By Lois Armstrong
November 08, 1976 12:00 PM

Tony Randall, it turns out, doesn’t need Jack Klugman. He’s an odd couple all by himself. He once played opposite Ethel Barrymore but is now the clown prince of TV situation comedy. He studied dance with Martha Graham (“the only true genius I ever met”) but hoofed thanklessly on Broadway in Oh Captain! He can trill passages from almost every opera extant but has recorded two albums of Tiny Tim-like parodies of “mothball music.” He has one of the most elegant, if computerlike, minds in the arts but keeps coughing up trivia—for example, the name of the actor who starred in a World War II anti-VD film (Charles Trowbridge).

Similarly, Randall is the least imperious of stars yet autocratically bans smoking on the set. Once on Tonight he even dared to reach over and snatch a weed out of Johnny Carson’s hand and ostentatiously shred it on camera. Then there was the time he got carried away in 1968 while campaigning for Eugene McCarthy and said of LBJ “the s.o.b. lied to us.” It led to the ultimate retaliation for Tony. Texaco suspended him for the remainder of the season from its weekly Metropolitan Opera Quiz radiocast.

That seemed to be one of the few traumas of his 56 years. “I even enjoyed my parents’ divorce,” he chirps. His own marriage, to a fellow Oklahoman, Florence Gibbs, his sweetheart at Northwestern University, is still serene after all these years. His respect in the business is extraordinary. When programming maestro Freddie Silverman jumped from CBS to ABC in 1975, his first decision was to tie up Randall. Only later was MTM Enterprises asked to concoct a vehicle. Notes Tony: “I wanted to play a football coach, but ended up a judge” (and inevitably, because it’s a TV sitcom, a widower with two oppressive kids). But, because of its star, The Tony Randall Show is one of the classiest new entries in this generally disappointing season.

An indication of his clout (and kookiness) came when he cast his co-star Rachel Roberts by phone. “Hello, this is Tony Randall,” he announced. “You have five seconds to make up your mind if you want to be my mad housekeeper on my new show.” “Five seconds?” chortled the British actress. “Sure!” Randall acknowledges, “I need somebody to play off. My acting style is counterpunching.” It’s praise from Caesar (or rather Caesar’s wife—Rachel used to be married to Rex Harrison) when she compares Randall to the knights she’s played opposite on the West End. “Tony’s just as much a perfectionist and serious,” she adjudges. “A classical actor has to have style—and Randall has style.” The other day she and another eminent actress were viewing a rerun of The Odd Couple. “My God,” cried Rosemary Harris, “wouldn’t he be good in Chekhov.”

Though unaware of the suggestion, Randall agrees: “Chekhov had me in mind when he had all those wistful, spineless, alcoholic wastrels sitting there scratching and saying, ‘If only…’ ” The only problem is that Tony’s capacity is one martini. Besides, he prefers beer, he notes, in his continual war against the prissy, persnickety image that’s typed him in all three of his TV series. Prior to his five seasons as Felix in Odd Couple, Tony was the equally fussy teacher Harvey Weskit in that pioneering 1950s sitcom, Mr. Peepers. “I am a slob, really,” he protests (perhaps overmuch), “but nobody will believe it. I must say I think I’m funny,” he concedes, with a manic laugh, “and it annoys me. I’ve always wanted to be romantic. I see myself on TV and turn it off as fast as I can.”

Yet no matter how superrefined his esthetic, Randall is no cultural snob. Except for his own series, he goes home and reads and watches television “just like everybody else.” And Opera Quiz isn’t exactly his only panel appearance: he’s the egghead of $25,000 Pyramid and Hollywood Squares. Tony’s talent—and need—to amuse may have resulted from richocheting through 24 different schools. His dad was an art dealer who followed his clientele from Florida to Long Island, but worked mostly around Tulsa trying to mine a mother lode of nouveau riche oil barons. Randall confides that his father’s decision to move out when the boy was 13 “was pleasant for me: my rival was gone.” His mother, he says, was “the great love of my life—she had the best sense of humor of anybody.” In any case, two years later he had caught Katharine Cornell onstage and already “knew exactly what I was going to do in life. It was acting or die.”

He went to Northwestern University’s School of Speech and corrected his Okie accent, if not “the nasal thing,” which he believes is irreversible. His wife supported them modeling (“She has an absolutely perfect figure”) while Tony studied acting under Sanford Meisner in New York. After World War II duty with the Army Signal Corps, he became the breadwinner in “dead serious” parts on Broadway. Then came Peepers and a new career in film fluff like Pillow Talk, with Rock Hudson and Doris Day, as well as his favorite role among 25 movies, The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao.

None of this exactly made a New York convert like Randall go Hollywood. “Los Angeles isn’t even a real city,” he feels, but just a place to endure while he tapes his series. Tony is appalled at Malibu Beach rents, so he and Florence stay in a bungalow at the once grand but mildewing Chateau Marmont Hotel. Touchingly, he’s decorated his dressing room with color photos taken from the windows of their Central Park West apartment.

The Randalls rarely socialize. “If they don’t like opera,” Tony exaggerates only slightly, “we can’t be friends.” He himself came on it late, at age 30, when a voice coach ordered him to attend a performance. Borrowing an analogy from Arthur Koestler, Tony recalls the evening: “I was like a lifelong homosexual who has been converted at an advanced age. He does it morning and night, and he keeps saying, ‘My God, this is wonderful! I can’t believe this has been here all along and I never knew it!’ ” So when he is caught weekends in Hollywood he shuttles up to hear the San Francisco Opera. And during shooting hiatuses he and his wife can’t wait to get back to New York. Florence prefers it, and Randall is positively reborn. He gallery-hops, lunches with chums like Beverly Sills(though he says they’re not close enough “to go to each other’s homes and look for beer in the refrigerator”) and evenings at the Met. Since Florence doesn’t completely share his obsession for opera, Tony will stop on the way home “for a quart of ice cream to make up for her being alone all evening.”

That aside, Randall has few pangs in life. Not having children is one—”They’re the only thing I’ve missed.” Not being more immersed in classical drama is another—”I would like to build a repertory theater and be the director and the star, all that—Olivier’s life, in other words. But I don’t have the Napoleonic character.” And, more drolly, not being another Norton Simon—”If I had millions and millions, I would fill the house with Picassos—of course, if you forced me to take Cézannes I could adjust to that, or to Gris or Monet.”

But Randall isn’t in it for the dollar. Says old colleague Klugman: “He could give up his opera even, but he couldn’t give up his acting. It’s his life.”