‘The Odd Couple’ turns 50

By on June 17, 2015

It’s a plot device as old as the written word: put two diametrically opposed characters together in a controlled environment and watch how things play out.

The formula proved to be a winner for playwright Neil Simon. “The Odd Couple,” the story of sloppy, loudmouth Oscar Madison and fastidious, hypochondriac Felix Ungar — poker buddies forced to cohabitate because their wives kicked them out — has been lauded as Simon’s finest work.

This year, as the play turns 50, the Ephrata Area Performing Arts Center, chose to stage the production.

50 years of ‘The Odd Couple’

1965: Directed by Mike Nichols, the original Broadway cast starred Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney as Felix. All the action takes place in Oscar’s messy (until Felix gets his hands on it) apartment. The production gained Tony Awards for Matthau, Best Actor (Play); Best Author (Play), Best Direction of a Play, and Best Scenic Design (Oliver Smith), and was nominated for Best Play.

1968: The play’s success led to the production of a big screen version. Matthau returned as Oscar, paired with Jack Lemmon as Felix. Most of the script from the play is the same, although the setting is expanded: instead of taking place entirely in Oscar’s apartment, some scenes take place at various outside locations.

1970: When it came time to create a television series based on the play, Jack Klugman was chosen to play Oscar. Klugman had portrayed Oscar in the original Broadway run for a bit, so the role was as comfortable for him as a favorite pair of slippers. Tony Randall was picked for the role of Felix. The series marked the network debut of another famous name: producer Garry Marshall.

During the first season, the show was filmed using the single-camera method. The apartment set resembled the film version. A laugh track was used (to which Randall objected). Thereafter, the show was filmed with three cameras and performed like a stage play in front of a studio audience. The show struggled in the Nielsen ratings and was canceled (rumor has it) at the end of every season. However, ABC renewed the show for each upcoming season because the ratings for the summer reruns were high.

The show was finally canceled in July 1975 after a 114-episode run.

1975: “The Oddball Couple,” an animated half hour Saturday morning show that ran on the ABC TV network from 1975 to 1977. Featuring Fleabag the dog and Spiffy the cat, the show was an animated homage to the Klugman/Randall series, which was canceled the same year the cartoon series premiered.

1982: “The New Odd Couple” premiered on CBS on Oct. 29, 1982. In this series, Felix and Oscar were both African-American college buddies who met in the 1950s. Felix was portrayed by Ron Glass (”Barney Miller”) and Oscar was portrayed by Demond Wilson (”Sanford & Son”). The characterizations were still the same. The show ran for 18 episodes; eight of the episodes used recycled scripts from the original series. By the time the writers began producing new scripts, it was too late, as the show never found an audience. The series was canceled in 1983.

1985: In 1985, Neil Simon revised The Odd Couple for a female cast. “The Female Odd Couple” was based on the same story line and same lead characters, now called Florence Ungar and Olive Madison, played by Sally Struthers and Rita Moreno. The show ran for 18 months.

1993: “The Odd Couple: Together Again,” was a made-for-TV movie reuniting Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. Synopsis: Oscar still lives in the same apartment and Felix is sent to spend a few days with him while his current wife, Gloria, plans their daughter’s wedding. Due to throat cancer, Oscar had to have one of his vocal cords removed, and he can only speak in a raspy whisper — a plot device added because during the course of this own cancer treatment, Klugman lost a vocal cord which left him with a raspy voice.

1998: In the film “The Odd Couple II,” Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon reprised the roles made famous in the 1968 movie. This sequel was made and released 30 years after the original. The movie is significant in film history for being one of the longest gaps between the release of the original film and a sequel where all the main lead actors actually reprise their roles. Reportedly, the picture actually holds the record for this. After 10 films teamed together, this film was the final feature film collaboration between Matthau and Lemmon.

