TV & Radio: The Odd Squad

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In Televisionland, inspiration seldom soars higher than a flying nun and quality is usually borrowed, not born. Thus it should be no surprise that the season's liveliest new situation comedy is an ABC adaptation of Neil Simon's five-year-old play, The Odd Couple. The success is not simply Simon's; the only writing he does for the weekly program is his name on the back of a weekly royalty check. The real source of the Odd Couple's life is the most empathetic team of situation comedians since Gleason and Carney. They are Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, and they combine total understanding of the play (in which they both performed) with contempt for the accustomed mechanical slickness of most TV comedy.

The stars' prime concern has been to avoid defamation of characters. Both of them are friends of Simon's brother, Danny, a TV writer whose divorce gave Simon the idea for Odd Couple. Danny became Felix, the fussy journalist who, after splitting with his wife, moves in with Oscar, an untidy sportswriter-divor-cee; the two, in turn and in caricature, unconsciously re-enact their failed marriages. Klugman once kidded Danny Simon: "Jesus, actors are ashamed to play the part of Felix." Replied Danny: "I was ashamed to live it."

Randall can play Felix almost by reflex action. The big problem is to keep the series' scriptwriters from turning the neurasthenic homemaker into a Mr. Belvedere, a kind of prissy know-it-all. "I must remain a kind of male Jewish mother, manipulating others as hysterical people do," says Randall. At the same time, he adds, Klugman has had to resist a depiction of Oscar as "excessively crass and vulgar, an unattractive middle-aged girl chaser. In the play, he is really a sensitive man. His sloppiness is merely neurotic."

Randall and Klugman thus spend the first day of work on every episode repairing the writing. When one script, in the latest TV mode, made a cynical and token pass at the nation's racial troubles, the stars gagged and turned the circumstance into parody: the black athlete became a token Eskimo. Randall and Klugman also lose battles. They were embarrassed by the third segment in the series, which lost bits of subtle humor to give more time to a leering portrayal of Oscar hustling an airline stewardess. The actors condemn the use of canned laughter as "an atrocity" and fume at the network's excision of the characters' children from the story. Randall complains that "ABC Standards & Practices says that divorced people don't have children. In the play, the fact that the men had children placed the beam of heartbreak under the structure."

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