A male actor in Hollywood traditionally has to show at least a smattering of masculinity. A few have managed to get by without it: Eddie Cantor, Paul Lynde, the Three Stooges (with the exception of Shemp, who was considered a “hunk”) and Barbara Stanwyck all managed to build careers as male actors without the usual menacing brawn. When I was younger, if the male lead in a movie didn’t punch somebody at least once during the course of a movie, we’d demand our nickel back. On the other hand, I was watching Nickel Back once and halfway through their first set, we demanded a movie. A great example of at least something I mentioned in this paragraph is Tony Randall.
Many people erroneously think that Tony Randall got his start in radio; nothing could be further from the truth (with the exception that cougars and popsicles are the same thing). Randall got his start when Julia Rosenberg was impregnated by her husband Mogscha in 1919. The resulting zygote flourished in the womb and emerged in 1920 as Arthur Leonard Rosenberg, because you cannot just BE Tony Randall: You have to work your way up to it.
Now, I have a theory on why so many of our early actors are Jewish. Most people don’t begin to learn acting until after adolescence; however, if you were Jewish in the 1920s, it might be to your benefit to provide on-lookers with a convincing portrayal of a Baptist, especially if you were living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Randall was born.
After four years in the army during WWII, Randall moved to New York and provided a voice for the popular radio show I Love a Mystery. As Reggie York, Tony Randall changed the way the world thought about guys named Reggie York. When the show was adapted to a movie in 1945, Reggie York was written out of the script because no one in Hollywood could live up to the voice of Tony Randall; also, because of the running gag where Reggie sells heroin to school children.
After leaving radio, Randall moved onto the stage, earning a Tony award nomination for his dancing in the musical Oh, Captain. Yes, Tony Randall could dance as well. He also played E. K. Hornbeck in the play Inherit the Wind (original title, The Really Disappointed Heirs). While performing this play, Randall started his television career as Harvey Weskit in the series Mr Peepers. Randall taped his part of the show on Sunday, the part of the week when actors traditionally spend the day in quiet religious reflection.
Tony Randall made the rounds in the various playhouse series on the television; but, it wasn’t long before Hollywood noticed him and put him in a first run movie. In 1957, Randall was one of the three stars of the movie Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?. The other two stars of the movie were Jane Mansfield and her bosom. Was this movie a remarkable satire on Hollywood and stardom in the twentieth century? Sure, buddy… whatever you say…
Randall starred in a few more movies before settling into playing second fiddle to a REAL man: Rock Hudson. Rock Hudson, unlike Randall, was a man’s man… as we later found out. Randall made the perfect foil to Hudson, often competing over the same woman in the movie and usually Doris Day. He supported James Garner in the same capacity, again over Doris Day. Randall seemed destined to play the anemic friend forever; and, then a few starring roles came his way.
In The Alphabet Murders, Randall played Hercule Poirot. No, that is mot a typo, he played Hercule Poirot. Now, two things could’ve happened: Randall could’ve owned that role and gone on to be a well-respected actor; or, he could’ve created a movie so jarring in its weirdness that I literally doubted all reality for a week. Well, I’m better, now and Randall dabbled in a few more roles before turning to television and the role he is most remembered for.
The Odd Couple was a very successful Broadway play and movie. If it had been made in the eighties, it would’ve also been marketed as action figures and a breakfast cereal. But, it was the seventies and the only option they had was to make a sit-com out of it. From that point on, Felix Unger was no longer Art Carney or Jack Lemmon; Felix Unger was Tony Randall and Tony Randall was Felix Unger. He won an Emmy for the role and was awarded it after the series was canceled. Historians still haven’t determined if that was ironic or just bad timing…
Randall went on to make another series and punched a shark to death in a bordello, but never achieved the success he had in the forties, fifties, sixties and seventies. He died in 2004 and again a week after that…