Reviews

Tony and Me: A Story of Friendship by Jack Klugman (with Burton Rocks)

Phoebe Kate Foster

In a notable departure from many Hollywood celeb tomes, Klugman eschews any self-aggrandizement to focus on honoring the memory of his best friend while also resisting the temptation to canonize him.


Tony and Me

Publisher: Good Hill Press
Length: 141
Subtitle: A Story of Friendship
Price: $24.95 (U.S.)
Author: Jack Klugman (with Burton Rocks)
US publication date: 2005-08
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...I'm so grateful to Tony not just for being the best acting partner I ever had...or for even helping me win my career back -- he knew I appreciated all those things. What I didn't get a chance to tell him was that our friendship made me a better human being
-- Jack Klugman, Tony and Me

Thirty-six years ago, a brilliant little sleeper of a comedy appeared on ABC called The Odd Couple, based on playwright Neil Simon's Broadway hit and 1968 popular movie by the same name. Anybody who's seen the television show remembers (and can probably recite) the unforgettable big hook of a monologue that preceded the opening credits. As a despondent-looking businessman trudges the streets of Manhattan with his suitcases and a frying pan in hand, the voiceover says:

"On November 13, Felix Unger was asked to removed himself from his place of residence. That request came from his wife. Deep down, he knew she was right. But he also knew that some day he would return to her. With nowhere else to go, he appeared at the home of his childhood 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 answer to that rhetorical question, after a 114-episode, five-year run for the series, was a qualified, "Yes, sort of..." Here were two sad sacks of men who had no clue how impossible they were to live with -- until they moved in together and began to realize, in some vague way, exactly why their wives (and hardly anyone else) could stand them. Big-mouthed, uncouth, freewheeling slob Oscar and prissy, pissy, effete perfectionist Felix, masterfully played by Jack Klugman and Tony Randall respectively, could not be under the same roof for very long without driving each other totally insane in ways all of us could identify with.

But at its core, The Odd Couple was a whole lot more than just two mismatched midlife male roommates trading insults and looking for nooky with the unattached women of Manhattan. It highlighted the kind of loyalty between people that rides out the rough times and transcends differences. However opposite Oscar and Felix were in disposition and aspiration, however frustrated with each other they became, they were always, unfailingly, unquestioningly there for each other when push came to shove.

Ironically, the onscreen scenario was also being played out behind the scenes as well. While the two main characters struggled week after week to learn how to get along, the actors who played them were working out their own odd-couplesque personality differences to forge strong ties that would change both their lives forever.

In his touching memoir, Tony and Me: A Story of Friendship, Jack Klugman chronicles his long association with Tony Randall that began on the set of The Odd Couple in 1970 and lasted until Randall's death in 2004. It was a relationship as anomalous, paradoxical, and unlikely as the pairing of Oscar and Felix as roommates. Klugman and Randall were uncannily similar in many ways to the characters they played on their television show, and there was some inevitable head-butting and saber-rattling between them in the beginning.

Their shared vision for the show, however, quickly drew them together. "Tony and I never saw [it] as merely a frolic, but a portrait of friendship," Klugman writes. They also came to realize that they were a highly effective collaborative duo, both well trained in their craft and simpatico creatively, gifted at the fine art of adlibbing and dedicated to character-driven rather than shtick-driven comedy. This meeting of artistic minds became the foundation of both a highly successful ongoing professional relationship and a long-term friendship that more than deserves a book to celebrate it.

In a notable departure from many Hollywood celeb tomes, Klugman eschews any self-aggrandizement to focus on honoring the memory of his best friend while also resisting the temptation to canonize him. Klugman's depiction of Randall, a complex, often difficult and paradoxical man, is both loving and honest at the same time. Tony was a tough taskmaster, demanding perfection from himself and others professionally; he had a quick temper and a sharp tongue. He was also quick to forgive, quick to apologize, and unflaggingly devoted to encouraging and building up others.

