Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” has been produced on stage, in films and as a variety of TV programs since its Broadway debut in 1965. There was even a female version of the tale of two very different friends sharing an apartment from the mid-1980s.
The key to each was finding the right casting: an actor to play the slobbish Oscar and one to portray the persnickety Felix.
It was longtime film and TV producer Garry Marshall who brought together Tony Randall and Jack Klugman for the early ’70s TV comedy. So Marshall knows a thing or two about finding the right actors to play the roles.
He’s gone back to the Simon comedy to produce a new version of “The Odd Couple” TV series, this time starring Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon.
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“Neil Simon did a good job with these characters, but whatever you do, you’ve got to have casting,” Marshall says. “This casting is tremendous. Matthew Perry, my favorite from ‘Friends.’ Him (pointing at Lennon), I didn’t know from Adam.”
It’s not clear if Marshall was playing favorites when he cast Perry as Oscar. There have been a few changes, but the character is still the guy whose idea of hanging up his clothes is when they hit the chair and not the floor.
Marshall had to know after watching Perry on “Friends” that his portrayal of Chandler was more Felix than Oscar.
“It’s funny. When we started this project, a lot of people thought that I would be a better Felix. But in real life, I’m much more of an Oscar,” Perry says. “It’s been a dream come true to play Oscar Madison. It’s big shoes to fill, but we’re doing our own thing and playing it differently. I do a slight Walter Matthau impression in the pilot. In writing the pilot, we came up with our own stuff. We used some stuff from Neil Simon.”
Perry got the idea to do a remake of “The Odd Couple” while driving around one day. He had a cast and a network in mind. That’s when he heard CBS already was looking at such a project, and he made sure he was a part of those plans.
To get to this point, Perry went through “Mr. Sunshine” on ABC and “Go On” on NBC. Perry has starred in several failed comedies since “Friends” ended, and Lennon has struggled to find a series to match the success of his “Reno 911!”
Perry’s proud of those shows despite their quick endings, and he says he learned a valuable lesson from doing both. The two comedies were shot like a one-hour drama and not in front of a studio audience as was “Friends.” That made for long days, unlike a traditional sitcom where the days can be close to a normal 9-5 job.
Marshall chimes in with, “I did ‘Me and the Chimp.’ So you learn from the past.”
Once Lennon was in the mix, the roles became clear. When Lennon auditioned for the part, he was channeling Tony Randall. There’s good reason for that because Randall has always been a hero to Lennon.
He took a little bit of his performance from Randall’s work — including an annoying nose-clearing sound — but added elements of his own life, such as being able to play the cello and his yoga training.
“What’s cool about this show is it’s just trying to be funny. We’re just trying to make people laugh. It’s based on chemistry,” Perry says. “We are really lucky that Tom and I have really good chemistry. And we’re using the ensemble cast a lot more than the original show did, so it’s more of an ensemble show, I guess with the two of us at the center, but it’s a really talented group, so we’re using everybody, which is really nice.”
Doing a version of “The Odd Couple” 45 years later has meant one big change for Marshall. When he was doing the original TV series, the network was afraid the audience would think Felix and Oscar were gay. To counter any such thoughts, the network kept telling Marshall to put more women in the show.
“So on purpose, Jack Klugman, Tony Randall and I used to shoot little moments where they hugged and kissed and sent it to the network just to make them crazy,” Marshall says. “Now they deal with it. They talk about it. It’s a much, much more modern show.”