‘Everything You Do Irritates Me’: 15 Trivia Tidbits About ‘The Odd Couple’
It’s the franchise that went from the stage to the big screen to the small screen and Saturday morning cartoons. It’s the fictional comedy duo that’s been played by men, women and even animals. It’s the hilarious story that gave us the Pigeon Sisters and the iconic on-screen pairing of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon. The Odd Couple has seen many reboots and renditions, with one unifying concept: Opposites are funny.
Let’s dive into some trivia about the making of a classic comedic franchise...
A Dark Knight Composer
It Was Briefly Turned Into a Cartoon
The animated Saturday morning ABC show, The Oddball Couple, aired for four months in 1975 and featured a dog and a cat residing in the same house. Don Messick, the voice behind Scooby-Doo and Astro from The Jetsons, was part of the cast, and the show was produced by Friz Freleng, the famed animator who developed classic Looney Tunes characters including Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam and Speedy Gonzales.
It All Started with a Play
Accounts of the exact origins of Neil Simon’s 1965 stage play, The Odd Couple, differ. It is, however, fairly certain that the story about divorce was inspired by just that. “Mr. Simon (Danny, Neil’s brother) had moved in with a newly single theatrical agent named Roy Gerber in Hollywood, and they invited friends over one night,” The Washington Post reported. “Mr. Simon botched the pot roast. The next day, Gerber told him: ‘Sweetheart, that was a lovely dinner last night. What are we going to have tonight?’ Mr. Simon replied: ‘What do you mean, cook you dinner? You never take me out to dinner. You never bring me flowers.’”
The incident is said to have inspired Danny to write 14 pages, but he got bored and handed it over to his brother, Neil. Except, according to Neil, the idea happened the other way around. “I’m never aware of the genesis of a play. Sometimes they’re inspired by real-life incidents in my life or somebody else’s life, which was the case with The Odd Couple,” the playwright once explained. “It actually happened to my brother and a friend of his who were living together and going through all that. I witnessed it and said, ‘That’s a great idea for a play.’”
Neil was the one who suggested Danny write about it, and when Danny couldn’t continue after a dozen or so pages, Neil asked if he could take a crack at it.
Albert Brooks’ Screen Debut
It Was Always Walter Matthau
The actor was part of The Odd Couple from the start, playing Oscar Madison to Art Carney’s Felix Unger in the play’s very first stage production. The role won him a Tony. As for Carney, Simon knew he wanted The Honeymooners actor. “Art was a vastly underrated actor/comedian who was generally overshadowed by the mammoth Jackie Gleason,” Simon once wrote. “Not in my book. I preferred Carney’s nuances and deftly understated characters to Gleason’s ‘Watch out, pal, I’m taking the stage’ brand of comedy.”
Matthau Originally Wanted to Play Felix
When Matthau read the stage play (or, at least, the first two acts of the script), he knew it would be a banger and immediately wanted to sign up. However, he was interested in playing Felix. “It would have been the blunder heard ’round Shubert Alley,” Simon noted. “I called Matthau and asked why he wanted to play Felix when he would not only be perfect as Oscar but that he was Oscar. Walter replied, ‘I know. It’s too easy. I could phone Oscar in. But to play Felix, that would be acting.’ I said, ‘Walter, do me a favor. Act in someone else’s play. Do Oscar in mine.’”
The Tony Randall and Jack Klugman Alternatives
Taking The Odd Couple from the theaters to television made perfect sense to Paramount, but casting the central pair took some deliberations. The producers’ first choices were Art Carney as Felix and Martin Balsam as Oscar, but both actors weren’t available for the series. “Then Tony Randall and Jack Klugman occurred to us, and we knew it would be magic,” writer and producer Garry Marshall once remembered. “Then ABC wanted Tony Randall and Mickey Rooney, which we thought was a little far-fetched for what we needed. I wanted Jack Klugman, and the network didn’t really know who he was. I had seen Jack in Gypsy, and I figured if he could stand there with Ethel Merman, he could be with anybody. It surprised me that by the end of the play, I really liked him. He did one hell of a job, and this was an actor who had no part to play, but he was great. I like a man who stands there and doesn’t carry on, which he was so wonderful at on The Odd Couple.”
