The loss of writer/producer/occasional actor Garry Marshall in 2016 was something felt by anyone who is or ever has been a fan of Classic TV. Think about it: He got his start as a writer for Tonight Starring Jack Parr, but made the shift to writing sitcoms like Make Room for Daddy, Gomer Pyle: USMC, The Lucy Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Love, American Style. Then he began creating or co-creating his own shows, some of which didn’t work (Hey, Landlord; Me and the Chimp, Blansky’s Beauties, Joanie Loves Chachi), and a lot that did. In terms of the latter, there was Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy, and, of course, The Odd Couple.

In their time, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirely, and Mork & Mindy were huge, while The Odd Couple — based on Neil Simon’s play of the same name — struggled to stay on the air for five seasons. Ironically, it has probably stood the test of time better than all of them. It’s a show that has been periodically updated over the years with new actors, but it’s Garry’s 1970-75 take on the show starring Jack Klugman as sportswriter Oscar Madison and Tony Randall as photographer Felix Unger that remains the most acclaimed. And it’s certainly the show that brought me ever so slightly into his circle.

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Back in 1989, I was working on a book that would eventually be known as Still Odd After All These Years: The 25th Anniversary Odd Couple Companion. For it, I had interviewed various actors, writers, directors, producers, etc., but still needed to speak to Garry. His Odd Couple co-creator, Jerry Belson, said he would help me reach him, and he did. I called his office, and his secretary put me on hold for a moment before Garry got on the phone. Hopefully you know how Garry spoke (if not, check out a video on YouTube), because it absolutely added to the experience.

“So, Ed,” he jumped right in with his unmistakable Bronx accent, “what do you want from me?”

I stammered my response, “Well, Mr. Marshall, I’m writing a book about The Odd Couple and was hoping to speak to you about it.” He hesitated a moment before replying, “Here’s my problem, Ed. I’m a writin’ a book of my own and I don’t want to reveal too much…” He paused before adding (in the best way I can capture it in word), “But I’ll talk to you a liddle.” And he did, for about 30 minutes.

The Odd Couple — the Journey From Broadway to TV

The Odd Couple — beautifully summed by the tagline in the TV show’s intro, “Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?” — had debuted on Broadway in 1965 with Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney (Norton from The Honeymooners) as Felix. Three years later, the movie version was released by Paramount, which had purchased all rights to the play, with Matthau reprising the role of Oscar and Jack Lemmon coming in as Felix. When, two years later, the studio wanted to do a TV version, they turned to Garry and Jerry Belson.

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“Paramount called us in and asked us if we wanted to do it,” Garry said, “and we were delighted. I loved all of Neil Simon’s work. He was one of my idols — still is — and they said, ‘Write a script.’ So we wrote a script that we thought captured the essence of the play. They actually thought it was a script taken from Simon and said, ‘This is the play,’ and we said, ‘No, it’s not the play. It’s our play.”

Jerry had actually told me, “Garry and I had written probably a hundred TV scripts together, and I think we agreed that the pilot of The Odd Couple was the best, probably because Neil Simon supplied such great characters.”

According to Garry, an early struggle with the network (ABC) was over the casting of the lead characters. Originally, the producing duo wanted Art Carney as Felix and Martin Balsam as Oscar. “Luckily for us,” said Garry, “we couldn’t get them. Then Tony Randall and Jack Klugman occurred to us, and we knew it would be magic.

“Then ABC wanted Tony Randall and Mickey Rooney,” he adds, “which we thought was a little far-fetched for what we needed. I wanted Jack Klugman and the network didn’t really know who he was. I had seen Jack in Gypsy, and I figured if he could stand there with Ethel Merman, he could be with anybody. It surprised me that by the end of the play I really liked him. He did one hell of a job, and this was an actor who had no part to play, but he was great. I like a man who stands there and doesn’t carry on, which he was so wonderful at on The Odd Couple.”

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The network was eventually convinced, but then Garry had to convince his actors, which wasn’t such an easy thing to do — until they recognized that their potential co-star was guaranteeing it would be a class production. And the scripts seemed to flow fairly easily.

“The characters that Neil wrote were so perfect,” Garry detailed, “that it wasn’t difficult to expand on them. There was, however, a tendency at the time to do more women stories, but the show wasn’t women. It was about them; their friendship. We finally convinced the network of that, and they left us alone. We worked very hard on the show, late hours, to maintain a certain level of quality. Friends we had went home early from other shows. We were there forever. But when we finally shot them, it was well worth it. A lot of them have held up very well. We did 114 episodes and I would say three or four were disappointing. The others I thought we gave our best shot.”

Battles with the network were ongoing.

As the series began to gear up for production, ABC still had certain reservations, primarily a general feeling that the audience would perceive Felix and Oscar as being gay, which was one of the reasons for the narration at the beginning of the show.

“They were always sending memos like that,” Garry explained. “We kept sending them special shots from the set of Tony and Jack hugging, just to make them crazy. It was based on some research they did in some little town in Michigan. The narration was basically my thought. We kept wanting to set up the premise of the show, so we thought it would be easier to say it in the opening credits. Part of that narration was in regards to the gay thing, but part of it was just to be clear what the hell it was all about. Some series have the problem that their premises are too obscure, like The Beverly Hillbillies. It was probably done best on The Fugitive. I figured if it would work for them, it would work for us.”

