An Odd Couple of Friends

My series New Year; New Types of Friends now moves to examples of friendships in television starting with the quintessential pairing of two opposite personalities in The Odd Couple: Oscar Madison and Felix Unger. These roommates show how opposites can form a friendship that is greater than the sum of its parts. In this case, each gives the other something he lacks. They watch out for one another. Their friendship shows that having a male friend who is different than you, may actually make you a better man. 

About The Odd Couple

The Odd Couple started as a Broadway play by Neil Simon about two mismatched roommates: the near-OCD, uptight Felix Unger, and the slovenly, easygoing Oscar Madison.

Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in the 1968 movie, The Odd Couple

The 1965 play originally starred Walter Matthau as Oscar Madison and Art Carney as Felix Ungar. The characters were revived in a successful 1968 movie starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon as two divorced men who become roommates. The film won an Oscar and grossed over $44.5 million, making it the third highest-grossing film of that year in the United States.

The success of the film was the basis for the popular 1970s television series of the same name, starring Tony Randall as Felix and Jack Klugman as Oscar (shown in the featured image).

An unimportant side note is that the play and the film both spell Felix’s name ‘Ungar’, whereas the television series spells it ‘Unger’. The important part though is that there have been several other derivatives and spin-offs over the years but none as popular as the TV show starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.

The Plot 

Felix Unger is a neurotic, neat freak, news writer (a photographer in the television series) who was thrown out by his wife and moves in with his closest friend, Oscar Madison, a divorced, slovenly sportswriter. Despite Oscar’s problems – careless spending, excessive gambling, a poorly kept house filled with spoiled food – he seems to enjoy life. Felix is uptight and pines over his wife.

Each guy gives the other something he lacks while watching out for each other in their own unique ways.

Felix seems utterly incapable of enjoying anything and only finds purpose in pointing out his own and other people’s mistakes and foibles. Even when Felix tries to do so in a gentle and constructive way, his corrections and suggestions prove extremely annoying to those around him.

Oscar, in particular, is there for Felix at what is very likely the lowest point in his life after his divorce. He feels compelled to help Felix learn to lighten up about things and considers throwing him out after only a brief time together. But Oscar quickly realizes that Felix has had a positive effect on him as well.

Friendship With An Opposite Can Make You Better

Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were long-time friends on and off the screen. Despite their obvious differences in the movie, the two have clear unconditional love for each other throughout the film. The same can be said for television’s odd couple, Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. 

In his touching memoir, Tony and Me: A Story of Friendship, Klugman chronicles his long association with Randall that began on the show’s set in 1970 and lasted until Tony’s death in 2004. Their relationship was unlikely as the pairing of Oscar and Felix as roommates. Klugman and Randall were uncannily similar in many ways to the characters they played on their television show, and there was some inevitable head-butting and saber-rattling between them in the beginning.

During the TV show’s run, Jack and Tony spent long hours together on the set but never socialized off camera. Jack blamed himself: “I really am a loner. It wasn’t that I didn’t love and admire Tony during those times; I just didn’t know how to express it.” 

Friends Learn To Change

Offscreen, Tony Randall and Jack Klugman developed a genuine friendship that lasted for the rest of their lives. “It was like falling in love,” Tony once said. “It’s all to do with chemistry.” Jack’s love had an equally powerful impact. “Looking back over the entire length of our friendship and our professional relationship, I could not begin to put into words the effect he has had on my life,” said Tony.

In his memoir, Klugman’s depiction of the complex, often difficult, Randall is both loving and honest at the same time. Tony was a tough taskmaster, demanding perfection from himself and others. He had a quick temper and a sharp tongue, but also quick to forgive, quick to apologize, and devoted to encouraging and building up others. Jack wrote that Tony’s backbone made him a compassionate and dedicated person. 

Tony Randall’s emotional support also brought Jack Klugman back from career limbo after his throat cancer operation and subsequent vocal impairment in the 1990s.

Even more profound, Klugman credits Randall with breaking down his emotional barriers and teaching him to trust others. “I hadn’t ever told Tony the real gift his friendship had given me,” Jack explained. “The capacity to trust another human being completely. Our friendship had made me a better human being and a better father. I let my children inside now, and I’m not afraid to let them see me as I am.”

Tony Randall contracted pneumonia and died on May 17, 2004, at 84. In 2012, Jack Klugman died of prostate cancer at the age of 90. 

Could You Live With A Felix Or An Oscar?

Every friendship will get tested. Do you have a guy friend who loves his freedom but would give it up to let you live with him during a difficult period? Or are you that fastidious, clean-obsessed guy who would drive your slob friend to the brink of madness? 

Friendships between complete opposites like Felix and Oscar are a rare breed. The cantankerous duo fought most of the time because they really didn’t understand each other. They spent a lot of time trying to change each other’s habits. But they also cared a lot about each other, despite those bitter fights.

When Tony Randall and Jack Klugman were working on the sitcom and sitting in with the writers during their brainstorming sessions, Klugman would not allow an episode to be cast in stone without its key element. “Where’s the love scene?” he’d demand. What he wanted was the moment where, after all the screaming and fighting between Felix Unger and Oscar Madison stopped, Oscar said that no matter how crazy or mad Felix made him, he still loved him as his best friend. 

Do you spend time trying to change your roommate (especially if it’s your spouse)? Or are you becoming more understanding and gracious? In either case, find yourself a friend who is the opposite of you since it can help make you a better man.

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GodBuddy Focus

A duo like Jack Klugman and Tony Randall doesn’t come along very often. Even though the two didn’t get off on the right foot when they first started filming The Odd Couple, it was only a matter of time until they put their differences aside and learned to trust each other.

Another important aspect of a great friendship is learning to trust each other. As I wrote in two earlier posts, Developing Trust is just one of the multiple Traits of a GodBuddy Relationship. Trust allows GodBuddies to point out each other’s blind spots and weaknesses in a loving, grace-filled manner. It may come when your friend is at a low point in his life.

A friendship of opposite –even mismatched personalities, may just reinforce what we already know to be true: that love conquers all, especially when dealing with disputes about cleaning the house you share!

My next post with an example from television is about a classic American small-town friendship.


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