ABC Was Worried Viewers Would Think the TV Duo Were Gay
The series opened with the following narration: “On November 13th, Felix Unger was asked to remove himself from his place of residence. This request came from his wife…” This was apparently because ABC didn’t want audiences to think that the two men living together were also having sex. “They were always sending memos like that,” sighed Marshall. “We kept sending them special shots from the set of Tony and Jack hugging, just to make them crazy. It was based on some research they did in some little town in Michigan.”
From Laughing Track to Studio Audience
The first season of The Odd Couple was shot in the same apartment used for the 1968 movie, with an added laugh track. From Season Two onward, a smaller apartment setting was used, and the show was filmed in front of a live studio audience.
Why ‘The New Odd Couple’ Failed
Winifred Hervey, who wrote for the sitcom’s 1982 remake, The New Odd Couple, explained that the reboot, which only saw one season, simply rewrote the original show’s scripts. “They hired a lot of minority writers, but they weren’t really our scripts,” she explained. “So what we were doing was really rewriting scripts for a Black cast, which was not a very good idea, and there were a lot of problems with the show. It wasn’t a good experience. I think everybody resented — like, ‘Why can’t we write our own scripts? Why are we ‘Blackesizing’ scripts?’ — and so, that was a problem.”
Elaborating further, Hervey recalled when one of the head writers, Norman Barasch, asked the Black writing staff what a Black person would say when they were “very excited.” One of the writers, as a joke, said they’d probably yell, “Hot dog!” to which Barasch responded with an enthusiastic “okay” and proceeded to put it in the script. “So, it was odd,” Hervey concluded. “It was The Odd Odd Odd Couple.”
With a Little Help
Simon credited Boston critic Elliot Norton for helping him figure out the final act of his play. “(Norton) loved the play and gave it a wonderful review, but he said the third act was lacking something,” Simon told the Boston Globe. “On the show, he said, ‘You know who I missed in the third act was the Pigeon Sisters,’ and it was like a light bulb went off in my head. It made an enormous difference in the play. I rewrote it, and it worked very well. I was so grateful to Elliot. … Elliot had such a keen eye. I don’t know if he saved the play or not, but he made it a bigger success.”
The All-Female Version
Back in 1985, Simon revised his play and turned it into The Odd Couple (Female Version). Except for the gender changes, the poker game was changed to Trivial Pursuit, and the English Pigeon Sisters became the Spanish Costazuela Brothers, Manolo and Jesus. The play was directed by Gene Saks, who also directed the 1968 movie.
The Newest Reboot’s Controversy
The 2015 reboot series starring Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon got into hot water with Bosnia after seeming to reference the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. In the second season’s third episode, Felix (Lennon) tells Emily (Lindsay Sloane), “I thought we could try that new Serbian restaurant tonight, The Taste of Srebrenica” — referencing the Bosnian town where an estimated 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed by the Bosnian Serb Army. People from the region said that the line mocked women who were dragged to Srebrenica restaurants to be raped by Bosnian Serb soldiers.
“Saying, ‘Let’s go visit that new Serbian restaurant, The Taste of Srebrenica,’ is analogous to saying something as horrendous as: ‘Let’s go visit that new German restaurant, The Taste of Auschwitz,’” the Congress of North American Bosniaks wrote in an open letter to Perry and his co-producers.
Matthau Delayed the Original Movie’s Production
Production on the first film had to be put on hold after Matthau broke his arm when he fell off his bike while taking a ride on the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s why he went to the 1967 Academy Awards sporting a cast and had to wear a “soft cast” for the rest of the movie’s shoot.
On Why ‘The Odd Couple’ Is So Popular
“So many people relate to The Odd Couple because it’s such a human situation,” Bob Leszczak, author of The Odd Couple on Stage and Screen, once mused. “It’s something we’ve all experienced, or we’ve seen, where two people live together, whether they’re dating or just roommates, and they get on each other’s nerves. Of course, in The Odd Couple, it’s taken to the extreme, but we relate to them, whether it’s Felix the perfectionist or Oscar the slob, or even somebody with both of those qualities. It’s universal and will work forever. That’s why the show is still popular.”