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  • Tony Randall loved theater -- "better than anything in the world," he said. After many years of success onscreen in Doris Day/Rock Hudson romps and series TV, he not only returned to his first love but also created the National Actors Theatre (NAT).

    "The main reason I wanted to make a go of a repertory theatre," he said, "was to provide work opportunities for underemployed actors, which, alas, happens to be the majority of us, and to give a break to those attempting to break into the business."

    Randall was heartbroken when critics derided his efforts, but never deterred. He merely changed his game plan by doing classic revivals with star power. "If you want to be a success in theater, it's important to sell tickets," he said. "That's it in a nutshell. I'm not at all embarrassed to say that stars sell tickets."

    NAT's roster included Brian Bedford, Matthew Broderick, Tyne we couldn't have survived without them Daly, Charles Durning, Julie Harris, Ethan Hawke, Earle Hyman, Ann Jackson, Lanie Kazan, Jack Klugman. Laura Linney, Rob Lowe, Al Pacino, Lynn Redgrave, George C. Scott, Martin Sheen, Jerry Stiller, JohnVoight, Michael York and, among many others, Eli Wallach. Top directors, such as John Tillinger, came aboard.

    However, critically and financially, the company's track record has been checkered. Some revivals, such as Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, which starred Randall and Klugman (his co-star from the TV sitcom adaptation of the playwright's The Odd Couple), draw audiences even with lukewarm critical notices.

    There were unqualified hits, such as The Gin Game, directed by Charles Nelson Reilly and starring stage and TV icon Harris and Durning which, after 1997 Tony Award nominations for Reilly, Harris and Best Revival, enjoyed a successful six-month national tour; and Shakespeare's Timon of Athens 1993), a bold, contemporary production directed by Michael Langham, a veteran of the Old Vic and Royal Shakespeare Company, and starring Bedford.

    "The National Actors Theatre was a dream for as long as I can remember," he said. "I started writing proposals as early as 1946! When I got out of the army, I went to the theatrical unions, since as a non-profit group we'd have to be subsidized. The CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] thought it was a wonderful idea and asked how much it would cost. To this day, I'm working on the answer to that!"

    Randall explained that back then he didn't know what costs would be, "but today I'm finding out. And it's not cheap. It's damn expensive! Which is why we need the statue of the Matthews, Julies, Georges and so on."

    According to Randall, it never got easy: "As the years passed, I was still going door to door talking and with my hand out. People suspected I was off my rocker, especially when I didn't give up even in the face of the worst adversity. In retrospect, they may have been right. But, with all our ups and downs, the dream did finally come true."

    He said what motivated him was the time he was being taken to task by a friend. "He said,ëTony, you're a great talker but you don't do anything.' The problem was I never had a dime. Don't laugh, but I didn't know you needed money or the kindness of theatrical and corporate powers-that-be. I thought you just get your friends together and you have a theatre."

    Randall was born Leonard Rosenberg in 1920 in Tulsa, the son of arts and antiques dealer Mogscha Rosenberg. He often disrupted grammar school classes with his funny faces, which got him into hot water with teachers. He appeared school plays.

    "I was bitten by the show business bug very early on," he said. "I was twelve when I was taken to see my first play. I was not at all impressed with the kids onstage. I thought they were awful and said to myself, ëHeck, I can do better than that.'" Well, it took a while. When he tried out for later roles in high school, his stammer often worked against him. He had to wait until college.

    In the 1930s, he became in awe of Katharine Cornell, one of the preeminent actresses of that time, in a touring production of Romeo and Juliet. Even though she was way "over the hill" to be playing Juliet, Randall waited to get her autograph. Miss Cornell told him it would cost a quarter and that the money went to charity. Randall was a bit dubious, but coughed up his two bits and promised one day to send her his - for free.

    At Northwestern University, Randall majored in speech and drama, later entering Columbia University. In New York, he attended Sanford Meisner's Neighborhood Playhouse and studied movement with renowned choreographer Martha Graham.

