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Tony and Me Excerpt from Tony and Me

by Jack Klugman with Burton Rocks

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Chapter 4

Collaborating with Tony

When it came time to shoot the pilot for The Odd Couple series, Tony actually wanted Mickey Rooney to play the part of Oscar. He had done the play with Mickey in summer stock and they had also gotten great notices.

Garry Marshall, who was the Co-Executive Producer of The Odd Couple, wanted me to play the part and fought for me. I figured it was because he had seen me on Broadway when I replaced Walter Matthau.

So, a few days into the first rehearsals, I thanked Garry and made a joke about how he must have caught me on a very good night. That's when he said, in his low, slow Bronx accent, something that shocked me:

"I never saw you play Oscar on Broadway."

"What!" I blurted. "Then why did you fight for me?"

"I saw you in Gypsy. You did a scene with Ethel Merman and I was impressed because as she was singing to you, she was spitting a lot and it was getting on your clothes and your face and in your eyes. You never even flinched. I said to myself, 'Now that's a good actor.'"

And that's how I got the biggest break of my career. Go figure.

Meanwhile, the wardrobe department was having trouble finding the right clothes for Oscar. No matter what they chose, they couldn't make the producers happy. In fact, it went on for so long that the wardrobe people were starting to panic.

Then one day I walked onto the set for rehearsal and the wardrobe guys came up to me. I noticed they were eyeballing my sport coat and kind of rubbing the fabric between their fingers.

"Listen, Jack" they confided, "We can't find the type of clothes that Oscar would wear and we're running out of time. So, we were thinking . . . what if we bought your clothes?"

"What?" I thought they were joking.

"Well, Jack . . . your sport coats . . . are exactly the kind of things we think Oscar would wear." They weren't joking. I didn't know whether to be flattered or insulted.

"Wait a minute. You guys are serious. You really want to buy my clothes!" I said.

"Not all of them" one, guy kidded, "just your pants, jackets, shirts, and shoes. You can keep your underwear and socks."

"How much?" I asked.

"Three hundred and fifty bucks," one of them said.

"Deal," I said right away. "And I want it in cash."

They smiled and walked away like a couple of bandits. What neither of them knew was that even at three hundred and fifty bucks for all of my clothes, I still made a profit!

***

We shot the first fifteen shows with one camera and the only good episode centered on an injured parrot that we thought was dead, but was really just in a coma. In my opinion, the rest of them stunk. Apparently, the network agreed with me because after fifteen shows we were cancelled, with not much chance of even finishing the regular season.

Feeling like we hadn't been given a proper shot, we all lobbied the ABC executives, explaining that the show would never work with one camera. We told them that Tony and I were stage actors who loved the rehearsal process and knew how to use it. We said that if we switched from a one camera set up to a three camera set up they would be taking advantage of our strengths.

You see, in a one camera world, you don't get any rehearsal. Most of the time is spent setting up or breaking down shots and so it takes all week just to get the show in the can. But a three camera world is another thing entirely. If the network would let us do things this way, it would give us all week to rehearse. Then on Friday, we could shoot the show straight through, in front a live audience, with real people and real laughter.

We begged them to let us use the three camera format, literally getting down on our knees to get rid of the damned laugh track. Oh, how we hated that canned laughter! It was an insult. Tony and I knew how to get real laughs! Tony even quoted Fred Allen to one of the execs about laugh tracks, "Do you realize how many of those people laughing are dead?"

The network pushed back and challenged us to prove that there was real interest in the show. So, Tony and I borrowed an office at ABC studios in New York for one week and called almost every newspaper in America. We asked them to tell their readers to write to the network and say how much they hated the laugh track.

Almost overnight, we created a furor, and by the end of the week, we had received more than three hundred thousand letters. The network got the point and let us finish the season with three cameras, a live audience, and no laugh track!

Now we had what we needed to give the show a fair shake and we all started having fun; not just Tony and me, but the writers and producers as well as the other actors were all energized by the live audience. By the end of the first season, The Odd Couple was a show with real legs.

It's no surprise really; we were surrounded by big talent. We had Garry Marshall, Jerry Belson, and Harvey Miller producing, three of the funniest (and craziest) people I've ever known. We had Tony and me playing Felix and Oscar and there was a deep pool of talented regulars like Penny Marshall, Al Molinaro, Gary Walberg, John Byner, Dick Stahl, and a hundred other talented people who kept me laughing through all those years. Sometimes it's hard to believe I got paid to do it!

However, we still struggled in the ratings. One of the little known facts about The Odd Couple is that every year we were on the air, for all five seasons, we were cancelled in June and picked up again two months later in August.

The reason for this is a little complicated. You see, the networks kept airing our show at different times on different nights, so people could never make us a part of their routine; that is during the regular season. During the summer season though, it aired at the same time every week. When people would be flipping past reruns of shows they'd already seen, they would stop to watch The Odd Couple. They would realize what a good show it was and would watch it faithfully all summer long. The ratings would go up and stay up for three months. That's when the network would change its mind and give us another season.

It always bugged Tony that we got cancelled every year, even though he understood it wasn't our fault. I told him several times that when the show went into syndication, that's when people would find us, and that's when we'd be a big hit. You can't have that many talented people doing such good work and not be successful. Time will always tell.

Besides, we had nowhere to go but up. And in some ways, Tony and I benefited from the low ratings. After the second year our agent Abbey Greshler was able to renegotiate our contract and get Tony and me a legitimate piece of the show. ABC never thought it'd be worth anything and so they were overly generous. It turned out to be a very good thing for us. That "piece" sent both of my kids to college.

Copyright 2005 Jack Klugman with Burton Rocks

For more information, please visit www.tonyandme.com.