He is best remembered as Felix Unger on television, a co-star in Doris Day-Rock Hudson films, and a raconteur on late night talk shows like David Letterman. Tony Randall was much more than that. Even into his 80s, he was fit, energetic, sharp and fathered two children with his young wife.
Randall was a revered actor and comedian, extremely well-known, but never quite received the acclaim to equal his talent. He founded and support an actors theater in New York City, where he often performed and enticed other well-known actors to lend their talents, helping future waves of young actors.
By the time Randall took on his role of Felix, along side Jack Klugman, he had enjoyed a fine film career. He would spend the next half of life focused on television and the theater. Randall started in the theater and found a lot of work in television in the 1950s, with a role in the series Mister Peepers, along side Wally Cox. He scored a Broadway role in the original production of Inherit the Wind, and in both the Broadway and film version of Oh, Men! Oh, Women!. Hollywood took notice and this began a string of starring and co-starring film roles. Over the next decade he continued to mix films with television and theatrical roles.
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) was his first starring role. The film is known more for Jayne Mansfield’s widescreen dimensions, but Randall is the real star. His mannerisms of frantic and animated would be his trademark. Confronted by a problem, Randall’s characters go from zero to incensed in record time. That is what made him a valuable co-star, he shouldered the laughs.
The Mating Game (1959) with Debbie Reynolds, Randall played an IRS agent sent to collect some money from Reynolds’ farmer daddy. Randall gets schooled in down-home living and Reynolds.
Pillow Talk (1959) This was his first of the Doris Day-Rock Hudson films. Randall really hit his stride in this film. There would be two more of these films, Lover Come Back (1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1965). He’s the boss or the best friend, and terrific in all three films.
Randall was really at his best as a co-star, in films like Let’s Make Love (1960), Boy’s Night Out (1961), Island of Love (1963), when he did not have to shoulder the entire film and his character was more counterpoint to the leads.
Other leading roles, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960), and then The Brass Bottle, the precursor to I Dream of Jeanie, and 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, where he played seven different roles, both released in 1964. Fluffy and The Alphabet Murders followed in 1965, Our Man in Marrakesh (1966) and Hello Down There (1969). These were mostly “fluff” films and gradually lowered Randall’s film status.
He signed to play Felix Unger on the television series, The Odd Couple, which ran from 1970-1975.
The Tony Randall Show (1976-1978) Produced by MTM, Randall got some plum young talent that worked on a variety of shows like Bob Newhart. Randall played a widowed, judge, raising two children. Unfortunately, the magic was not there despite the cast and writing talent.
Love, Sidney (1981-1983) Randall played a gay man on network television, although in the first season it was ambiguous. Civilization did not crumble once it was revealed. Still, the ratings were a struggle so it was gone after the second season.
Randall made over 100 appearances on The Tonight Show and over 70 appearances on David Letterman’s shows.
Randall and Klugman periodically teamed up to play Felix and Oscar, even after Klugman’s throat surgery for cancer.
They maintained a lifelong friendship, which Klugman wrote about. I was fortunate to meet him at a book signing and get an autographed copy.
Randall never forgot the theater, returning regularly for productions.
There aren’t many performers like Tony Randall. Watching him, in a role or on a talk show, you could usually figure out what he was feeling. He was a bundle of energy. Even when he did as sitting still, he might have an expression that foreshadowed his next reaction. As broad as his “performance” he could easily laugh at himself. He loved to entertain. That’s what I miss.