Saturday, November 24, 2012

Oh, Oscar, Oscar, Oscar

So today I had lunch with one of the legends of New York sports, the ageless columnist of the New York Herald, the one and only Oscar Madison.

Okay, he's not quite ageless. He's 90 years old, and all that cigar smoking has long since robbed him of one of his vocal chords, reducing his voice to a raspy version of his old-time New Yawk tawk. But time has not dimmed his mind, nor dulled his wit. The guy has still got it, and still cranks out a column once a week.

And he still uses a typewriter. And not an electric one. Forget a computer: "I don't need a computer to do word processing," he says. "I can process my own words."

I met him at the Blind Pig on East 14th Street, which I introduced him to, even though it's quite far from his apartment on the Upper East Side. With its Prohibition-era decor, I figured he'd like it, and I was right. ("Blind pig" and "blind tiger" were both synonyms for a speakeasy, an illegal bar run during Prohibition, 1920 to 1933.)

Over a couple of beers, and with the Ohio State-Michigan game on TV (Ohio State won, 26-21), I asked him to give me his current thoughts on local sports.

On the NHL lockout: "What's the matter with the owners? They think they got leverage over the players? Like they were NFL team owners? They're idiots. The players can go off and play in Europe, and make lots o' money there. The owners are just shootin' themselves in the foot. And that can hurt. I know, my old buddy, retired cop Murray Greschler, did that once."

On the Knicks: "Boy, oh boy, I like the way the Knicks are playing. Carmelo Anthony is putting his ego in check, and the team is just cruising. I just hope nobody gets hurt. Knick players have a nasty habit of getting hurt at just the wrong time.

On what the Knicks mean to him: "I've covered the Knicks from the beginning, when the NBA began in 1946. I was the first Knicks beat writer for the Herald.  I loved covering basketball at the old Madison Square Garden. And when the new Garden really was the new Garden, it seemed so outta this world, and the Knicks were, too. You shoulda seen Walt Frazier back then. He was the coolest man in the galaxy, never mind the world. Even Joe Namath wasn't as cool as Frazier. I loved those Knicks. And, you know, they were a big thing to help get me through my recovery from cancer in 1993, with Ewing and Oakley and Starks. They really helped me bounce back. Them, and my old buddy, Felix Unger. Except the Knicks weren't hypochondriac neat freaks. And I never, ever heard Pat Riley honk with bad sinuses!"

On the Yankees: "Aw, you talk about Felix, that Derek Jeter reminds me of him. He's gotta be Mr. Perfect. And yet, sometimes I think Alex Rodriguez is more like Felix. All those, whatta ya call 'em, neuroses. A-Rod is ridiculous! All that money, and the Yankees can't hit in the postseason? What were they waiting for, an engraved invitation?"

On the Mets: "Let me tell you something, the Mets wish they had the Yankees' problems, and not their own! I coulda told ya from a mile away that Bernie Madoff was a no-good lousy bum! But Fred Wilpon? He couldn't see it. He always wants to see the good in people. But you gotta watch out, at all times. And now, the Mets can't see the Pennant from a mile away. They couldn't see the Pennant if they were in the Giants' new ballpark."

On the Jets: "You know, Mike, I read that piece you did on Rex Ryan, why you think he's failed. I'm not sure if he's the reason, or if the general manager, Mike Tannenbaum, is the real problem. But these Jets were so close to a Super Bowl, and they blew it. And now, they got no confidence. And it doesn't help that Darrelle Revis went out for most of the season with an injury. There's no way the Patriots woulda hung 49 on the Jets if he was out there. Maybe 35."

On Tim Tebow: "No. No way. He's not the answer. Unless the Jets are playing the University of Tennessee. Then, Tebow can win. He's not an NFL quarterback. He's not a guy with a million-dollar arm and a five-cent head. He's a guy with a minimum-wage arm and a five-cent head! And it ain't the religion, either. Terry Bradshaw talked about having faith all the time. He still does. And people thought he was dumb. But you know what? Terry got the job done. He had the skills. Tebow doesn't have Terry's skills, and he never will. No matter who the coach is. Firing Ryan and replacing him with somebody else isn't gonna turn Tebow into another Bradshaw, or another Steve Young, if you wanna use a lefty as an example, and a successful one. Firing Ryan might help Mark Sanchez, but it won't do squat for Tebow."

On college football: "I don't know much about college football. Ask me about college basketball."

