Like most of our peers, my brother and I were big fans of the TV sitcom The Odd Couple when we were growing up in Tulsa. Practically everyone enjoyed Tony Randall’s portrayal of Felix Unger, the lovable neurotic with a neatness obsession. I’ll never forget how surprised we were the day our father pulled his 1937 Central High School yearbook off the shelf, opened it to the senior class, and pointed to a haughty-looking boy with slick hair.
“You recognize him?” he asked.
The face was unmistakable. “That’s Tony Randall!” we exclaimed.
Dad corrected us: “Actually, it’s Lennie Rosenberg. That was his name, back then.”
When I asked Dad if they’d been friends, he frowned. “No, he didn’t talk to anybody. He was a snob.”
Randall, a regular guest on talk shows, seldom discussed his childhood or family, and many assumed he was a New Yorker. In fact, he was born Aryeh Leonard Rosenberg in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on February 26, 1920, to Mogscha and Julia Rosenberg. His mother, born Julia Finston, was a Tulsa native whose brothers worked in the oil business; Mogscha was an art dealer who traveled extensively, purchasing art and selling it to wealthy clients.
Lennie’s mother, Julia, was described as petite and affectionate, while Mogscha, who was considerably older than his wife, was said to be the opposite in both respects. The physically imposing Mogscha was a cultured but emotionally distant man. An inveterate theatergoer, he was dismissive of his son’s aspirations to become an actor. When Lennie and his sister, Edna, were small, the family left Oklahoma and moved to Manhasset, Long Island, where they attended grade school. Lennie was 13 when his parents divorced. Many years later he told People magazine that his mother was “the great love of my life,” and added that his parents’ divorce “was pleasant for me: my rival was gone.” He and his mother and sister returned to Tulsa, and moved in with Julia’s mother.
Where my father and most of his classmates were concerned, young Lennie was an outsider at Central in every way that mattered. He was Jewish,1 physically scrawny, and had spent much of his childhood in New York. The adult Randall sometimes spoke of his erstwhile Okie accent, but, given his boyhood on Long Island, one wonders if his speech sounded like that of his high school classmates. Whatever adolescent angst he may have experienced can be gleaned from infrequent reminiscences about his schooldays. “I could make the kids laugh,” he told one journalist. “That was a good way to avert hostility and attract attention.” He stammered, and it was said that he had only two close friends at Central, both of whom were also fatherless.
1. When Lennie was a boy Tulsa’s Jewish community numbered around 2,400 persons in a city of some 140,000 — about 1.7 percent of the population.
Did Lennie encounter anti-Jewish sentiment in Tulsa? According to one account, he was expelled from a boys’ club at Central, but the reason is obscure.2 In a 1976 interview for TV Guide, Randall dredged up memories of the Dust Bowl (“It was a blight like something out of the Bible.”) and cited racism aimed at African Americans (“When we lived in Tulsa, a black man could not walk on the street after 9 o’clock at night.”), but made no reference to anti-Semitism. In any event, it is no stretch to infer that the snobbery my father recalled may have been a defense mechanism Lennie employed to repel rejection, of whatever kind.
2. Randall later said he was “excluded” from the club; it’s unclear whether he was ever a member.
Even in Depression-era Oklahoma there were compensations for a boy interested in the performing arts. Lennie was a frequent visitor to the Convention Hall,3 where he saw touring companies offering all kinds of theater as well as opera. But once he’d graduated from Central, he couldn’t get away fast enough. Lennie briefly attended Northwestern University, where he met and married Florence Gibbs, a non-performer who would steadfastly avoid the limelight during their marriage of over a half-century. The newlyweds moved to New York City, and by the time of his 1947 Broadway debut in Antony and Cleopatra, Lennie Rosenberg was dead: he was now Anthony Randall, a suitably patrician name.4 Like his father, he would cultivate an interest in the arts, but he would spend the rest of his life in New York.
The teenager who left Tulsa in 1938 did not return for 40 years.
3. Still in operation today as the Brady Theater.
4. Significantly, his longtime friend and co-star Jack Klugman admitted that he knew Randall for two decades before he learned his real name was Rosenberg.
Lennie becomes Tony
Tony Randall, light comedian, first made a name for himself on TV in the sitcom Mister Peepers (1952–55), scored a hit on Broadway in Inherit the Wind, then parlayed his success into a series of film comedies with Rock Hudson and Doris Day, providing genial if somewhat neurotic comic support to the stars. He landed occasional leads in movies, but was most often relegated to second banana roles. In 1970, when plans were underway to turn Neil Simon’s stage hit The Odd Couple into a weekly sitcom, Randall happened to be portraying Felix in a Chicago production of the play. A producer of the series saw him, and offered him the role. The show ran for five years, and although it was never a ratings champion, in reruns it would come to be regarded as a TV classic.5
5. Ironically in light of subsequent events in Randall’s career, ABC executives were concerned that viewers would perceive Felix and Oscar as a gay couple. Randall and his co-star Klugman enjoyed “camping it up” on the set, in part to needle their employers. Several amusing outtakes survive.
The year after The Odd Couple was cancelled, Randall was talked into doing a new sitcom, which would become The Tony Randall Show. That series struggled for two years before it too was cancelled in the summer of 1978. Subsequently, the embittered star declared he was finished with television, and would turn his attention to the stage. That summer, Randall toured the country in a revival of The Music Man, in which he sang and danced his way through the role of con man Harold Hill. When the show came to Tulsa’s Performing Arts Center that June, it marked his triumphant hometown return.
