Born Leonard Rosenberg, February 26, 1920, in Tulsa, OK; died from complications of pneumonia, May 17, 2004, in Manhattan, NY. Actor. Best known for portraying Felix Unger, the neat-freak roommate of slob Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple TV series, Tony Randall enjoyed a long and varied career as an actor, stage director, and theater impresario. After his New York stage debut in 1941, he landed a number of major theatrical parts on Broadway throughout the 1940s, and in the 1950s alternated between stage and television work. An early success was his role opposite Wally Cox on the popular sitcom Mr. Peepers (1952-55). From the late '50s throughout much of the next decade, he famously appeared in a string of motion picture comedies, costarring with the likes of Jayne Mansfield, Doris Day, and Rock Hudson. Work in television comedies and dramas dominated his career from 1970 to the early eighties. In 1991, he founded the National Actors Theatre, and with the exception of occasional guest appearances on television and small roles in motion pictures, he devoted the rest of his life to the theater. Called "a great comedian [and] role model" in the Los Angeles Times by fellow sitcom actor David Hyde Pierce, Randall was one of the most familiar faces of television, film, and stage for more than 60 years.
Randall was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where his father was a dealer in art and antiquities. His love of theater began when as a boy he was dazzled by a touring ballet troupe. In school, his penchant for mimicry raised the ire of his teachers. One sent home a note to his parents that read, "Please stop him from making faces." Later he studied at Northwestern University in Illinois and at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre in New York. Among his instructors were the famous acting coach Sanford Meisner and the choreographer Martha Graham. In New York, he took the name Anthony Randall and soon began making use of his rich baritone voice on radio soap operas and mysteries. After his stage debut in The Circle of Chalk in 1941, he appeared as Eugene Marchbanks in George Bernard Shaw's Candida, opposite Jane Cowl in the title role, and in Emlyn William's The Corn is Green, opposite Ethel Barrymore.
He briefly served in the Army Signal Corps during World War II, and then returned to Broadway, appearing in numerous productions, including Anthony and Cleopatra, in which he appeared alongside Katherine Cornell, Charlton Heston, Eli Wallach, and Maureen Stapleton.
In the 1950s, he appeared in the TV soap opera One Man's Family and in the classic NBC sitcom Mr. Peepers in which he played a major role. His film debut came in 1957 in Oh, Men! Oh, Women!. In that film, he reprised a role he had performed on Broadway three years earlier. More significant in 1957 was his starring role in the comedy Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, opposite screen siren Jayne Mansfield. Throughout the late '50s and 1960s he appeared in a number of successful films, mostly comedies, including three with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, 1959's Pillow Talk, 1961's Lover Come Back to Me, and 1964's Send Me No Flowers. But he was also effective in dramas, such as Martin Ritt's 1957's No Down Payment in which he played an alcoholic. Randall showed his considerable range by playing all seven faces in 1964's The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. He returned to Broadway in 1968 to lend his singing talents to the musical Oh, Captain!. In the 1970s and '80s he appeared largely on television, first in ABC's The Odd Couple, which remained popular in reruns, then on ABC and later CBS in The Tony Randall Show, and finally NBC's Love, Sidney. In 1991, he founded the National Actors Theater in New York with a million dollars of his own money, becoming its artistic director. Though its star-studded productions (mostly of classics) seldom elicited high praise from critics, the company survived, and among its triumphs was the Tony-award winning M. Butterfly in which Randall starred.
Just as The Odd Couple was completing its final season in 1975, Randall won an Emmy for outstanding performance in a comedy. In reference to the cancellation of the show for which he had won the award, he quipped, as quoted in the Independent, "I'm so happy. Now if I only had a job."
Randall was also popular on the late-night television circuit. According to People, show host Johnny Carson once joked that out of a total of 35,460 Tonight Show guests, "32,000 of them were Tony Randall." Also a frequent guest on the Late Show with David Letterman, he was beloved by its host: "I was lucky enough to know Tony as an actor and friend. Whenever we needed a big laugh, we would bring in Tony. He always made us better for having worked with him," Letterman said in a statement, according to the Los Angeles Times.
An accomplished singer in his own right, Randall was known to opera lovers for conducting intermission quizzes during Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. He was also a commentator on Live from Lincoln Center. Randall, who lost his first wife, Florence Gibbs, to cancer in 1992, remarried in 1995 at the age of 74. His bride, Heather Harlan, an assistant at the National Actors Theatre, was just 24 years old. Three years later they had their first of two children.
Randall died on May 17, 2004, in New York City, from complications of pneumonia; he was 84. He is survived by his wife, Heather, and their son and daughter.
Independent, (London), May 20, 2004, p. 41.
Los Angeles Times, May 19, 2004, p. B12.
New York Times, May 19, 2004, p. A22.
People, May 31, 2004, pp. 68-70.
Washington Post, May 19, 2004, B5.
—D. László Conhaim