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Remembering Tony Randall


There are 178 entries for Tony Randall, if I've added it all up correctly, in the Internet Movie Data Base -- motion pictures and television series starting 1949, "Notable TV Guest Appearances" starting 1947 -- and I expect when all the numbers are in, his appearances on the living stage, all across America, will more than double that.

But what comes into my head when I close my eyes, now, is two things:

One is Johnny Carson, circa 1962, night after night breaking up as he'd get Tony Randall to sit down beside him and sing "Blue Moon" or "The Lady in Red" or "Red Sails in the Sunset" or "Boo Hoo" or "Row Row Row" or "Mean to Me" or some other great old corny forgotten song -- forgotten by all but Tony Randall, who could replicate each and every one of those chestnuts, and hundreds of others, note for note, word for word.

And the other is 40 years later, meaning just two years ago -- Tony at ageless 82 going one-on-one, in high relish, with Al Pacino, in the scene in Brecht's "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" in which a proud, exacting, high-flown classic actor is brought in to give elocution and posture lessons to the guttersnipe gangster in a brown shirt who might one day seize the whole world by the throat.

These two aspects are in no way the two poles, or some such, of the man who has just been taken from us; he had, like everybody else, a thousand poles. But there was, in Tony, always a glint in the eye, a bit of roguery -- the "Boo Hoo" balladeer -- side by side with a deep old-fashioned straight-backed correctness. A spine.

He was, in short, a gentleman of the old school, and gentlemen didn't talk out of school. In all the years he was married to his first wife, an invalid for many of those 50 years, he never in my presence, in or out of an interview, said two words more than: "Yes, I'm married" and then go back to the subject at hand, which in Tony's case was of course, first and last, the theater.

Speaking of which, a third picture suddenly comes to mind. It is the Belasco Theater, 1991, and the almost unbearably moving yet boffo moment in which Tony Randall and Jack Klugman -- he, minus most of his vocal chords -- come together once again to reconstruct their greatest hit, television's "The Odd Couple," this time live, on stage, for benefit of Tony's hard-fought National Actors' Theatre. And, as it may be, also for benefit of old friend Klugman.

Hard-fought and under-appreciated. I speak of Tony's beloved National Actors' Theater. It has done some perfectly respectable work over this past decade, some not so good, some pretty good, some ("Inherent the Wind") better than that, some ("Room Service") out of phase entirely, but I don't think in all those years Tony's NAT ever got a break -- just some little wee shot in the arm -- from The New York Times or the supercilious drama press in general.

How could an odd chap like Felix Unger give birth to and run a serious theater? Couldn't happen. No way. Jump on it and push it under the carpet.

An odd chap. Pillar of the Neighborhood Playhouse, familiar of the Players' Club. And when Florence Gibbs Randall was taken away after those 50 years, persnickety fussbudget Felix Unger, whose masculinity was always a remote question mark at the back of many even rabid fans' minds, upped and married a good-looking girl, Heather Harlan, 50 years his junior -- and just like that had one child (a daughter named for Laurette Taylor) and then another child (a son named for Joseph Jefferson, whose picture is in the Players Club), by her, in short order.

When Tony's longtime publicist and close friend John Springer died, Tony Randall at the services, as my wife reminds me, said something like: "The only unkind thing he ever did in his life was to die on us."

A few weeks ago at a benefit at the Plaza for the National Actors Theatre, Tony Randall was unable to attend; he was in a hospital bed, recovering from a triple bypass and pneumonia. Though we did not see him, we heard him on the telephone. "I'll soon be back in circulation," he told the gilded diners. "And then I think we should all have lunch."

On Monday evening, May 17, 2004, Tony Randall died in his sleep at NYU Medical Center. He was 84. Boo hoo, you hear me crying for you. Laughing with you -- you and Klugman. It's time for lunch, Tony. Don't be late.

Time and place of services for Tony Randall will be announced soon. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the National Actors Theatre, 1 Pace Plaza, New York, N.Y. 10038. [Tallmer]

This article also appeared in Downtown Express/The Villager.

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