Currently available only via direct-sale through distributor Time-Life, The Odd Couple: Season One (1970-71) is such a good show and the extra features so bountiful that fans of this classic sitcom will find it worth the extra hassle ordering their copy. Adapted from Neil Simon's seminal 1965 Broadway play, executive producers/writing partners Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson keep the series remarkably faithful to the spirit of the original production, writing and overseeing scripts that, with an impressively high batting average, can proudly stand alongside its inspiration. And, best of all, right out of the gate stars Jack Klugman (who replaced Walter Matthau on Broadway) and Tony Randall immediately put their own spin on the play's iconic characters. Theirs are among the best performances by any actor in a television comedy.
Divorced, carefree sports writer Oscar Madison (Klugman), an inveterate slob who smokes smelly cigars and whose bedroom looks like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, shares his New York apartment with best friend Felix Unger (Randall), a fussy, obsessively fastidious commercial photographer newly separated from his wife. The show's premise, as the obnoxious, network-imposed narrator that opens the show lays bare, asks "Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?" (A nervous ABC was worried prudish viewers would mistakenly assume this was a show about two gay men and, halfway through the first season, ordered the main titles revised to deflect any misunderstanding.)
They may be best of friends, but their opposing personalities drive each to the breaking point. Besides Oscar's incorrigible sloppiness and Felix's Jewish mother, neat-freak single-mindedness, Oscar must contend with Felix's high-brow tastes in opera, London broil and fine wine which likewise clashes with Oscar's penchant for gambling, greasy hot dogs and beer.
As with the play, first season episodes have Felix and Oscar spending time with almost-girlfriends the Pigeon sisters, Gwendolyn (Monica Evans) and Cecily (Carole Shelley, both carryovers from both the original play and the 1968 movie version), as well as poker night buddies Murray the Cop (Al Molinaro), Vinne (Larry Gelman), Roy (Ryan McDonald), and Speed (Gary Walberg).
Marshall and Belson first shot to prominence as writers on the original Dick Van Dyke Show, for which they penned many of that series' funniest episodes. With several of that program's veterans in tow (including executive story consultant Carl Kleinschmidt and actor-turned-director Jerry Paris), the pair were given the task of adapting two Simon plays for the same TV season: this and Barefoot in the Park, an early all-black sitcom that sadly lasted just half of one season.
In any case The Odd Couple is as good as it is partly because of the Klugman-Randall chemistry, but also because of the careful, funny writing Marshall and Belson brought to the show along with Dale McRaven, Bill Idelson, and others. They work little snippets directly from the play into quite a few early shows: a couple lines here, a throwaway joke there. But their own, new material integrates seamlessly, with lines usually as funny and perceptive as anything in Simon's. Consider Felix's admonishment to Oscar: "You put out your cigarettes in your coffee. Look! There's a little baby log jam in there!" Better still, as the series went on, they shrewdly wrote to Klugman's and especially Randall's style and interpretation of their respective roles.
And where most sitcoms leaned heavily on a star performer's established screen persona, Randall and Klugman are clearly fine actors playing characters with such an attention to detail that it's obvious they're giving every line careful consideration. They're not the broad characterizations of Marshall's later, inferior sitcoms (Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley), but acted with consistently impressive nuance. Klugman had made a career playing volatile, short-fused working class losers, but with Oscar he gets to react to Randall's hyperactive, intensely monomaniacal man of orderliness.
The first season was a one-camera show with a laugh track; like Marshall's later Happy Days the program subsequently switched over to three-camera with a live audience. The leads greatly preferred the latter and their ability to gauge timing based on their audiences' reactions only improved the show. These early one-camera shows struggle with the cramped, claustrophobic apartment sets and rely on close-ups that don't often enough keep both characters in the same shot, which crimps some of its comic potential. Mostly though, from the very first episode, there are plenty of laughs.
Video & Audio
The Odd Couple was shot on 35mm film, not tape, and though dissolves are a bit on the grainy side the series look great on DVD, with very little damage and strong color. The season is presented on four single-sided DVDs, with six shows per disc. The remixed audio favors the music track (featuring Neal Hefti's famous theme) a bit too much and threatens to drown out the dialogue. There are no subtitle options.
Executive Produced by Paul Brownstein, who also handled Image's Dick Van Dyke Show and Shout! Factory's You Bet Your Life DVDs, The Odd Couple: Season One, is similarly packed with great extras. Each show includes an audio introduction by Garry Marshall that viewers can bypass if they so choose; he's full of his usual energy.
Marshall's also on hand with Belson in an audio commentary for the pilot, "The Laundry Orgy," while Carole Shelley does a very charming one for the same episode on another track. Marshall goes solo on "They Use Horseradish, Don't They?" while Klugman, his voice raspy but perfectly understandable, clearly is having a ball watching "It's All Over Now, Big Bird."
Disc 1 includes an appearance by Randall on a 9/9/70 episode of The Mike Douglas Show with Randall at one point challenging the late talk show host and guest Pat Boone to a push-up contest. On Disc 2 Randall is joined by Klugman (sans toupee) in a second appearance that aired 11/19/70.
Disc 3 features a warm montage called Jack Klugman's Book Tour with the actor talking to enthusiastic audiences at various bookstores and taking questions from the audience. At 84 Klugman still looks pretty much just as he did 36 years before when The Odd Couple premiered. Somehow, neither Randall nor Klugman ever seemed to age after they reached their early-40s.
Disc 4 offers a brief gag reel that's both different from and much shorter than that previously included as a bonus DVD with Klugman's book, Tony & Me. Neil Simon granted permission to Time-Life to include a short excerpt of Randall and Klugman performing the play of The Odd Couple in 1993, and there's a nice excerpt from the 1971 Emmy Awards, with Klugman accepting an Award from Dave Garroway and Virginia Graham. Finally, several of the disc offer original series promos, one featuring some brief behind-the-scenes shots with director Jerry Paris.
The Odd Couple is an excellent comedy that only got better as it went along. It marked the creative peak of the Marshall-Belson team and with Klugman and Randall, in the public consciousness almost instantly and permanently, marked the beginning of one of TV's funniest and most enduring teamings.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.