Tony Randall, the comic actor best known for playing fastidious photographer Felix Unger on The Odd Couple, has died. He was 84. Randall died in his sleep Monday night at NYU Medical Center of complications from a long illness, according to his publicity firm, Springer Associates. He is survived by his wife, Heather Harlan Randall, who made him a father for the first time at age 77, and their two children, 7-year-old Julia Laurette and 5-year-old Jefferson Salvini. Randall won an Emmy for playing Unger on the sitcom based on Neil Simon's play and movie. The show ran from 1970 to 1975, but Randall won after it had been canceled, prompting him to quip at the awards ceremony: "I'm so happy I won. Now if I only had a job." The show's charm sprang from Randall's chemistry and conflict with Jack Klugman as sloppy sportswriter Oscar Madison, with whom he's forced to share an apartment after both men get divorced.
Before that, Randall was best known as the fastidious "best friend" figure--adding additional gay subtext to films that already had it in spades--in three Rock Hudson-Doris Day movies, including 1959's Pillow Talk and 1961's Lover Come Back. (His last film role was in 2003's Down With Love, an homage to the Hudson-Day comedies.) The actor became a fixture on David Letterman's late-night talk shows, appearing a record 70 times on the Late Show alone. He made fun of his own prim image by taking part in Letterman's wacky antics, including allowing himself to be covered in mud. And in 1993, when Conan O'Brien took over the time slot at NBC that Letterman had vacated for a new show at CBS, Randall was a guest on O'Brien's debut episode.
After The Odd Couple, Randall had two short-lived sitcoms, one of which was The Tony Randall Show, in which he played a stuffy Philadelphia judge, from 1976 to 1978. From 1981 to 1983 he played the title role in the sitcom Love, Sidney, as a single middle-aged commercial artist helping a female friend care for her young daughter. The show was based on a TV movie in which Sidney was gay; in the TV show, the character's sexual orientation was implied but never specified. This occurred more than a decade before the much-hyped coming-out on Ellen in 1997, which made Ellen DeGeneres's character the first openly gay central figure on a network series. For his television work, Randall got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1998.
In an effort to bring classic theater back to Broadway, Randall founded and was artistic director of the nonprofit National Actors Theatre in 1991, using $1 million of his own money and $2 million from corporations and foundations. The company's first production was a revival of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, starring Martin Sheen and Michael York, which hadn't been staged on Broadway in 40 years. The next year, Randall's production of Ibsen's The Master Builder didn't draw raves. Associated Press drama critic Michael Kuchwara called it "deadly earnest--and dull." Subsequent performances included Night Must Fall, The Gin Game, and The Sunshine Boys, in which Randall reunited with Klugman, in 1998. Randall also starred in his company's Tony award-winning staging of M. Butterfly. The actor also was socially active, lobbying against smoking in public places, marching in Washington against apartheid in the '80s, and helping raise money for AIDS research in the '90s.
Born Leonard Rosenberg on February 26, 1920, Randall was drawn as a teenager to roadshows that came through his hometown of Tulsa, Okla. "One night, the entire town turned out to see the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo perform Swan Lake and Sheherezade," he wrote. "I--and most of the audience--had never seen a ballet before. We stood and cheered, thinking it was a once in a lifetime event." Randall attended Northwestern University before heading to New York at 19, where he made his stage debut in 1941 in The Circle of Chalk. After Army service during World War II from 1942 to 1946, he returned to New York, where he appeared on radio and early television. He got his start in movies in 1955 and scored the lead role opposite Jayne Mansfield in Frank Tashlin's 1957 classic Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? He was married to his college sweetheart, Florence Randall, for 54 years until she died of cancer in 1992. "I saw her in a bank--I never saw another girl in my life. She was gorgeous, the most beautiful girl I ever saw," Randall said in a TV interview in 1995. Later that year, he married Harlan, who was 50 years his junior. Randall met her through his National Actors Theatre; former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani performed the ceremony. Harlan gave birth to their first child, Julia Laurette Randall, in April 1997. Their second child, Jefferson Salvini Randall, was born in June 1998.