by Lonnie Knabel ~
The Odd Couple is one of the funniest movies ever made. The American Film Institute (AFI) rates it #17 on its list of Funniest American Movies. Walter Matthau as sloppy Oscar Madison and Jack Lemmon as super neat-freak Felix Ungar are the main reasons for the success, along with Neil Simon’s biting and humerous screenplay. Simon also wrote the Broadway play, which also starred Matthau but had Art Carney as Felix. Paramount wanted more star power than Carney. They needed a hit as their last big success had been The Ten Commandments from 1956, and they got one. At Radio City Music Hall in NYC the film set a record (compared with the 640 films that had played there over 42 years) with a fourteen week run and a gross of over $3 million dollars. The story revolves around two divorced men who share an apartment but are as different as night and day.
Many lines are memorable, but I wrote down the one that gave me the biggest laugh. Oscar’s poker buddies are concerned Felix may have killed himself, but Oscar responds, “Felix can’t kill himself. He wears his seatbelt in a drive-in theater.” The Pigeon sisters, who are English and live upstairs, are also a hoot. Oscar sets them up for a double date with Oscar and Felix. They assume those roles again in Disney’s The Aristocats as a pair of English geese touring the French countryside.
Billy Wilder, who had directed both Matthau and Lemmon in The Fortune Cookie, was considered to direct, but Gene Saks was chosen, who had previously directed the film Barefoot in the Park. Saks had his primary success on Broadway, receiving seven Tony Awards for Best Direction of a Play or Musical, with many of those awards coming from directing Neil Simon plays. This was the second of ten films that Lemmon and Matthau appeared in together. They remained lifelong friends.
The film expanded the set from the apartment of Oscar Madison, which the Broadway version restricted itself to. Since Oscar is a sportswriter, they added a scene at Shea Stadium that included a scripted triple play that was filmed before the real game began. The joke is that Oscar misses the triple play because Felix calls him in the Pressbox regarding dinner plans, telling him not to eat ballpark hotdogs as that’s what they’re having for dinner. Roberto Clemente was to be the batter, but because of his speed and skill, he always got to first base before the ball. When he slowed down, it looked like he was walking. So Bill Mazeroski was substituted.
A sequel was filmed, The Odd Couple ll, thirty years later, with Matthau and Lemmon reprising their roles, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the original. The TV series it spawned, The Odd Couple, was very successful and ran from 1970 to 1975. Tony Randall as Felix was considered for the original film as was Jack Klugman, who actually took over the role of Oscar on Broadway when Matthau departed. Two other incarnations were very flat: the short lived New Odd Couple from 1982 featuring African-American actors and an even less successful Odd Couple reboot in 2015 featuring Matthew Perry. You can’t beat the original. And the Matthau/ Lemmon team is hard to top. Include this film in your bucket list.
About the author – Lonnie Knabel is a resident of Sun City Carolina Lakes. He is a movie buff and a regular contributor to Living @ Sun City Carolina Lakes magazine. This article was originally published in Living and is republished here with permission. Lonnie is also a professional graphic artist. Please visit his website here.