So much more than TV's odd, fussy Felix

Randall made mark in movies, on stage


May 19, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

While a 1970s sitcom role as an obsessive-compulsive photographer sharing an apartment with a slob of a sportswriter came to define Tony Randall's persona in the public mind, it was only the second act in a life that seemed to be lived as an intelligently crafted three-act play.

His was a reputation built in the movies, refined in prime-time television and then fulfilled on the stage. Along the way, while he was never a leading man, Randall, through this persona, did as much as any actor of his generation to shape and question the very notion of masculinity.

Randall, 84, the spry and acerbic actor known to millions as neat freak Felix Unger in The Odd Couple, died in his sleep at NYU Medical Center in Manhattan Monday night from complications of pneumonia. His wife, Heather Harlan Randall, 34, was at his side. He first contracted the illness after undergoing triple bypass heart surgery in December, said a statement issued by Springer Associates, Randall's publicist.

Like many post-World War II contemporaries who found television fame, Randall had already enjoyed some Hollywood success in feature films playing a similarly fussy sidekick character in such Rock Hudson-Doris Day films as Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961). It is a role he would inhabit throughout his career.

"Tony was so brilliant, funny, sweet and dear that it was as if God had given him everything," Day said in a statement yesterday. "He was the funniest man in movies and on television, and nothing was as much fun as working with him. I'm so glad his last few years with his wife and children [Julia Laurette, 7, and Jefferson Salvini, 5] were so happy."

The final act of Randall's professional life started in 1991 when he founded the National Actors Theatre in New York City using $1 million of his own money. While his mainstream media persona during the '90s -- a time when he was mainly seen on such talk shows as The Late Show with David Letterman -- continued to be a mix of high-strung neurosis and catty commentary about modern life, Randall's energy and artistic identity were found on the New York Stage. This is where he mounted productions of Arthur Miller's The Crucible and Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder.

If there was a disconnect between the public image and private life, the one thing that was constant through all three acts was Randall's dedication to stagecraft and sense of identity as an actor.

This is the Tony Randall for whom the lights of Broadway were dimmed last night at 8.

"I don't know why I love acting so much," Randall said in a 2001 interview. "I just always knew from the time that I was 12, that I was going to be an actor. I loved being someone else."

Issues of identity form a leit motif in Randall's life and career. Born Leonard Rosenberg on Feb. 26, 1920, in Tulsa, Okla., Randall was of a generation of Jewish-American performers in which it was not unusual to change one's name to mask ethnic identity in trying to launch a career. The only aspect of his childhood that he regularly discussed was his attraction to the stage, and his recollections often took on the coloring of fable or myth.

"One night, the entire town turned out to see the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo perform Swan Lake and Scheherazade," he told television reporters at a press tour event in 1973 during the run of The Odd Couple. "I and most of the audience had never seen a ballet before. We stood and cheered, thinking it was a once-in-a-lifetime event."

Randall left Tulsa to study acting and dance at Northwestern University, but after a year, he headed off to New York where he made his stage debut in 1941 in The Circle of Chalk. In 1942, he was drafted into the Army where he served throughout World War II. He was discharged in 1946, and returned to New York to seek work in the burgeoning television business.

He took whatever he could get, from guest appearances on Captain Video and Video Rangers, a cheesy kids' show on the struggling DuMont network, to occasional roles on Playhouse 90 and the Philco-Goodyear TV Playhouse, two of the early programs that staged live plays before TV cameras. Randall was a minor player to be sure, but he was there for what is called the Golden Age of TV drama.

It was on the big screen in Hollywood, however, during the 1950s and '60s that he started to make a name for himself in the Hudson-Day movies. Looking back today, of course, the identity that most people are interested in Hudson's. A closeted gay man, Hudson played a heterosexual romantic lead opposite Day. But onscreen, it was Randall who was offering an image of masculinity different from the predominant model of the time typified by such stars as John Wayne. As perhaps Hollywood's first "metrosexual," Randall's relationship to Hudson in the films was similar to the one Jack has with Will in the current NBC sitcom Will & Grace -- except Jack and Will are gay.

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