Thursday, January 03, 2013

oscar, oscar, oscar

One of my favorite actors, Jack Klugman, passed away last week. I have seen him in a few movies, like 12 Angry Men, but I came to know Klugman through two of his television shows, The Odd Couple and Quincy, M.E. As Quincy, the tough-as-nails L.A. County medical examiner, Klugman was constantly on the attack, trying to beat "the system." He was the original CSI, and although the show could and frequently did get preachy, Klugman was always entertaining. The actor's humor and likablity always shone through even the most message-laden of scripts.

What made Klugman a legend and a fond presence in my television-watching youth was his role as Oscar Madison on The Odd Couple. Oscar was intelligent, a New Yorker, a red-blooded American male, a writer, a sports nut, and a complete slob. He was also lovable, belligerent, sarcastic, and funny as hell. And he was part of a team. His roommate, Felix Unger, played to fussy and precise perfection by Tony Randall, was the other half of the show and the couple. As wonderful a team as Walter Matthau and Jack Klugman were as the same two characters in the film version of Neil Simon's play, I have always preferred Klugman and Randall. They not only had the opportunity in their five season run to expand on the characters, but they seemed able and willing to take Felix and Oscar to places and extremes that Simon had never even considered.
"On November 13, Felix Unger was asked to remove himself from his place of residence. That request came from his wife. Deep down, he knew she was right, but he also knew that someday, he would return to her. With nowhere else to go, he appeared at the home of his friend, Oscar Madison. Sometime earlier, Madison's wife had thrown him out, requesting that he never return. Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?"
The Odd Couple every week, in its half hour format, didn't just pile on absurd situations for the two opposites to clash against, but it carried the themes of middle aged men and dating, divorce, sex, fatherhood, and friendship throughout the series. Felix and Oscar were as close as two men could be, in proximity and emotionally, while still being straight. They would veer from loving each other to hating each other, sometimes in a single episode. Television frequently gives viewers similar female friendships, but usually the men in sitcoms and dramas are only allowed to become close as a result of their wives' relationships, as part of a couple. Television males can become close partners in the workplace, but the relationship rarely extends beyond the confines of their television job.

Oscar Madison, ketchup connoisseur
Another one of the things I liked best about The Odd Couple was how much their lives were part of the city they lived in, New York City, and how intrinsic the city was to plots and situations in the show. When I left suburban southern New Jersey for art school in New York City I know that I had The Odd Couple in the back of my mind as I walked through certain parts of town. Photographer Felix and sportswriter Oscar were working creative people, something I aspired to. And their trials and tribulations with brief car ownership, burglary, the subway and various other joys of big city life were like a comedic training film for a young city dweller.

The Odd Couple was apparently threatened with cancelation each year during its run. But it was always renewed for a new season, most likely because Klugman and Randall were nominated for Emmys each year, from 1970-1975, for their roles. Klugman won in 1971 and 1973, and Randall won in 1975.

There really isn't anything like The Odd Couple, or like their classic pairing, on current television. Felix and Oscar were smart guys, who may have driven each other crazy, but were constantly trying to outsmart each other or share their passions and enthusiasms. Felix was a lover of opera, gourmet food and cooking, the ballet and many other erudite pursuits, and was always trying to drag Oscar along to give him a little culture. Oscar was not just a successful sportswriter, but also a fan. He would try to get Felix involved in a sporting event (or poker game), but more often try to get Felix out in the world - and into the dating scene. The Big Bang Theory probably comes closest to The Odd Couple in its portrayal of smart characters, but with humor more frequently dependent on sexual entendre.

There are so many funny wonderful moments and catch-phrases that still stick with me from The Odd Couple:

"The Songwriter" - Felix tries to sell an original song, "Happy and Peppy and Bursting With Love" to Oscar's date Jaye P. Morgan.

"A Taste of Money" - where we get to see one of those tiny New York City apartments, wih the world's largest ball of tin foil — and where Oscar and Felix might be headed if they stay roommates into their old age

"Felix the Calypso Singer" - when Oscar's girlfriend nancy can't join him on their romantic vacation in the Caribean, he asks Felix to come along instead — and then Nancy shows up and Felix is left out — until Oscar gets him a chance to sing in the canina band.

"Password" - Oscar is a celebrity guest on the game show Password, and asks Felix to be his partner. Felix of course chooses clues like "Aristophanes," confusing Oscar, host Allen Ludden and Betty White.

"My Strife in Court" - Felix delivers the memorable "When you ASSUME ..." lecture when heacts as his own attorney when he and Oscar are accused of scalping tickets.

I have the first season of the show on DVD, so can indulge in some of these great, unedited, episodes when I want. I have heard however that the rest of the seasons' DVDs have been subjected to rampant editing:
Fans and critics alike lambasted CBS/Paramount for the shoddy treatment The Odd Couple DVD releases received, concluding that the studio has misled consumers by labeling their DVD sets as "complete" when they have been intentionally edited to avoid paying royalties required by the music publishers.[3] To date, there are no plans to re-release the series utilizing the uncut master prints. — Wikipedia
Buyer beware. Hopefully another company will re-release the later seasons, or a cable network will pick them up, because it would be fun to see Myrna Turner (Penny Marshall), Oscar and Felix's ex-wives Blanche and Gloria, and all of the 1970s celebrity guest stars (Howard Cosell, Monty Hall, Deacon Jones, Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, and Richard Dawson) again.

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