Tony Randall, Beloved Actor and Founder of National Actors Theatre, Is Dead at 84

By Robert Simonson
18 May 2004

Tony Randall
Tony Randall

Tony Randall, the star of a string of 1950s Doris Day films and the 1970s television sitcom "The Odd Couple," who late in life realized a dream by founding the National Actors Theatre, died May 18 in his sleep yesterday evening at NYU Medical Center due to complications from a prolonged illness, a spokesman said.  He was 84 years old.

The indefatigable Randall worked unto the last. On Dec. 7, 2003, he opened and starred in Luigi Pirandello's Right You Are, in which he played a pivotal role.

It was the most recent production for the NAT, which was founded by Randall in 1991. Throughout its turbulent history, the company struggled and, on several occasions, seemed on the brink of dissolution. But Mr. Randall, a well-beloved figure in the entertainment world, and an inexhaustible promoter, cajoler and fund-raiser, always managed to forge on somehow.

In all, the NAT produced 16 productions on Broadway. In recent years, it abandoned costly Times Square for the smaller and more secure environs of Pace University in downtown Manhattan.



To much of the world, Tony Randall was Felix Unger, the lovable, finicky neat freak who played opposite Jack Klugman's slovenly Oscar Madison in the television series "The Odd Couple," which was based on Neil Simon's comedy. He won an Emmy Award for his portrayal.

Mr. Randall cultivated an equally indelible persona on talk shows and through innumerable personal appearances. This man was a cultivated, sophisticated raconteur, nattily decked out in snazzy sport coat and tie. He was jittery and hyperactive like Felix, but less neurotic, warmer, and armed with a devilish, self-deprecating self of humor. He often used his appearances to expouse on his various interests, which included a love of classical music and a hatred of smoking. (He once snatched a cigarette out of the hand of Johnny Carson.)

His worldliness belied his upbringing in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he was born Leonard Rosenberg on February 26, 1920, the son of an art dealer. From there, he moved to the teeming Chicago area, attending Northwestern University, and on to further study at Columbia University and the Neighborhood Playhouse with the renowned acting teacher Sanford Meisner. He also studied movement with Martha Graham and voice with Henri Jacobi.

He made his New York debut was in 1941 in A Circle of Chalk, and soon after played  with Ethel Barrymore in The Corn is Green and with Jane Cowl in Candida. A stint in the army interrupted his rise. In the 1950s, his parts got bigger. Perhaps the most significant role of his stage career was that of E.K. Hornbeck, the cynical reporter covering the Scopes Monkey Trial in the original 1955 production of Lawrence and Lee's Inherit the Wind. Mr. Randall returned to the drama in 1996 as artistic director of the National Actors Theatre, producing it on Broadway. Despite the erratic behavior of its ailing star, George C. Scott, the staging proved one of the company's best successes, earning a Tony nomination. Mr. Randall, who never viewed his advanced age as a barrier to playing roles usually filled by younger men, stood by for the role of Hornbeck.

He also was standby for Scott, who played iconoclastic lawyer Henry Drummond. Mr. Randall often filled in. On one memorable occasion, when Scott, feeling faint, had to leave a performance midway, Mr. Randall popped up in the mezzanine, where he had been sitting, watching the show. He raced backstage, got into Drummond's costume and the show continued. The delay lasted about 45 seconds.

"Some people think he's quixotic," actor John Griesemer said at the time, "but on the other hand he does this kind of stuff. It takes guts."

Mr. Randall essayed another memorable role as a sea captain who leads a double life in the short-lived (182 performances) 1958 Livingston-Evans musical Oh, Captain!. He was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance.

By that point, he had a thriving film career, having appeared in "Oh Men! Oh Women!" and "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter." He found his niche, however, in 1959, when he played a supporting role in "Pillow Talk," the first of a string of soapy Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedies. "Lover Come Back" and "Send Me No Flowers" followed. He typically played Hudson's chipper, but sad sack best friend who fails to win the girl. One critic described his aura as "the happy melancholy of a big corporate junior executive." The recent film "Down With Love," which aped the tame sexual politics, "modern" attitudes and martini culture of those films, paid homage to the genre by casting Tony Randall in a small role. It was his final film.

Other film roles included "Let's Make Love" with Marilyn Monroe and "Boys Night Out" with Kim Novak.

