Fifty years ago today, The Odd Couple debuted on Broadway. The story of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, the neatnik and the slob, wasn't a sure thing when it debuted at the Plymouth Theatre. But the playbill from that opening night hints at what made the whole thing a success — later spawning multiple movies and TV shows and finding broad cultural resonance.
The first Felix and Oscar weren't who you'd expect
The original Felix Unger was played by Art Carney instead of the iconic Jack Lemmon. Carney wasn't an obvious choice, either. Though a well-regarded comedian, he was best known for his work on The Honeymooners, where he played a loutish sewer worker.
Walter Matthau's name, meanwhile, is more familiar. He was already a Tony winner when he appeared in The Odd Couple, and his playbill bio lists his many TV and film appearances. The best part? He played Polonius in his high school production of Hamlet. Yes, Walter Matthau was a grumpy old man even in high school:
But the best sign of The Odd Couple's success might be in the biography of the man who directed it.
Mike Nichols ensured that The Odd Couple worked
Today, Mike Nichols is remembered primarily as the legendary film director, whose movies include classics like The Graduate and modern hits like Closer. But he got his first big directing gig at the helm of Neil Simon's Barefoot In the Park. And that made him a strong choice to head The Odd Couple.
As the Playbill notes, Mike Nichols was in his prime when he directed Odd Couple, having the equivalent of Einstein's "miracle year": "With The Odd Couple, the imprimatur 'Directed by Mike Nichols' will be on four New York marquees at one time, unprecedented in the annals of theatre."
Nichols at his peak was an incredible asset, and it showed during awards season. The Odd Couple won Tony Awards for Matthau, Nichols, Simon, and set designer Oliver Smith.
There were lots of reasons why The Odd Couple broke out
Neil Simon was obviously a huge reason for the play's success. But as good as he was, his touch wasn't golden. In his playbill, he brags about the production of After The Fox, a movie that hasn't lasted as long as Felix and Oscar.
But even though Simon didn't have a Midas touch, he knew when to experiment. He tested The Odd Couple in Boston before its Broadway debut, and he made significant changes to the third act. With those changes, suggested by an area theater critic, the play was primed for success.
Simon's play might have succeeded without the work of Nichols, Matthau, and Carney. But it's reasonable to say that The Odd Couple worked because everyone got along better than the title characters.