Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Top 10 Sports Odd Couples

This is an update, with corrections where necessary, of a piece I first did in 2009, on (perhaps) the 40th Anniversary of the Felix/Oscar co-residency.

“On November 13, Felix Unger was asked to remove himself from his place of residence. That request came from his wife. Deep down, he knew she was right. But he also knew that, one day, he would return to her. With nowhere else to go, he appeared at the home of his friend, Oscar Madison. Several years earlier, Madison’s wife had thrown him out, requesting that he never return. Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?”

That was the opening narration in the first couple of seasons of the TV version of The Odd Couple, a situation comedy based on Neil Simon’s play. The play debuted on Broadway in 1965, with Art Carney as fussy commercial photographer Felix and Walter Matthau as messy sportswriter Oscar. (Simon said he wrote the Oscar part with Matthau in mind, but Matthau supposedly wanted to play Felix. That wouldn’t have worked.)

In 1968, a film version was made, with Jack Lemmon playing Felix and Matthau again as Oscar. From 1970 to 1975, ABC aired the sitcom, and it has become next to impossible to imagine anyone but Tony Randall as Felix and anyone but Jack Klugman as Oscar – and while Randall went on to Love, Sidney and Klugman to Quincy, M.E., it has become equally difficult to imagine them in any other roles.

I have, however, seen two other productions of the stage version of The Odd Couple, one a high school play and one a professional from the “Plays In the Park” series at Roosevelt Park in Edison, New Jersey, and both were really good, especially considering that the high schoolers were playing middle-aged men. I really believed these 16, 17-year-old guys were Felix, Oscar, Murray, Speed and the others. (I also saw the “Plays In the Park” guys do a pretty good version of Grease.)

Now, the year that Gloria Unger asked Felix to hit the bricks has never been specified. But since the sitcom began in 1970, it could have been 1969.

Having gotten the DVDs, and seeing some of these episodes for the first time ever, and others for the first time in many years, I've noticed a lot of continuity errors.

For one thing, an episode was filmed showing the breakup of Oscar and his wife, Blanche, played by Klugman's real-life wife, Brett Somers.  It was a New Year's Eve party at the apartment we know as belonging to Oscar, and she caught him with another woman -- but, to borrow the cliché, it really wasn't "what this looks like." Blanche didn't "throw him out, requesting that he never return": She walked out on him.

Also, there were 3 separate episodes that explained how Felix and Oscar met: One while they were on jury duty, one when they were in the Army in World War II, and one when they were children.  The names of Felix's children also differed.

It's also worth noting that the TV show exists in a different "universe" from the play and movie.  In the latter, Felix's name is spelled "Ungar," and he's a writer for a local TV station's news broadcasts.  Also, in that version, Oscar has kids.  Both formats would do reunion movies, with both having the plot of Felix's daughter getting married: In the movie version, Oscar moved to Florida, they hadn't seen each other for 17 years, and they were reunited when Felix's daughter is marrying Oscar's son.

In the TV version, which came 5 years earlier (1993-1998), both men still live in New York, they're still friends, and Felix is still, for the second time, married to Gloria.  Their daughter Edna is getting married, but not to Oscar's son, as TV Oscar had no children.  But Felix does too much in trying to plan the wedding, so Gloria yet again kicks him out, just until the wedding is over.  Different actors, including Dick Van Patten, play the old poker buddies Murray, Roy and Speed, and Gloria is now played by Barbara Barrie.  Oscar, as Jack Klugman then was in real life, is recovering from throat cancer surgery, having had a vocal chord removed, reducing his voice to a rasp.  The two old chums help each other through their difficult time, but not without reintroducing their old difficulties.

Most TV shows set in real cities use fake addresses, to keep tourists from gawking at the buildings so that the real-life residents can be left alone.  However, the Couple's apartment was established as being on Park Avenue, and the number 1049 can easily be seen on the awning.  1049 Park Avenue is a real address, and except for a different awning, the building looks pretty much the same as it did when the show debuted on September 24, 1970, over 43 years ago.  And while the show did a lot of location shots, including in front of that building (including 3 different angles of the scene of the taxi pulling up behind an orange Volkswagen), it was filmed at Paramount Studios in Hollywood.

