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‘The Odd Couple’ Movie Turns 50: How Felix and Oscar Made It to the Big Screen

What’s The Odd Couple without Jack Klugman as Oscar Madison and Tony Randall as Felix Ungar? Well, the answer to that question is that it was a 1965 play starring Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney as Felix, as well as a 1968 feature film — currently celebrating its 50th Anniversary — with Walter reprising his role and Jack Lemmon joining him as the new Felix (whose last name was spelled with an “a” on stage and film, but an “e” on TV). So for anyone who isn’t aware of the concept’s history, compare yourself to a kid who didn’t think that mommy and daddy had a life before you came along. Now admittedly it may not have been as rich, but it could also have been a lot of fun. And in this case, it was.

In the beginning, there was Neil Simon. You can’t put too fine a point on this fact: without Neil Simon, you don’t have The Odd Couple. Bottom line. Born July 4, 1927, in the Bronx, New York, Neil got his start writing scripts for early television shows like Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and The Phil Silvers Show in the 1950s, but with the new decade, he began writing Broadway plays. The first was 1961’s Come Blow Your Horn, which lasted 678 performances, and was followed by the considerably more successful Barefoot in the Park in 1963, and, in turn, The Odd Couple two years later. Now Neil has written a lot of plays and screenplays over the years, many of which have been extremely successful, but none of them have had the impact or the longevity of concept as The Odd Couple has.

“Two men — one divorced and one estranged and neither quite sure why their marriages fell apart — move in together to cut down on their alimony and suddenly discover that they’re having the same conflicts and fights that they had in their marriages.”

That was the idea that had come to Neil’s mind, which he dictated into a tape recorder. It was also the description that convinced Paramount Pictures, well aware of the playwright’s previous success, to buy the film rights to the concept before the play was even written.

The Odd Couple — Inspired by a True Story

Back in the early 1980s, at the very start of this entertainment journalist’s career, there was an opportunity to interview Neil Simon for the Hofstra University newspaper, The New Voice, and I was sent in to Manhattan to speak to him in commemoration of the fact that he was being given an honorary degree by the university. During that conversation — my voice trembling as I asked the questions in what was one of my first interviews ever — the conception of The Odd Couple came up.

Odd Couple Play

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

“I’m never aware of the genesis of a play,” Neil explained to me. “Sometimes they’re inspired by real life incidents in my life or somebody else’s life, which was the case with The Odd Couple. It actually happened to my brother and a friend of his who were living together and going through all that. I witnessed it and said, ‘That’s a great idea for a play.'”

As Neil observed what his brother Danny and his roommate Roy Gerber were going through, he suggested that Danny turn it into a play. Danny tried, but ultimately gave up on it after about 10 or 15 pages. Neil asked him for permission to take a crack at it and was given Danny’s blessing (though Neil insisted on making a financial arrangement with him should something happen with it). In a PBS salute to Neil, Danny was interviewed and he explained, “I thought there was an idea for a play about a divorced man from the time he breaks up with his wife until he finds his life again. But I couldn’t think of a good conflict. Then it struck me like lightning: the same problems that two divorced roommates had with their wives, they would have with each other.”

Odd Couple Movie 2

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

In that same special, Roy Gerber noted that, “Danny used to call me in the office, like a wife, and was serious — this wasn’t a joke or a bit — he’d say, ‘Are you coming home tonight?’ I’d say, ‘I don’t know what time I’m going to be home. Leave me alone. I don’t know. I don’t even report to my mother the way you want me to report.”

With the version that Neil ended up writing, Danny said, “What he did with the play was far more than I ever could, because I wouldn’t have exposed myself that way.”

Broadway Arrival

In the pages of his biography, Memoirs, Neil explained that the first thing he did was flesh out the characters inspired by Danny and Roy, coming up with many more contrasts between them than what actually existed in real life. “I made Danny a finicky and compulsive demander of neatness and order, which Danny was not,” he writes, “and I made Roy sloppy, disorganized, and grouchy, none of those characteristics really fitting Roy Gerber’s true nature. Roy and Danny actually liked each other very much, and aside from Danny’s need to have Roy and friends come to dinner on time, they got on pretty well. As a result of my changes, however, the play’s characters now found it was not only difficult to live with each other on a day-to-day basis — as it is for almost all of us — but that they were complete opposites, unable to be together under any circumstances.”

Odd Couple - Walter Matthau

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

It became the concept that has fueled two plays written by Neil (the original, and a 1985 updated female version originally starring Rita Moreno as Olive Madison and Sally Struthers as Florence Ungar), two movies (the first in 1968, its sequel 30 years later), and no less than three live-action TV series and one animated.

Neil and Mike Nichols, who was brought aboard to direct the first play, met with and hired Art Carney from The Honeymooners to play Felix. Writes Neil, “Art was a vastly underrated actor/comedian who was generally overshadowed by the mammoth Jackie Gleason. Not in my book. I preferred Carney’s nuances and deftly understated characters to Gleason’s, ‘Watch out, pal, I’m taking the stage’ brand of comedy.'”