On college basketball: "I think these kids who are doing the 'one and done' thing are hurting everybody. The NBA, 'cause they're gettin' there and they're not ready for it, so they end up sittin' on the bench, doin' nothin'. Their college teams, 'cause they get left in the lurch. Themselves, 'cause they're not getting the right training. And I'm not even talking about their time in class. I'm talking about listening to their coaches. You think Krzyzewski and Pitino and Calipari are teaching a kid everything he should know in one year? Baloney! Oh, that reminds me, I think I left a sandwich on the sofa. Or was it on my bed? No, that was a tuna fish sandwich on my bed. The baloney's definitely the one on the sofa."

You left two sandwiches out? Oh, Oscar, Oscar, Oscar...

"What are you, Felix's grandson?"

Well, one of my Grandpas was a bit of a neat freak. And a photographer. And a clothes horse. And a hypochondriac. But he liked sports, not opera. He and Felix probably wouldn't have gotten along.

"Yeah? Maybe I woulda liked him."

Oh yeah, you would've.

Just out of curiosity, Oscar, how did Felix die?

"You don't wanna know."

No, really, I do.

"Well, it was May 17, 2004. He was 84. He'd been slowing down for a while. Anyway, he lost his balance in the kitchen."

Yeah, that's right, he was a really good cook. So, what happened, he fell on his own knife?

"No. He was carrying a pot of gravy from the stove to the table. And when he lost his balance, he spilled the gravy all over himself. He got so angry at himself that he gave himself a heart attack. Boom, that was it.  No more Felix."

Felix died as the result of a mess that he made?

"Yeah. Talk about your irony."


In case you're wondering, I've been watching the DVDs of The Odd Couple. Felix was played by Tony Randall, who did die on the date in question, from pneumonia, resulting from heart bypass surgery. Oscar was played by Jack Klugman, whose own throat surgery and cancer recovery were written into The Odd Couple: Together Again, the 1993 TV-movie that was a sequel to the 1970-75 ABC series.

Oscar worked for the New York Herald. In real life, a paper by that name existed from 1835 to 1924, published by James Gordon Bennett Sr. and Jr. Its 1895 headquarters, across from the main Macy's store at the intersection of 34th Street, 6th Avenue and Broadway gave the intersection its name: Herald Square. That building was torn down in 1921.

When Bennett Jr. died in 1924, the sensationalist Herald was purchased by the far more sedate New York Tribune, and the resulting New York Herald-Tribune was one of the most admired papers of its time, the nation's leading mouthpiece of Northeastern-style liberal-to-moderate Republican politics, the kind espoused by New York State's Governor Nelson Rockefeller and U.S. Senators Kenneth Keating and Jacob Javits.

The 1962-63 New York newspaper strike doomed it (and also the broadsheets Journal-American and World-Telegram & Sun, and the tabloid Mirror), and on April 24, 1966, it published its final edition. But in 1968, its weekly New York magazine was revived, and is published under that name to this day.

The show's producers used the Herald name for their fictional paper because the real paper's former style seemed to fit Oscar's personality. (The New York Ledger, the tabloid shown on the current ABC series Castle, is also fictional.)

Tony Randall appeared on The Tonight Show more than any other performer, 105 times.

Jack Klugman is still alive, having turned 90 this past April 27. In fact, he is the only remaining one of the Twelve Angry Men from the 1957 film to still be alive. John Fiedler was the only other actor from that film to have also appeared on The Odd Couple.

Oddly enough, the show was not the first time Randall and Klugman had acted together: In 1955, when anthology series were all the rage on television, they both appeared on an episode of Appointment with Adventure.  In real life, they were great friends without, as the show's famed opening suggests, driving each other crazy.

All of Oscar's lines in this post are what I would imagine him saying, and are partly based on things Klugman said on the show.

And, no, I've never actually met Jack Klugman. Nor did I ever meet Tony Randall. I'm not sure I would have wanted to meet him. I don't carry a coaster. "Oh, rings, rings, rings!"

The DVD collection includes an appearance they made on The Mike Douglas Show to promote The Odd Couple, shortly after its 1970 debut. Turns out that Klugman was going bald, and wore a toupee for most of the show's run. That's why he was so often wearing a Mets cap: He didn't like wearing the toupee. But he wore one for his later series, the NBC crime/medical drama Quincy, M.E., so maybe he'd gotten a better one -- perhaps in consultation with Charles Nelson Reilly, who had a great hairpiece, and who was on Match Game with Klugman's then-wife, Brett Somers. (In fact, Jack was on the 1st episode of the 1970s revival of Match Game, on July 2, 1973, and occasionally appeared with Brett, although the nastiness that led to their breakup came through on the show.) Randall would also later appear on an NBC series, the sitcom Love, Sidney.

Here's a recent photo of Klugman.  In spite of his age, and surviving cancer nearly 20 years ago, he's doing fine.
UPDATE: Or so I thought. He died just a month after I posted this.