Tony Randall

Active - 1955 - 2011  |   Born - Feb 26, 1920 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States  |   Died - May 17, 2004   |   Genres - Comedy, Children's/Family, Fantasy

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The son of an Oklahoma art dealer, Tony Randall studied drama at Northwestern, then took further acting training at New York City's Neighborhood Playhouse. He also found time to squeeze in modern dance lessons from Martha Graham. Before he was 22, Randall had shared the stage with the likes of Ethel Barrymore and Katherine Cornell. He interrupted his career during the war to serve as a messenger center officer with the Signal Corps. After the war, Randall put in time as a radio actor, notably in the role of Reggie on the adventure serial I Love a Mystery. Randall's encyclopedic knowledge of radio trivia, indeed, of every kind of trivia, was one of the reasons that he was a much sought-after guest on TV game shows. His Broadway starring appearances in the 1950s included the lead in Oh, Captain, a musical version of the Alec Guinness film The Captain's Paradise, and Mencken-like journalist E.K. Hornbeck in Inherit the Wind. He entered films with 1957's Oh, Men, Oh Women, gaining a following as the pessimistic or drunken comic relief in such fluff as Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961). His starring films include inconsequential farces like Fluffy (1964) and The Brass Bottle (1964); his favorite film assignment was his virtuoso multi-character work in Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), a film he curiously refuses to discuss for interviews. Randall's extensive television work includes the roles of brash high school history teacher Harvey Weskit in Mr. Peepers (1952-1953) and archetypal neatnik Felix Unger in The Odd Couple (1969-1974). His other TV series include The Tony Randall Show (1976), in which he played a judge, and Love, Sidney (1981-1983) which became a cause célèbre over the issue of his character's homosexuality (or lack of same after the network censors had their way). He made a cameo appearance as himself in Martin Scorsese's 1983 film The King of Comedy.

Active in several liberal and humanitarian causes, Randall was never afraid of putting his career on the line to espouse his opinions: after delivering an anti-Vietnam broadside on TV in the late '60s, Randall was yanked from his weekly appearances as an expert on Opera Quiz, an intermission feature on the Texaco Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts (he later claimed that he was paid off on his contract, then donated the money to Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign). Randall has also been unafraid to offer his anti-tobacco theories, to the extent of threatening job termination to anyone caught smoking in his presence. He also founded The Myasthenia Gravis Foundation; when asked why he chose this cause to support, he quipped, "My agent told me I needed a disease."

In 1991, Randall created the National Actors Theater, a New York-based repertory company devoted to American and British classics. A year or so after the death of his first wife (circa 1995) Tony Randall reluctantly found himself a tabloid press target when he married Heather Harlan a National Actors Theater ingénue nearly fifty years his junior. Unphased by the gossip, Randall and Harlan stayed together and had two children. In December, 2003, Randall had a triple heart bypass - and subsequently contracted pneumonia -- at the New York University Medical Center, where he would remain for the next several months. On May 17, 2004, Randall died in his sleep at the hospital with Harlan by his side. He had made his final film appearance in Kevin Shinick's debut comedy It's About Time, released in 2005.

Many movie and TV fans will most remember Tony Randall for roles in such cult classics as Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, as well as his star turn as Felix Unger in the long running Odd Couple series. But his status is much broader than that of a character player - he remains one of the few performers to gracefully build a legacy for himself in the three "actor's mediums": film, TV, and most of all - stage - where he became a consummate master of George Bernard Shaw and William Shakespeare. His reputation will thus linger in the entertainment world for decades, as a standard by which new generations of comic actors are judged. As if confirming this status, the lights on Broadway dimmed for eight minutes on May 18, 2004 - the evening following Randall's death.

Movie Highlights

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  • Started his career on radio and was a regular on I Love a Mystery in the early 1940s.
  • Made his Broadway debut (as Anthony Randall) in a 1947 production of Antony and Cleopatra, starring Katharine Cornell and featuring newcomers Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach and Charlton Heston.
  • Was an Emmy nominee (along with costar Jack Klugman) for each of the five years of The Odd Couple; he won once, Klugman twice.
  • Was a guest on The Tonight Show more than 100 times with Johnny Carson.
  • Worked for years to establish a repertory theater on Broadway and in 1991 founded the National Actors Theatre.
  • Was a guest on the debut episode of Late Night with Conan O'Brien, which aired Sept. 13, 1993.
  • Received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Pace University in 2003.