Friday, June 08, 2007

Working with Tony Randall

Glad to see there was such a positive reaction to THE ODD COUPLE. My first staff job was on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW, done for ABC in 1976. In that show he played a judge in Philadelphia. It was produced by MTM and we had quite a writing staff. The creators/showrunners were Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses (who had run the brilliant BOB NEWHART SHOW), Gary David Goldberg (created FAMILY TIES and BROOKLYN BRIDGE), Hugh Wilson (created WKRP and had a long feature directing career), and me and my partner, David Isaacs were the two young schleppers. That was it. No consultants. Just the six of us.

David and I were originally signed to write a freelance episode and from that we got invited to join the staff. Production was well underway when we came aboard. At our first table read Tony stood up with an announcement. He had just been to England during a hiatus and informed us that the British sitcoms were so far superior to ours. There was no contest. American sitcoms were shit. Then he sat back down and we had the reading of the decidedly American script David and I had just written. I thought our staff career was going to last one day.

But happily he liked the script… and us. At the time I was single, bringing dates to filmings (hoping that might help me get lucky) and after the show I would always introduce them to Tony. He would praise me to the heavens, how they couldn’t do the show without me, etc. All total bullshit but the girls were impressed. Say what you will about Tony Randall, he was the best Wing Man I’ve ever had.

He was also the consummate professional. Not only did he know all of his lines, he knew everyone else’s too. And he rarely went up on a line during filmings. When he did he would turn to the audience and quip, “Well at least I didn’t say ‘shit’.” And that would send them into hysterics.

He never ad libbed during our show but I too heard the stories that on THE ODD COUPLE he and Jack would sometimes be given scenes to improvise. I believe it. Tony was that gifted.

I loved working with Tony Randall. Of course it helped that he thought I was funny and that I didn’t smoke.


Mike Barer said...

I thought that Tony Randall would love long enough for a "Grumpy Old Men" TV series.

Anonymous said...

Having having grown up in rural Texas with no Hollywood contacts, I began my comedy writing career doing my own radio comedy and writing humorous commercials and industrial video. That's how I came to write a series on buying and selling real estate that starred Tony Randall. He flew into Dallas for a weekend to shoot it, and I was thrilled because he'd been one of my idols since I was a kid. He did not disappoint.

Not only a consummate professional, he was also a great guy. Between takes, he would regale us with terrific stories and answer any questions we had. We'd made arrangements for a private dressing room for his lunch, but he said, "Oh, I want to eat with the guys!," so he joined the crew's buffet tables and kept us laughing the whole time. At one point, I had to take him to use a phone in a private office and overheard him calling his wife, telling her how great the trip was and checking up on her. He was all smiles, obviously doing his best to cheer her up, but when he hung up the phone, his mood immediately turned melancholy. He explained to me that his wife (this was his first wife) was very ill, and the reason he was taking on jobs like this was that he would only take shoots that kept him away from her for no more than a couple of days. Then as we walked back to the set, he squared his shoulders and again put on the funny front for the crew. From then on, I respected him on a whole new level.

He was also kind enough to take my comedy demo tapes, give me advice, and send me dubs of the masters from his LPs of old songs that he'd autographed for me. Years later, when I was in New York and had no contacts, I thought of the return address on that tape and wrote him a letter, reminding him of the material I'd shown him and asking for any help he could give me in getting samples to David Letterman. I didn't know if he'd even remember me and doubted I'd actually hear back, but a week later, I got a note on a "Love, Sydney" notepad page, saying, "I talked to Steve O'Donnell (Letterman's head writer), and he's waiting to hear from you. Call him at xxx-xxx-xxxx. Best, TR."

So when you hear stories about what self-centered jerks big stars can be, remember there are a handful of exceptions, and Tony Randall stands above them all in my book.

Richard Cooper said...

Television wouldn't be such a slum today if there were still classy actors like Tony Randall in the biz. He used to say that awards were mostly publicity stunts, and that so many people have won an Emmy that they've lost their importance.

Prima donnas seem to rule these days, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are cases-in-point.

If the authorities will no longer take her bribes, maybe Paris can learn to carve a gun from a stack of 100's.

Brian Scully said...

I remember that show, Ken... wasn't there an odd character in it named "Mario Lanza"? I remember you guys writing him very funny. Who was the actor who played that part?

By Ken Levine said...

We did have a character in THE TONY RANDALL SHOW named Mario Lanza, his law clerk. He was played by the very funny Zane Lasky (who was also in NETWORK).

Anonymous said...

What's going up on a line again?

Anonymous said...

Flubbing a line, it sounds like.

Anonymous said...

Yes, "Going up" means going completely mentally blank about your lines.

Tony did an interview on "Sweet Dick" Whittington's radio how once, back when I was working for him. Tony talked a lot in the interview about fine wines, which was lost on me, as I am a total non-drinker.

Tony's movie 7 FACES OF DR. LAO (Where he plays 7 roles), is one of my all-time favorite movies (It's also a GREAT book - THE CIRCUS OF DR. LAO - though the book is quite different), so I wanted to chat with Tony after the show.

But I smoked like a chimney back then. I knew Tony was rabidly anti-smoking, so I didn't smoke around him, but he saw the cigarette pack in my pocket, and warned me they would kill me.

I told him I didn't consume alcohol, so when I was in my hospital bed with lung cancer, I'd look for him in the next bed with cirrhosis.

Tony laughed, shook my hand, and said, "It's a date."

But since I no longer smoke, and Tony is gone, I guess he's going to stand me up.

Max Clarke said...

Two actors have gone out the way I hoped they would.

Jack Lemmon's last role was in The Legend of Tiger Vance. His character had a heart attack on the golf course and went to golf heaven.

Tony Randall played the chairman of the publishing company in Down With Love. The movie was made in the style of those Doris Day/Rock Hudson movies. Nice way to sign off to a career.

VP81955 said...

I'm sorry I never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Randall. He did so much fine work on stage, screen and TV, and also helped so many in New York theatre.

Ken, the Nationals beat the Minnesota Twins again tonight, 3-1, as Levale Speigner (a former Twins farmhand and Rule 5 selection) outdueled Johan Santana, helped by a three-run homer from Ryan Zimmerman. I bring this up because two folks you probably know were at the game -- the telecast showed that Rob Reiner (whom we all know is an avid baseball fan) was on hand at the Metrodome, and filling in on MASN play-by-play (Bob Carpenter has the weekend off) was Johnny Holliday, whom you may know both from his Top 40 work in the sixties (I believe he was the final jock on WINS in New York before it went all-news in April 1965) and his decades of sportscasting work (ABC radio, University of Maryland). He was his usual professional self.

Dave said...

I loved The Tony Randall show. To this day, I can never hear Mario Lanza's name without thinking, "Mario Lanza, your honor."

Anonymous said...

I loved "The Tony Randall Show." The running joke about his clerk Mario Lanza was that he had no idea there was another one. I'm blanking on the female co-star, who was later on "Star Trek TNG". Diana Muldaur? And the great Rachel Roberts played his housekeeper. When will this be available on DVD?

Cap'n Bob said...

It was on The Tony Randall Show that I first saw Michael Keaton.

lmroczek said...

Love reading these memories. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

You buried the lead. Did you get lucky with your lady friends you brought to the tapings?