Though affable and outgoing, Randall was a very private person; Klugman is a self-described "loner." That two such people were able to permit one another behind their thick and protective psychological walls is remarkable in and of itself. That such vulnerability and personal commitment occurred in the muddled and murky milieu of Hollywood, where no relationship lasts longer than it takes for the next edition of The Enquirer to hit the newsstands, is nothing short of a miracle.

In describing Tony's credo, the backbone that made him a compassionate and dedicated person, Klugman writes that it amounted to: "Honoring others, honoring your heart, standing strong with your family, respecting others." It was Randall's ingenuity and emotional support that brought Klugman back from career limbo after his throat cancer operation and subsequent vocal impairment in the 1990s. Even more profound, Klugman credits Randall with breaking down his emotional barriers and teaching him to trust others. It's a claim nobody's likely to dispute, since it's coming from a laconic tough guy raised on the wrong side of the tracks in Philadelphia with no fondness for flowery hyperbole or silly sentimentality.

Tony and Me, for all its brevity, is full of interesting factoids and anecdotes that should make it appealing to almost every pop culture aficionado and classic television buff. Do you know what dubious event caused Klugman to decide on a hitherto unconsidered acting career? What was Tony Randall's real name and ethnicity? Was it Klugman or Randall who streaked naked across a stage with toilet paper trailing from his butt to make people laugh? The volume is loaded with marvelous photos and also comes with a DVD of never-before-seen outtakes from the original show that is all too short (about 15 minutes or less) but priceless just the same.

That Klugman opted to self-publish his tribute to his friend is indicative of the seriousness with which he approached this endeavor. He writes: "...I needed to be sure it was done right...I instinctively didn't like the idea of handing Tony and Me over to someone I didn't know. My friendship with Tony is a very personal thing...[It's] a simple story about friendship itself -- a small tale of two men who took 50 years to figure why they came together." The book was written "with" Burton Rocks, whatever that means; what counts is the book reads as if Klugman is speaking every line. The final product retains Jack's quirkiness, toughness, realism and deep love for his best buddy that no ghostwriter, however skilled, could duplicate.

As a television program, The Odd Couple initially didn't succeed the way its stage and film predecessors did. Due to poor decisions by the network in scheduling, it ironically ended up at the lower end of the all-important Nielsen ratings heap. It was indisputably an artistic success for all who were involved with it, but it never "took off" or "caught on" with the viewing public, at least according to the omniscient opinion polls. Like clockwork, the show was cancelled every June, only to be renewed every August after a more auspicious summer season of regular hours -- and that crazy seesaw went on for five years.

Nonetheless, the show has become one of the great classics of television history, as legendary in its under-appreciation in its own time as Star Trek, which similarly found eternal fame and a huge fan base in the blessed afterlife of syndication. The Odd Couple has experienced numerous reincarnations -- in an African-American sitcom version, a made-for-TV movie and currently a revival on Broadway starring Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, as well as innumerable versions done in summer stock and regional theatres globally over the years. It is the little show that just won't die. And why? Very simply because its humor is character-oriented, its big-hearted humanity irresistible and it reinforces what we know to be true: that opposites attract, that love conquers all and that friendship -- in its purest and truest form -- is what saves us all our ragged asses.

When Tony Randall and Jack Klugman were working on the sitcom and sitting in with the writers during their brainstorming sessions, Klugman would not allow an episode to be cast in stone without its key element. "Where's the love scene?" he'd demand. What he wanted was the moment where, after all the screaming and fighting between Felix Unger and Oscar Madison stopped, Oscar said that no matter how crazy or mad Felix made him, he still loved him as his best friend. That was the basis of the entire show. That was the motivation of both the characters. It had to be there. And it always was.

Jack Klugman may not feel he got a chance to tell Tony Randall face-to-face how much he loved him for making him a better person. He's done it in this little but powerful volume, however, and done it with simplicity, graciousness and dignity.

Your book, Mr. Klugman, is the ultimate love scene. And, wherever he is, Tony hears it.


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