    As Anthony Randall, he made his Broadway debut in 1941's A Circle of Chalk. He went on to join the company of Emlyn Williams' The Corn Is Green [1940], starring the formidable Ethel Barrymore. After a short stint as a radio announcer, Elia Kazan cast him in his production of The Skin of Our Teeth, but after only one day of rehearsal, he was drafted.

    He served from 1942 to 1946 in the Army Signal Corps. He was discharged with the rank of lieutenant. He acted and directed in summer stock in Washington, D.C. before moving
    to New York, where he joined actor Harry Morgan's popular radio show.

    In 1947, he had the opportunity to present Miss Cornell with the autograph he promised when she cast him as a soldier in Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra, which also featured Charlton Heston, Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach and Joseph Wiseman. He followed that, able to use his childhood affliction to advantage, as the stuttering brother in The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

    A year later, Randall appeared in a "sex comedy," To Tell the Truth, which got him his first notice by Times critic Brooks Atkinson, who wrote he "moved about the stage with the grace of a dancer." That led to his appearance in 1950 in Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, starring Lilli Palmer and Cedric Hardwicke - with Robert Earl Jones [James' father] and Arthur Treacher in bit roles and Shaw's Candida.

    The same year, he made his TV debut on the half-hour soap, One Man's Family, which also featured up-and-coming Mercedes Cambridge and Eva Marie Saint. With his quick wit and deadpan style, Randall became a frequent guest on TV's early panel shows, where he met and became friends with Wally Cox. In 1952, for two and a half seasons, he co-starred as Cox's sidekick on his hit TV show Mr. Peepers, for which he received his first Emmy nomination.

    Randall became hugely popular on TV variety and talk shows; but in 1955 director/producer Herman Shulmin, remembering him from Corn, gave him his big Broadway break. He was cast as cynical reporter E. K. Hornbeck [based on H.L. Menken] opposite Paul Muni and Ed Begley in Lawrence and Lee's courtroom drama, Inherit the Wind.

    He stayed for nearly a year and a half, before going Hollywood, where he impressed top Hollywood writer/director Nunnally Johnson and was cast in two of his hit comedies, How To Be Very, Very, Very Popular, which starred Betty Grable, Sheree North and Robert Cummings, and Oh, Men! Oh, Women! starring Ginger Rogers, David Niven and Dan Dailey. [He also appeared in the stage version, but in a different role.]

    Those films paved the way for Randall to be co-starred opposite well-endowed sexpot Jayne Mansfield, trying to capitalize on the Marilyn Monroe craze, as ad salesman Rockwell P. Hunter in the much sanitized 1957 film adaptation of George Axelrod's Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

    Life magazine called Randall "the finest new comedian the movies have found in a couple of decades."

    Not wanting to be typecast in comic roles, he made a bold move in his next film, No Down Payment, opposite Joanne Woodward as her desperate and pathetic husband.

    However, it was comedy in which he excelled. He became an audience favorite in films opposite Debbie Reynolds, Marilyn Monroe and Kim Novak and, playing variations of the same role, in those Doris Day/Rock Hudson blockbusters Pillow Talk [1959], Lover Come Back [1961] and Send Me No Flowers [1964].

    On TV's 1970's sitcom adaptation of The Odd Couple, Randall became not only a household name but also a sensation. The premise: Could two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy? No. Randall was fussbudget Felix Unger. And was there ever a character harder to warm up to, but all the more lovable because of that? No.

    Randall won an Emmy - after the series was cancelled. At the end of his acceptance speech, he quipped, "Sure am glad I won. Now, if only I had a job!" Though a classic TV staple for 30 years, The Odd Couple was never a huge hit. "During our five seasons [1970 to 1975]," reported Randall, "we were never out of the bottom ten in the ratings barrel."

