OSCAR AND FELIX ARE AT IT AGAIN SITTING in his dressing room, Jack Klugman, rumpled of shirt and floppy of hat, is slouched over the Daily Racing Form trying to recall the last occasion he and Tony Randall performed The Odd Couple onstage. “We toured four times…” he begins.
“No, Jack,” interrupts the fastidious Randall. “It was seven, times, the last being 1975.”
There is, however, at least one thing these two can agree on: On June 23, in a one-night benefit performance, Klugman and Randall mounted the stage of New York City’s Belasco Theater to reprise the Neil Simon play that inspired their classic TV roles. Their gaits were slower, their hair grayer; this was an older Odd Couple. But their flawless timing was intact, and the amiably disheveled Klugman, 69, was still harried by the ashtray-emptying, Felix-trim Randall, 71.
“You could feel their love for each other on the stage,” says Martin Sheen, who played one of the poker players in an all-star supporting cast that included Kate Nelligan and Joanna Gleason as the dotty Pigeon sisters (last-minute subs for feudin’, fussin’ Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave, who, Randall says, prefer not to work together right now).
The stars’ mutual affection was also made obvious by the mere fact that Klugman agreed to perform despite the ravages of his long battle with throat cancer. Two years ago, after undergoing radiation therapy, then surgery to remove his right vocal cord, he retreated to his 40-acre horse farm in Temecula, Calif. He is currently cancer free, but his always raspy voice remains weak and now makes him sound a little like a muffled Louis Armstrong. But he couldn’t say no to Randall. “I did it for us,” says Klugman. “I did it for him but also for me. It was the best chance to see whether I can still do it. Without Tony, I don’t know whether I would’ve had the courage.” Says Randall: “He’s one gutsy son of a bitch.”
After the performance, Klugman was exultant. “I felt reborn,” he says. “There was no pain whatsoever—except maybe a little for the audience.” Theatergoers disagreed. “Jack is Oscar,” says Judd Hirsch. “The voice didn’t matter.”
The event raised $1 million toward Randall’s dream of establishing a national theater company. He has also donated $1 million of his own money to the project, which will produce three Broadway classics at the Belasco next season at discount prices, including $5 balcony seats for students. “So families can start going to the theater again,” says Randall, who has already lined up such talent as Martin Sheen and Jason Robards for the shows.
Now that he’s back in action, Klugman may even take another turn himself—he’d like to play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Although both Randall and Klugman are rerun-rich from The Odd Couple, its greatest legacy, 21 years after the show’s premiere, may be a friendship beyond price. “Yeah, the play’s about friends being together,” says Klugman. “Six months ago I could only whisper, and tonight I screamed.”