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A major disappointment to everyone involved was the fact that Neil Simon made no secret of the fact that he hated the show, but more for reasons of principle than quality. “He’d gotten a bad deal from Paramount,” revealed Garry, “and didn’t want it to be a series. He didn’t like it. He wouldn’t talk to us and he tried to sue the studio. It broke my heart, because my idol didn’t like what I was doing. A couple of years went by and his kids started to watch it and they went to him and said, ‘Dad, it’s not that bad.’ Then he watched it and he loved it. He called us up and quoted lines that we wrote, and even made an appearance in one episode.”

The show began shooting in front of a studio audience in the second season.

The quality of the first season can’t be denied, but the producing duo of Garry and Jerry didn’t feel that ABC really supported the show (beyond not canceling it). Internally, Tony, Jack, and Garry (not so much Jerry) pushed ABC to switch over from a single camera set up that had the show shot as film would be with a laugh track added, to a three camera set-up in front of a live studio audience.

“I had wanted three-camera all along,” Garry noted, “but I didn’t have the power to do anything about it. But Tony and Jack had the clout, so they managed to pull it off. The shows just got better after that.”

Even Jerry came around to the idea in the Season 2 episode “Hospital Mates,” which has both Oscar and Felix undergoing surgery and sharing a hospital room, with Felix immediately driving Oscar crazy.

“I once had a sports injury,” related Garry, “where I ripped the cartilage in my knees, and I spent a very depressing time in the hospital. My wife told me not to be depressed because I’d turn the experience into an episode of The Odd Couple, which I did with this episode. It was a very funny show, and the script paid for my operation.”

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Added Jerry, “One of the funniest ones made, and it got big screams. I had said, ‘Let’s not go three-camera, let’s not go three-camera,’ and the minute we did the show, I said, ‘Let’s go three-camera!'”

When the show reached its third season, ABC started pushing for guest stars, believing that having them would help boost the show’s ratings. Once again, Garry sort of gave them what they wanted. Yes, there were many guest stars, but, as he laughed, only two of them were done for ratings: sportscaster Howard Cosell (insanely popular at the time) and tennis player Bobby Riggs at the height of his popularity. “ABC wanted guest stars, and we would throw in guest stars that wouldn’t boost the ratings, like opera singers and ballet dancers, which got them crazy. We liked to do that, and our guests included Edward Villella and Marilyn Horne.

“One thing we did do, which we also tried to do with Happy Days, was have live music,” he continued. “We had bands, singers, and stuff like that, which hadn’t been done in sitcoms before. I think Sgt. Bilko once had an army talent contest, but that was about it. We had an Odd Couple Band that played live.”

Five years later, it was all coming to an end.

For most of its run, The Odd Couple held up creatively, though by the time it had gotten to Season 5, it was starting to feel obvious that things were winding down. “After five years,” Garry commented, “the writers were moving on, and Tony and Jack didn’t want to work with the new writers. Jack was ready to move on to Quincy, although Tony, I think, would have stayed. We had a lot of writers who went on to many different things. All of us did.”

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Before they did, however, they decided to give the show an actual ending (rare back in the day), which saw Felix remarrying his ex-wife Gloria and Oscar happier than we’ve ever seen him. “We wanted to do a show that ended it, and the network didn’t want us to do that,” he said. “They said, ‘Make the audience believe it will be on next week. You don’t want people to think it’s over.’ We said, ‘No, we’re ending it.'”

And end it they did, though the show was back in 1982… sort of. The New Odd Couple starred Demond Wilson of Sanford and Son as Oscar and Ron Glass of Barney Miller as Felix, and while the show had great potential, it was irreparably harmed by the insistence to have many of the episodes use scripts from the original series, despite the fact they were so well known. The show was gone in 18 episodes.

Sighed Garry, who contractually had his name on the show, during our conversation, “It was somebody’s bright idea that this would be an easy show to do. They still had all of the old scripts and they wanted to redo them, and then thought to cast the show black. It didn’t really work. I mean, why rewrite the scripts? That wasn’t the right way to do it. They should have wrote a completely new version and not relied on the old scripts. The actors were fine and gave it their best shot, and although my name was on it, I couldn’t work on the show, because I didn’t agree with what was going on. It was just another case of greed that didn’t work.”

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And that’s pretty much where my conversation with Garry ended, although that wasn’t it for his association with The Odd Couple. When the show came back in 2015 with Matthew Perry as Oscar and Thomas Lennon as Felix, Garry was brought on not only to play Oscar’s father, but to serve as an executive consultant, much to the delight of those involved.

Return of The Odd Couple

As executive producer Bob Daily explained in an exclusive interview, Garry came to the writers’ room during the first month of pre-production of Season 1, stating that he would not be accepting a check without earning it. And earn it he did. “My only concern about Garry coming in was wondering if he would be saying things like, ‘That’s not how we did it in the old version,'” Bob said. “But he has completely given us free reign to reinvent the show, while suggesting things. He’s the one who said he felt the best episodes when he was doing it was when Oscar taught Felix something or vice-versa. That idea immediately gave rise to an episode in the second season where it establishes Felix as a lifelong New Yorker who, like many lifelong New Yorkers, never learned how to drive. But now that he’s dating Emily and she’s always driving, he wants to learn how, so Oscar has to teach Felix how to drive.”

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Thomas Lennon noted that at every taping, Marshall stood next to the cameras and he would talk to the cast after each take. “There was a moment when I felt Garry embraced me in the role of Felix,” he smiled. “He went from someone who admitted he had no idea who I was when I showed up the first day (he thought I was the craft service guy) to coming up to me and saying, ‘You’re killing it.’ That was pretty amazing. It was then that I started to feel the right to play this character.”

My “liddle” conversation with Garry Marshall only lasted half an hour, but that chat, like The Odd Couple itself, feels like a gift that keeps on giving.