2015: “The Odd Couple,” starring Matthew Perry (“Friends”) as Oscar and Thomas Lennon (”Reno 911!”) as Felix, was just renewed for a second season on CBS.

It is interesting to note that Neil Simon is given writing credit on each of these productions — including the cartoon.

For a stroll down memory lane, visit this website and enjoy trailers for nearly all of the above-mentioned renditions of “The Odd Couple”: voicesfromkrypton.net/the-odd-couple-trailers-series-intros.

Bob Checchia (left) and Kevin Fisher, shine in the roles of Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar in “The Odd Couple,” being staged through June 27 at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center. (Photo by Marty Heisey)

Bob Checchia (left) and Kevin Fisher, shine in the roles of Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar in “The Odd Couple,” being staged through June 27 at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center. (Photo by Marty Heisey)

‘The Odd Couple’ at EPAC

Walking onto the set of EPAC’s production is reminiscent of entering a messy college dorm room. Neckties are tossed over end tables, LPs are scattered around the base of a vintage hi-fi system, and an upended empty vintage bucket from KFC lends authenticity to the chaos of the bachelor pad.

The set itself, because of the fact that the play takes place in one room, is much more detailed then the typical EPAC musical set. The backstage crew are to be commended for creating a micro-capsule of mid-1960s life.

The size of the cast, which numbers just eight, allows the audience a chance to get to know each character well — especially Bob Checchia, who played Oscar, and Kevin Fisher, who portrayed Felix.

Fisher, appearing in only his second EPAC production, is mesmerizing. His style is reminiscent of the work Colin Mochrie presented on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Director Tim Riggs couldn’t have chosen a better actor for the role.

Checchia is an EPAC veteran. Former appearances include “Assassins,” “August: Osage County,” “Guys and Dolls,” and Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers.” It is obvious, based on Bob’s spot-on portrayal of Oscar, that the role is one he’d always wanted to try.

“I lost my dad when I was 11,” Checchia told a reporter from LNP. “Every Friday night, we’d watch ‘The Odd Couple’ together and laugh. It’s such a memory, and it’s been on my bucket list to do this role.”

“Same with me,” Fisher says about his desire to perform in this play. “I was at my bachelor party, and I said that I’d love to do ‘The Odd Couple.’ And next thing I know, there’s an email telling me about this production and asking if I was interested in playing Felix.”

The supporting cast — EPAC newcomers and veterans alike — each brought a unique and memorable persona to the stage.

Amy Carter and Heidi Carletti, who portray sexy upstairs neighbors, the Pigeon Sisters, keep the audience in stitches, especially during their interactions with Felix.

“Having been in musicals during my time at EPAC, I’m pretty excited to be in my first non-musical production!” said Carletti.

Herbert Stump, clearly a crowd favorite, delivers a host of well-received one-liners around his cigar, as Speed.

“Neil Simon is an American institution,” Stump said, “and it’s a joy to play his words.”

Bruce Weaver, as Murray the cop, delivers some of his finest lines around a mouthful of linguini. His performance is at its best when not hiding behind the apartment’s poker table.

Rich Mehrenberg, an EPAC newbie, plays the role of henpecked, soft-hearted Vinnie. Despite a wardrobe malfunction in Act One, in which his suspenders unhooked from his pants and thwapped him in the back of the head, Mehrenberg continued with aplomb.

The role of Roy, executed by John Kleimo, stands sentinel as a strong, silent foil against the hilarity of the rest of the cast.

“I’m delighted to work with Tim Riggs again, and with a great cast on a classic piece of comedy,” said Kleimo. “Every show at EPAC is an exciting adventure, and this is one that will have everyone laughing and grinning from ear to ear.”

Tickets for “The Odd Couple” can be purchased online at ephrataperformingartscenter.com, or by calling 733-7966.

Melissa Hunnefield is a staff writer for the Lititz Record Express and Ephrata Review. She welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at mhunnefield.eph@lnpnews.com or at 721-4452.

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