odd Couple" and "Quincy, M.E."
It was Klugman who recommended The Sunshine Boys to Randall. "Next to The Odd Couple, I think it's Neil's best play. Tony and I realized there's a lot of heavy stuff to be mined from it. On the surface a Neil Simon play can appear to be thin, but underneath there's a lot of wonderful dimension."
In Willie Clark, Klugman says, that dimension includes depths of loneliness, anger and resentment. "When the two men broke up, Willie went steadily downhill," Klugman says. "When they come together for the television program and he hears the sound of laughter once more, he has his identity again. Before, he was walking slowly, shuffling. Suddenly he's agile, he's moving. The adrenaline is flowing. He's alive again. Willie and Al have nothing but each other, have memories that only belong together."
Klugman was born in South Philadelphia and led a childhood that he says consisted primarily of "gambling on the street corner." But when he was 14, in the mid-1930's, his sister took him to see a Federal Theatre production of a play called ... one third of a nation.... "The play was government-subsidized," he says, "yet it was honest and frank about the country's problems. I was enthralled. I didn't believe a life in the theatre was possible for me. I thought you had to be a special kind of person. But I knew I had to give it a shot. And the first time I stepped on a stage I knew it was where I belonged."
Randall remembers his first Broadway opening night, in 1947, as one of the thrilling moments of his career. "It was what I had been waiting for all my life," he recalls. "I had been an actor for a long time, but World War II came along. I was away for four years and had to start all over again. And I started with the best. I remember the cast of Antony included a bunch of fine young actors Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach, Charlton Heston."
Randall had come to New York from Tulsa, Okla., in 1938 at age 18 with one goal: to be an actor. He changed his name from Leonard Rosenberg and set to work.
"The main thing in my life," he recalls, "was the theatre. I was insanely inflamed about the theatre. And I still am."