Top 10 Odd Couples In Sports

These are all people in sports who, at least for a time, plied their trade together, but seemed opposites, and often feuded. In some cases they eventually made up, in some they did not.

The “Felix” analogue is listed first, the “Oscar” equivalent second.

10. Al Kaline and Denny McLain, Detroit Tigers, 1965 to 1970. Kaline has been Detroit’s most popular living sports figure for over 50 years – more even than Gordie Howe and Steve Yzerman. For 5 years, McLain was a talented pitcher who tried to get away with a lot – but not everything they said he tried to get away with in Year 6. Without McLain’s remarkable 31-6 season in 1968, Kaline would have retired without appearing in a World Series.  But McLain alienated so many of his teammates with his annus horribilis of 1970 that few had anything good to say about him when he was gone.

And even in 2007, when the twice-imprisoned McLain published his memoir I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect, he still took shots at Tiger teammates like Kaline, Bill Freehan and Mickey Lolich. Tug McGraw may have thrown the pitch and used it as the title of his first autobiography, but if there was ever a pitcher in baseball who was a true screwball, it was Denny McLain.

9. Terrell Owens and Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia Eagles, 2004-05. McNabb is no slob, but in being willing to do whatever it takes, including risking injury, he is the Oscar here. T.O. is the Felix because he’s so whiny and needy and has to have everything done his way. They were only together for 2 seasons, and with injuries to both it added up to maybe one season’s worth of games, but if you’re an Eagles fan, it probably felt like longer. A lot longer

T.O. last appeared in an NFL game with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2010, and was cut by the Seattle Seahawks last year, but has not officially announced his retirement.  McNabb has, having last appeared with the Minnesota Vikings in 2011, and a few weeks ago the Eagles retired his Number 5 and inducted into their Hall of Fame.

McNabb will be eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the election to be held in January 2017, and he will almost certainly get in, although perhaps not the first time.  T.O. had over 1,000 catches and nearly 16,000 receiving yards, 2nd all-time behind Jerry Rice, and is the only player to have scored a touchdown against all 32 teams currently in the NFL.  He will be eligible a year before McNabb, but he generated a lot of bad blood.  I'll bet you any money you like that, in order to avoid an awkward situation, they don't get elected the same year.

8. Julius Erving and Moses Malone, Philadelphia 76ers, 1982-86. Doctor J was the most stylish player in NBA history – on the court, anyway. (Off the court, even the Doctor couldn’t touch Walt Frazier.) By comparison, Big Mo was, to use a hockey term, a grinder. He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, which is not the same thing as playing dirty. (He was a 1980s Sixer, not a 1970s or '80s Flyer.) The 76ers reached the NBA Finals with Julius in 1977, 1980 and 1982, and the Conference Finals in 1981, but they couldn’t get over the hump.

Philadelphia fans have often mocked the pretty boys of sports, long-haired quarterbacks, the mulleted hockey snipers, the bee-ballers who were more flash than dash.  Dr. J was a rare exception, because they say that he worked hard to make those beautiful moves. But the Sixers needed that blood-sweat-and-tears type to get them to the title. Andrew Toney was one, Bobby Jones was another, but Moses Malone was a special player. Few players have ever had the kind of season he had in 1982-83. Dr. J got his ring, but I hope he at least took Moses out for a nice dinner at Le Bec Fin afterwards.

7. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Chicago Bulls, 1987-98. I’m not sure I have to explain this one. I suppose I could list Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant – but they would both be “Felixes.”

6. Punch Imlach and Frank Mahovlich, Toronto Maple Leafs, 1958-68. Punch (real name George) was the coach and general manager of the Leafs team that won 4 Stanley Cups in 7 years from 1962 to 1967. Mahovlich, a.k.a. the Big M, was his best player.