The quality of his film roles declined by the end of the '60s. It was at this ebb in his career, however, that he became a television institution, starring in "The Odd Couple" from 1970 to 1975. His small-screen career began with the 1950's "One Man's Family." He scored a distinct success with "Mr. Peepers," a 1952-55 series that had him play brash, manly Harvey Weskitt opposite Wally Cox's shy science teacher Robinson Peepers.

"The Odd Couple" sitcom came after the play's resounding success on Broadway, where Art Carney and Walter Matthau played Felix and Oscar, and a film starring Jack Lemmon and Matthau in the parts. However, most of the world knows the Felix of Tony Randall (the show has lived several lives through syndication). Mr. Randall and Jack Klugman played two middle-aged, divorced New Yorkers of diametrically opposed personalities who, as unlikely roommates, daily drive each other crazy. Felix was, in many ways, the ultimate Randall performance, bearing all the qualities—as person and performer—for which the public knew and loved him. He was perky, elitist, enthusiastic, opinionated, irritable, unflappable, friendly, fit, excitable and endearingly uptight; a sort of hummingbird as human being.

The less successful "The Tony Randall Show" (1976-78) and "Love, Sidney" (1981)—in which Mr. Randall broke a TV taboo by playing an openly gay character—followed.

He never lost his love of the theatre, however, and in 1991 founded his own theatre company. The venture's name, The National Actors Theatre, betrayed his grand ambitions. The first couple seasons featured a standing repertory company, a rarity in American theatre. Along with Randall, the troupe included Lynn Redgrave, Peter McRobbie, Maryann Plunkett and Madeleine Potter. Still, name stars were brought in to buttress sales. Martin Sheen starred in the inaugural production, The Crucible. Rob Lowe appeared in A Little Hotel on the Side. And Earl Hyman headlined The Master Builder.

From the start, the NAT was not popular with critics, who complained about the general quality of the productions and a lack of a distinctive theatrical vision. Mr. Randall, however, soldiered on. The second season offered a critically panned The Seagull with Jon Voight and Tyne Daly; a better received Saint Joan starring Plunkett; and Three Men on a Horse with Randall and old pal Jack Klugman.

The above three were at the Lyceum, which became NAT's home after an initial year at the Belasco. After a third season of Timon of Athens, The Government Inspector and The Flowering Peach, general success still proved elusive, and the production schedule became more erratic. It was a year after Peach when the company finally presented a new work, a brief mounting of the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which was brought in from the Goodspeed Opera House.

Following Inherit the Wind, NAT became more populist and frugal in its offerings. It produced a revival of the two-hander The Gin Game with Julie Harris and Charles Durning in 1997, and, shortly after, a version of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys with Randall and Klugman. Night Must Fall with Matthew Broderick and Judgment at Nuremberg with Maximillian Schell were its final two Broadway presentations. Four NAT productions were nominated for Tonys as Best Revival of a Play. John Tillinger directed many of these, becoming a sort of in-house director for the company.

By 2002, Mr. Randall was forced to abandon his dream of a Broadway company, and took the National Actors Theatre to Pace University's 655-seat Michael Schimmer Center for the Arts. It now operated under a LORT B (League of Resident Theatres) contract with Actors' Equity Association. Pace provided the theatre company with a rent-free home. In return, NAT will offer select Pace students internships in acting, production and administration.

The season began with a bang with Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. As ever, Mr. Randall was able to attract name talent. Al Pacino starred, and backing him up were Steve Buscemi, Billy Crudup, Charles Durning, John Goodman and Chazz Palminteri. Reviews were mixed, but sales were good. The Persians and Right You Are followed.

The only other stage role he took in recent years that wasn't in a NAT production was the lead part of a French diplomat in Japan in the Broadway production of M. Butterfly. The assignment was reportedly his favorite bit of acting work.

Mr. Randall's professional activity late in life was matched by a vivacious new chapter in his personal life. Following a 50-year marriage to Florence Gibbs, which ended with her death in 1992, he married Heather Harlan, 50 years his junior, in 1995. To the surprise of many, he went on to become a father in his 70s, siring two children, Julia Laurette Randall and Jefferson Salvini Randall. Ever an aesthete, Mr. Randall named the second child after comic actor Joseph Jefferson and Italian tragic actor Tommasso Salvini.