    Afterward, he swore he'd never do another series. "Never say never!" he exclaimed. "Warner Bros. wouldn't take no for an answer. And when they promised to shoot in New York and give me a huge donation to start my actors theatre, how could I resist?" In the process, he became a pioneer of sorts.

    He starred in what would prove to be a controversial series, Love, Sidney, the first sitcom to feature a gay lead character. Randall was instantly smitten by the writing and felt the series would be a landmark. He played a single man who takes unwed mother Swoosie Kurtz in and offers to help raise her child.

    Compared to more recent TV fare with gay content, it was innocent; but not to NBC, who, after the pilot, especially in the face of the show's soft ratings, toned down Sidney's homosexuality to the point that the network reported Sidney wasn't even gay. Randall, in a brave move that generated tons of hate mail and gossip, quickly contradicted them.

    "You'd really have to be blind," he said, "not to know Sidney was homosexual. It wasn't too hard to read between the very discreet lines [of the script]. There were occasional vague clues - or glances - that hinted at Sidney's sexual orientation."

    Randall set up a foundation and invested the donation. "Then I realized I had to have a theatre!" he said, laughing. "And one I could get for free!"

    Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization, a show business empire not exactly known for its largesse, came through with the offer of the underutilized, two-balconied jewel box, the Lyceum. "I was in business!" yelped Randall.

    Though he realized his dream, NAT, after much media and industry support and ballyhoo, got off to a shaky start in 1991. The dream was almost shattered by critical disdain for some casting decisions Randall made that involved him playing characters much too young or which he was wrong for.

    "The Times critic took a position so hostile and mean-spirited that it was very hurtful!" he hissed. "There was just no reason. He wasn't someone I had a personal run-in with! I never hurt his mother! Then as now, whoever is the critic on the Times has more power than a person ought to.

    "When New York was an eight-newspaper city," he continued, "the Times was the most important daily, but then no one paper made or broke you. All that had changed, and they nearly broke me - financially as well as personally."

    Director Tillinger says, "Tony ruffled a lot of feathers by calling it a National Actors Theater, but he was a truly innocent man. He was raised in the classical tradition and believed he was giving New York plays it needed to see."

    It wasn't only the Times, but through all the drubbing, Randall maintained his vision and always found donors and corporate support. And, even in the worse of times, audiences.

    "The bad press didn't hurt business," he said, "and stars still wanted to work with us. We've always had star power! I'm talking major stars. They're vital to selling tickets. That's it in a nutshell. Sometimes that might mean a star from film or TV. I never felt there was a difference. An actor's an actor whether he or she works in TV, movies or onstage! I've seen some of the worst acting in the world on Broadway. What's the difference if an actor works on a sound stage or a Broadway stage?"

    He added that "the actors who've worked for us have a tremendous dedication to live theatre. This creates wonderful opportunities for us and revitalizes and reenergizes them. They have allowed NAT to spread our wings beyond Broadway with tours of The Odd Couple and Gin Game."

    That interest seemed to always stun Randall: "Big names were stepping forward and I knew it would come down to money. Let's face it, any actor can make a lot more by not working for us and not putting themselves on the line. But it never came to that. It was never about money. I wasn't the only one with a dream."

    In 1998, Randall was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame. Before and after founding NAT, Randall performed every imaginable role "anywhere they were willing to cast me."

    In 1989, he stepped into role of Rene Gallimard, originated by John Lithgow, in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly. In 1999, he was reunited with Klugman for Tom Stoppard's Rough Crossing at Miami's Coconut Grove Playhouse. His most recent stage appearance was as Lamberto Laudisi for his beloved NAT in Pirandello's Right You Are. It closed in mid-December. Two days later he was rushed to the hospital.

    Tony Randall had great wit and intelligence. He supported theatrical and charitable causes and was an obsessed opera buff. But nothing superceded theater. "It's what I live for," he said. "It's better than anything in the world. To quote Shaw, the only happiness is working yourself to death at something you love." Randall did that.


    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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