In the NHL’s official 75th Anniversary book, hockey historian Charles Wilkins wrote, “It has been postulated (by, among others, Frank himself) that Punch drove Frank nuts. It has also been postulated that Punch was one of the few people who understood Frank. It stands to reason that one extraterrestrial – one, albeit, from the opposite end of the galaxy – should understand another." For the record, Imlach was Toronto born and raised, while Mahovlich is from Timmins, Ontario.

But Wilkins wasn't kidding about Punch driving Frank nuts: Twice, Frank was admitted to Toronto General Hospital for "chronic fatigue" -- in those days, a clinical diagnosis of depression was still a stigma.  But, much like Yankee Fans with Frank's contemporary Mickey Mantle, the Leaf fans went from booing him to cheering him upon his return, because now, he was the underdog.  Eventually, Punch had enough of him, and, in the process of dismantling the dynasty, traded Frank to the Detroit Red Wings.  It didn't work out for Frank there, and they traded him to the Montreal Canadiens, where he was reunited with his brother Peter, and together they won 2 Stanley Cups.

Frank later served with the Senators in Ottawa – but not the hockey team. He was appointed a member of the Canadian Senate. (Their government is a bit different from ours.) He is now retired from politics, and if he isn't the greatest player in the Leafs' 96-year history, he's certainly the most popular living one.  Punch died in 1987.

5. Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson, Dallas Cowboys, 1989-94. True, Jimmy is quite fussy about his hair, but that’s about it. And Felix would probably have found Jerry to be an incredibly crass, classless individual. Well, let me put it this way: “New York class” and “Dallas class” are two very different things. Jerry is definitely the “Felix” here.

4. George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin, off and on from 1975 to 1988. This might have been Number 1 if it could ever have lasted. Phil Pepe of the New York Daily News has compared it to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton: When they were together, they couldn’t stand one another; when they were apart, they missed each other terribly. Liz and Dick married and divorced twice, while the Boss and the Brat split up five times.

But they will be forever linked. Without George, Billy would never have managed the Yankees; without Billy, George might never have won a World Series. Actually, you could throw in Reggie Jackson and make this an Odd Trio, although there wasn't a comparable character in The Odd Couple to Mister October.

3. Vince Lombardi and Paul Hornung, Green Bay Packers, 1959-67. Hornung was one of the greatest all-around football players who ever lived. Just ask him. Lombardi never bragged about his achievements, though they were legion. His greatest achievement may have been reining in his natural conservatism (personal conservatism -- like most Catholics of his generation, Lombardi was very much a Democrat) and getting along with Hornung, and getting him to make the most of his talent for the sake of his team.

2. Christy Mathewson and John McGraw, New York Giants, 1902-16. It doesn’t seem right to list the player first and the manager second, but, in this case, the player was the Felix and the manager was the Oscar.

This was the total opposite of the Lombardi-Hornung relationship: McGraw was the short, nasty, profane, hot-tempered bastard, which makes him sound a lot like Lombardi, but Lombardi would never have cheated to win. McGraw, as a player, was proud of the corners he cut. (Literally: If he was on first base, and he thought the umpire wasn’t looking, he’d run right to third base without going for second. He got away with it a few times in those days of just one umpire.)

By contrast, Mathewson was tall, handsome, and a superb all-around athlete like Hornung (his alma mater, Bucknell University, named its football stadium after him), but would have been totally out of place in a red-light district, never needed a curfew, and the only time he ever gambled was on checkers. (But he was a hustler at that game, and very good at it.)

McGraw used to say, “The main thing is to win,” while Lombardi said, “Winning isn’t everything, but it’s the only thing.” Still, I think Lombardi would have appreciated Mathewson more than McGraw. Hornung? Definitely would have liked McGraw better.

1. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees, 2004-present. Okay, maybe A-Rod isn’t a slob, but his personal life, his contract issues and his on-field performance have often been quite messy.

But, as with the TV show – which ended in 1975 with Gloria taking Felix back and Oscar getting the 1049 Park Avenue apartment all to himself again – things have worked out: Derek and Alex have won a World Series together, and have been publicly supportive of each other since.

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