Tony Randall, 84, the actor perhaps best known as the fussy Felix Unger on the ’70s ABC sitcom The Odd Couple, and later as David Letterman’s amusing but infrequent drop-in guest on Late Show, died in his sleep at New York University Medical Center in Manhattan Monday night, according to a statement from his publicist.
Randall, who for undisclosed reasons did not attend a May 3 American Cancer Benefit (where he was to be the recipient of a lifetime achievement award), succumbed to complications from a prolonged illness, said the statement.
His wife Heather was at his side at the time of his death.
Randall had been hospitalized since December, when he underwent a triple heart bypass. Pneumonia later set in.
Jack Klugman, Randall’s Odd Couple costar, called the late actor “a dear, dear friend and the bravest man I’ve ever known.”
Speaking to New York’s Daily News, Klugman, 82, added: “Tony was like a brother to me. … I went to visit him in the hospital two months ago and he was fighting like crazy and raring to go. But then he had a relapse.”
Doris Day, 80, who starred with Randall and Rock Hudson in a trio of sex comedies more than 40 years ago, said in a statement that her costar was “the funniest man in movies and on television.”
Tuesday night on Broadway, theater marquees dimmed their lights for one minute in tribute to Randall.
For many, Randall will always be remembered for The Odd Couple, the 1970-75 series based on the Neil Simon Broadway and movie smash. The sitcom paired him with Klugman as the sloppy sports writer Oscar Madison, as the two divorced husbands shared living quarters and hysterical adventures. In 1975, Randall won an Emmy as lead actor for his role as Felix.
Born Leonard Rosenberg in Tulsa, Okla., on Feb. 26, 1920, Randall was the son of an art dealer and was caught with the acting bug while majoring in speech and drama at Northwestern University in Illinois.
Although his Broadway debut took place in 1941 (in A Circle of Chalk), Randall’s initial stage career was cut short by WWII Army service, which kept him in the Signal Corps for four years and earned him the rank of Lieutenant.
Randall began his career in radio in the 1940s, before breaking into TV in the early ’50s. His best known role at that time was as Harvey Weskit, the brash, overconfident best friend of Robinson Peepers (Wally Cox) in the 1952-55 live sitcom Mr. Peepers (1952-1955).
By late in the ’50s and into the early ’60s, he was an established movie screen presence, generally as the amiable – sometimes sexless – sidekick to the handsome leading man in such pictures as Let’s Make Love opposite Yves Montand and Marilyn Monroe and, indelibly, opposite Hudson and Day in Pillow Talk, Send Me No Flowers, and Lover Come Back.
In the 1970s, following his successful run with Odd Couple, he starred in the short-lived CBS sitcom The Tony Randall Show (as Philadelphia judge Walter Franklin), and in 1981 he returned to the air as the gay character Sidney Shorr in NBC’s Love, Sidney: a critically-acclaimed yet commercially unsuccessful sitcom canceled in 1983.
According to his publicist, Randall is noted for having more guest appearances than any other actor on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, as well as with David Letterman (104 appearances). He also was on the premiere show of Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
His passions included the opera (“I love classical music with the same passion with which I despise rock ‘n’ roll”), his National Actors Theatre (a not-for-profit Broadway and off-Broadway-based repertory company launched in 1991) and his family, which he began well into his golden years.
After a long, happy marriage of 54 years, Randall’s wife, the former Florence Gibbs, died in 1992 after a long illness. Randall, at 75, found love again with actress Heather Harlan, 25, whom he met while she was interning at the National Actors Theatre.
Mayor Rudolph Guiliani married the two in New York on Nov. 17, 1995. Then on April 11, 1997, Randall became a father for the first time when Heather gave birth to a daughter, Julia Laurette, and for a second time on June 15, 1998, with the birth of a son, Jefferson Salvini.
At the time of their wedding, the couple talked to PEOPLE about their age difference. “My wife says I don’t look a day over 70,” said Randall with his customary brisk aplomb.
Said Harlan: “I couldn’t ask for a nicer man.”