Do you remember Oscar Madison? Sure you do. He was a well-known sportswriter from half a century ago. A real old school type. Kind of slovenly in appearance. Famously hosted a weekly card game for his pals. A colorful guy. Oh, there's one more thing about him that's worth mentioning.
He's a fictitious character.
Oscar Madison was one half of The Odd Couple, the famous Broadway show/ movie/ TV series twosome from 50 years ago. He was the archetypical old-fashioned newspaperman of his time, something that no longer exists in the modern-day world but was as common as the house fly back then. The creation of famed playwright Neil Simon, he was just like countless other ink-stained wretches of the day, set in his ways, sartorially challenged, and sure of his opinions. His character was so well crafted that it became the signature role in the careers of two distinguished actors; Walter Matthau played the part in the Broadway play and in the movie version of "The Odd Couple," and Jack Klugman was Oscar for five years in the TV series.
The movie still plays occasionally on TV and is still wonderfully entertaining, but the fact is that Oscar Madison, and those like him, are as extinct as the dodo bird. In the old days a reporter just had to worry about his newspaper's deadlines for its print edition. Now, however, there are internet editions with their never-ending deadlines that demand to be fed; there are Instagram accounts that need tending; baseball reporters have to be familiar with labor relations and finance issues, to say nothing of analytics and the whole new language it has spawned. On an average day during the baseball season a typical reporter for a large metropolitan daily paper probably files several thousand words of copy. If you think that's easy, try it sometime.
It's not like the days of yore, when booze played a large part in the baseball culture. When a game ended, there would be a flurry of activity when quotes from players were gathered, stories were written and filed, and deadlines met -- then the evening would begin. Press rooms would be transformed into after hours joints; a bartender would appear; club executives would rub elbows with reporters, perhaps a manager and maybe a coach or two (but never any players) would wander upstairs from the clubhouse to enjoy a convivial drink (or six) until two or three o'clock in the morning before things finally shut down for the night. After all, no one was expected back at the park until the next afternoon. That's the way business was done back then. Nowadays reporters just don't have time for such shenanigans. The economics of newspapers being what it is, there are fewer and fewer reporters doing more and more work.
As iconic as the character of Oscar Madison has become, it would never have been as entertaining as it was without its counterpart, Felix Ungar. In the play/ movie/ TV show, Felix is as much a fussbudget and neatnik as Oscar is an unkempt slob. It leads to a certain amount of conflict between the two. In playwright Simon's capable hands the results are laugh-out-loud funny. The only scene in the movie that shows Oscar at work as a sportswriter takes place in the press box of Shea Stadium, the former home of the New York Mets. In the middle of a game, he gets a call from Felix, who wants to discuss that evening's dinner menu. As Oscar tries to get Felix off the phone because he might miss some of the action, the camera shows what is purported to be Bill Mazeroski of the Pittsurgh Pirates grounding into a triple play. It all happens while Oscar's back is turned and his ensuing hissy-fit is epic.
Jack Lemmon, who portrayed Felix in the film version of "The Odd Couple," worked together with Matthau so seamlessly that they were ever-after pictured in the public's collective eye as a team, even though they often worked independently. (By the way, the estimable Tony Randall played Felix opposite Jack Klugman's Oscar in the TV series and the original Felix was created on the Broadway stage by none other than Art Carney.)
Two years before "The Odd Couple'' was made, Matthau and Lemmon teamed up in another sports-related movie, a Billy Wilder film called "The Fortune Cookie." In it, Lemmon plays an NFL sideline TV cameraman who gets run into by a Cleveland Browns halfback and knocked for a loop. He is basically unhurt but he lets an ethically-challenged lawyer, "Whiplash" Willie Gingrich (Matthau), talk him into a crooked scheme of pretending to be paralyzed. As a precursor of things to come, his role won for Matthau an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1966.
Neil Simon, the creator of "The Odd Couple," was a comedic genius. His ability to find humor in everyday situations and his use of characters with whom we can all identify was unsurpassed. He was a master craftsman who brought joy to millions of people through his plays and movies. We were charmed and amused by the characters he created even as they struggled with the day-to-day problems they faced, and all of us face. We recognize ourselves in Oscar and Felix and all their foibles. It explains why there have been so many revivals of it and why Simon even wrote a female version (featuring "Olive" Madison and "Florence" Unger).
"The Odd Couple" debuted on Broadway more than 56 years ago, the movie came out in 1968, and the TV series ran from 1970-1975. All of those connected with the original productions, including Simon himself, have long since died. Some of the details with which it deals may have become dated but the story is about human nature and it remains fresh and vibrant -- and funny as the dickens.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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