|The Odd Couple: Season One (1970)
Starring: Jack Klugman, Tony Randall, Al Molinaro, Garry Walberg, Larry Gelman, Ryan McDonald, Carole Shelley, Monica Evans
Are there any other sitcoms that have arisen from Broadway plays? If so, none are immediately leaping to mind…which means that we can at least agree that if any others do exist, they apparently weren’t as successful as “The Odd Couple.”
When Neil Simon’s play first started on Broadway, the characters of neat freak Felix Unger and über-slob Oscar Madison were played by Art Carney and Walter Matthau, respectively. The transition to film found Carney replaced by Jack Lemmon, and the Lemmon/Matthau pairing was so popular that it continued beyond “The Odd Couple” and into several other films, lasting until Matthau’s death in 2000. With film conquered, it didn’t take long for someone to realize that the general premise of two tremendously dissimilar guys sharing an apartment together would be extremely easy to maintain in a weekly television series.
Tony Randall was already a well-known commodity in sitcoms, stretching back to his genre debut in “Mr. Peepers,” but prior to this, his bread and butter had predominantly been drama, thanks to roles in “Twelve Angry Men” and on “The Untouchables,” “Naked City” and “The Twilight Zone.” In fact, they were originally considering Mickey Rooney for the part of Oscar Madison rather than Jack Klugman. Thank God they came to their senses; the chemistry between Randall and Klugman as Felix and Oscar is easily as strong as – and some would argue stronger than – the pairing of Lemmon and Matthau.
The first season of the show proves that the aforementioned chemistry was instantaneous, even if the transition from the play/film to a weekly series was not; the pair’s poker buddies – Speedy, Roy, Vinnie, and Murray the cop (Al Molinaro, later to play the proprietor of Arnold’s on “Happy Days”) – would dwindle by season’s end to pretty much just Murray and occasionally Vinnie, while Felix and Oscar’s neighbors, the Pigeon sisters, would vanish altogether. Realistically, though, the supporting characters were mostly incidental, anyway; it was the inherent comedy between the different personalities of the two roommates that was the core of the show, with additional plots arriving courtesy of Felix being a professional photographer and Oscar’s gig as a sports writer. (Prepare to laugh when you see one of Felix’s recurring clients: he’s played by Albert Brooks.)
Sometimes, the scripts sound like they’re trying too hard to match the feel of the original source material, but as the season progresses, the writers began developing their own universe in which to work, allowing the characters to breathe beyond just the confines of Neil Simon’s play. Ultimately, though, it’s the sparring between Randall and Klugman that makes “The Odd Couple” a TV classic that endures.
If you’re doing a double-take while reading this review, don’t worry: you’re not crazy. Last year, Time-Life released the first season of the series with very nice slipcase packaging and a ton of special features. Depressingly, the packaging for this re-release from CBS Paramount falls back on the cheap method the studio has been using for all their shows lately, putting all five discs into one plastic case and placing the DVD details on the inside of the wraparound paper sleeve rather than in a separate booklet.
Fortunately, the special features remain essentially the same. Paul Brownstein, the executive producer of the set, delved into the archives of “The Mike Douglas Show” and pulled out an appearance by Klugman and Randall, as well as a solo turn from Randall. Garry Marshall provides an audio intro for each episode, and he also provides commentary for a few episodes; on one of them, Marshall is joined by co-creator Jerry Belson, who has since passed away. Klugman contributes one commentary, as well as home videos from his book tour for “ Tony and Me,” a memoir of his work with Randall. Even Carole Shelley a.k.a. Gwendolyn Pigeon provides commentary on the pilot episode.
There’s also a gag reel, footage of Klugman accepting his Emmy Award in 1971, and a scene from a stage play Randall and Klugman did together in 1993, proving that their chemistry remained solid far beyond the run of their sitcom. Oh, yeah, and there’s one other change from the previous set: CBS-Paramount have added a fitth disc to the collection, which includes four episodes from the other seasons of the show that were among Randall and Klugman’s all-time favorites. It kind of gives the shaft to the fans who spent the money on the original release of the set, but if it should turn out that no further seasons are in the cards for DVD release, hey, at least now we still get to watch the famous “Password” episode.