Next approached was Walter Matthau, who reflected in the production notes for The Odd Couple II that he first met Neil, who was a fledgling playwright at the time, at a party in New York. “He said to me, ‘My name is Neil Simon and I’m writing a play for you.’ I said, ‘How many acts do you have?’ He said there were three acts. I said, ‘When you have two acts finished, would you send them to me?’ And he said yes. I was doing a picture in Hollywood when I got the first two acts of The Odd Couple. I turned to my wife and I said, ‘Well, I don’t care what the third act is like. This play will run 10 years. This is hilarious.'”

The Odd Couple - Movie 3

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

One problem, however: “He wanted to play Felix,” noted Neil. “It would have been the blunder heard ’round Shubert Alley. I called Matthau and asked why he wanted to play Felix when he would not only be perfect as Oscar, but that he was Oscar. Walter replied, ‘I know. It’s too easy. I could phone Oscar in. But to play Felix, that would be acting.’ I said, ‘Walter, do me a favor. Act in someone else’s play. Do Oscar in mine.'”

Years later, Walter appeared on Jay Leno’s version of The Tonight Show, and admitted, “I never really wanted to play [Felix], I just said it to create an argument. I love to create arguments. That thrills me. That enthuses me. That pumps me up.” Nonetheless, he said, there were similarities between him and Felix: “I put coasters under cups and glasses. And when I cook, I like to cook a meatloaf and like my guests to be on time so the meatloaf is not overdone.”

The Odd Couple ran on Broadway for 964 performances and established Walter as a major star.

Heading to the Big Screen

The movie version of The Odd Couple arrived in theaters three years after its Broadway debut. Walter was brought back as Oscar (after insisting on getting a $300,000 payday from Paramount Pictures), but Art Carney, despite his success as Ed Norton and the original Felix among other things, was not felt to be movie star material, and he was not asked to reprise the role. Instead, Jack Lemmon (winner of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1956’s Mister Roberts) — who said he would only sign if Walter was involved — came aboard as the fastidious Mr. Ungar. The duo had previously worked together in 1966’s The Fortune Cookie.

Odd Couple Poster

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Jack, being quoted by author Joe Baltake in his book The Films of Jack Lemmon, explained, “I’ve never enjoyed working with any actor more than Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple. We have a great rapport. We’re very close friends, and it’s exciting to work with him. If in the middle of a scene someone gets an idea, there’s no hesitation, we just do it. The Odd Couple was a very lucky picture for me.”

In the pages of Matthau: A Life, actress Carole Shelley, who played one-half of Oscar and Felix’s neighbors, the Pigeon Sisters, comments, “I think Jack and Walter had an incredible working relationship. They made it very safe for each other to be dangerous. [For example], in one scene Walter breaks down; he’s really crying like a kid. It could have been a big man with a funny face pretending to cry. And it isn’t. It’s a big, strong, sloppy man crying. That’s quite dangerous.”

Odd Couple - Luncheonette

(Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures)

In the same book, Jack added, “Chemistry is just something that you have, like the color of our hair. It’s just when the two of you are on the same wavelength. I can tell where Walter is going with something before he gets there in a scene.”

For Neil, the film version of The Odd Couple was the perfect experience, his screenplay utilizing all the dialogue from his play, but, whereas the stage show took place entirely in Oscar’s apartment, the film opened things up a bit. As he writes in his autobiography, “I made minor adjustments in the dialogue so that playing a scene on Riverside Drive near Grant’s Tomb seemed perfectly natural. When Jack Lemmon did his moose calls to clear up his sinus problems, it was far funnier taking place in a luncheonette, because it provided an opportunity for all the customers to look curiously at Jack each time his horn blew again. It made Walter Matthau equally funnier, because every time Jack honked, Walter half-smiled and looked away, pretending he didn’t really know this man he was sitting with, and why was he doing those weird duck imitations?”

Odd Couple Two

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

As to the casting of Jack Lemmon as Felix, he added, “He was a perfect match for Walter, because, oddly enough, the so-called straight man in the piece must be even more convincing than the so-called funny one. Jack is the one we have to believe and Walter is, in a sense, the Greek chorus. Whatever he says about Jack’s (Felix’s) idiosyncrasies really mirrors what we ourselves feel about him. To hear an actor say exactly what we’ve just been thinking is very funny to an audience. And of course, nobody says it as funny as Walter.”

And for the audience of 1968, there was little funnier than The Odd Couple, the film becoming the fourth highest-grossing film of that year, pulling in $44.5 million (which was huge back then), its success inspiring the Odd Couple TV series, which ran for five years and made Oscar and Felix even bigger stars than they already were. For over half a century, these mismatched roommates have proven themselves to be comedy gold.

“When The Odd Couple first opened,” says Neil, “when the reviews came in, one after the other, it’s what you would dream about. That was, maybe still is, the pinnacle of my career.”

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