At some point in late 1979, Randall was approached about a made-for-TV movie, still in development, about a depressive, 50-ish commercial artist who lives alone in a large apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He happens to be gay, but winds up sharing his apartment with a young woman and her daughter. The story was conceived by Marilyn Cantor Baker, a versatile performer and writer.6 When he saw Baker’s scenario, Randall immediately expressed interest. He later explained that he “fell in love” with the central character, and was attracted to the idea of a lonely middle-aged man who is redeemed through the unexpected gift of something he always wanted, but never thought he would have: a family.
6. Baker was the fourth of comedian Eddie Cantor’s five daughters.
Randall’s involvement was enough to lure Warner Bros. Television into taking on the project, which they planned to offer CBS. Oliver Hailey, a playwright and TV writer best known for the comedy series Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, was hired in early 1980 to turn Baker’s three-page outline into a screenplay.
Sidney Shorr: A Girl’s Best Friend, as the film was eventually titled, is a comedy-drama, low-key and decidedly downbeat. When we first meet the titular character his mother has recently died, and his live-in lover, Martin, has departed. Teetering on the edge of a serious downward spiral, Sidney is rescued when he is befriended by Laurie, a young aspiring actress he meets at a repertory cinema. She moves in to share expenses, and soon gets a steady gig on a daytime soap. Eventually, after an affair with a married man, Laurie becomes pregnant. When she considers abortion, Sidney passionately dissuades her. She gives birth to a daughter, Patti, and, much to his delight, Sidney becomes the baby’s live-in caregiver. A few years pass, more or less happily for the unconventional family unit. But a crisis erupts when Laurie chooses to marry a new boyfriend and move to Los Angeles. Sidney, who raised Patti while her mother was busy with her career, considers himself Patti’s co-parent, and files suit for partial custody of the child. The finale hinges on the outcome of the trial.
Hailey later revealed that many of his ideas were overruled by the star, whose contract permitted him a high degree of creative control. For instance, Hailey wanted to provide details about Sidney’s ill-fated relationship with Martin, his ex-lover. He proposed that Martin might return and clash with Laurie, who had displaced him in the apartment. Hailey also imagined an exchange that could occur when Laurie revealed to Sidney that she was dating a married man; he would warn her: “Trust me. They break your heart faster than anything.” These ideas were vetoed by Randall. He insisted that the relationship with Martin should be mentioned only obliquely, and that the character would be represented solely by a photo on the mantelpiece. Moreover, Randall felt it was crucial that Sidney should be depicted as isolated, with no friends of either sex. According to Hailey, the star felt strongly that Laurie—and, eventually, Patti—should serve as desperately needed lifelines, agents of salvation for a man otherwise bereft of companionship. And although Sidney’s sexual persuasion would be specified, it would be through inference: neither “gay” nor “homosexual” were to be spoken aloud. Lastly, once Laurie took up residence in Sidney’s home, his sex life was effectively a thing of the past.
If Hailey objected to any of this he did not indicate as much, then or later. He worked closely with Randall and developed a satisfactory script. However, despite careful treatment of its potentially risky theme, CBS backed out. The project was taken to Fred Silverman, president and CEO of NBC, and already a legendary figure; indeed, one of the few TV executives known by name to the general public. Silverman, according to Hailey, “went apeshit” over the script, bought it, and promptly put the film into production. TV veteran Russ Mayberry, whose credits included episodes of That Girl and The Brady Bunch, was hired to direct. Lorna Patterson was cast as Laurie Morgan, Sidney’s transformative roommate, while five-and-a-half year old Kaleena Kiff was selected to play Patti. The movie was taped in New York, and completed in the late fall of 1980.
NBC executives were pleased with the results, and excited about its possibilities. And yet, after it was completed, the premiere broadcast was postponed for almost a year. The election of Ronald Reagan in November 1980 ushered in a backlash against America’s cultural arbiters, especially the TV networks. Massive letter-writing campaigns aimed at any program perceived as immoral were coordinated by conservative organizations, including Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Rev. Donald Wildmon’s National Federation for Decency. Shortly after the election these groups, in conjunction with the American Christian Cause, claimed credit for a successful crusade to kill ABC-TV’s planned sitcom based on the French film comedy La cage aux folles, which featured a same-sex couple; the proposed title, Adam and Yves, only inflamed passions. Wildmon subsequently told the New York Daily News: “Networks make a mistake when they try to legitimize a homosexual lifestyle.”
Sidney Shorr, groundbreaker
Alan Shayne, president of Warner Bros. Television, was highly enthusiastic about Sidney Shorr despite the prevailing political mood. Even before shooting had wrapped, letters protesting the project began to arrive at NBC. Early in 1981, Shayne decided to ignore the pressure groups, or rather, to take them on directly with a daring gambit: namely, to develop the property into a weekly series and treat the Sidney Shorr film as its pilot. The decision, green-lighted by Silverman, marked a milestone.
American network television had first addressed homosexuality as a serious subject in That Certain Summer, a landmark made-for-TV movie which premiered in 1972. That same year, a summer replacement sitcom entitled The Corner Bar offered another first: Pete Panama, played by Vincent Schiavelli, the first regular character in a series who was gay. Norman Lear’s short-lived Hot L Baltimore (1975), set in a rundown hotel, offered the first same-sex couple, and gay characters appeared in other mid-70s series such as The Bob Crane Show and The Nancy Walker Show. Still, these were token figures of secondary importance in their respective ensembles, and the actors who played these stereotypical parts were not well known, and certainly not stars.
ABC’s Soap (1977–81), an outrageous parody of daytime serials, was a game-changer. This series aggressively provoked controversy with its portrait of two Connecticut families, one wealthy and one blue collar, and their wildly unconventional personal lives. Billy Crystal, a rising talent on the comedy club circuit, became famous for his portrayal of Jodie Dallas, an openly gay man. In early episodes it appeared that Jodie—who wore his mother’s clothes, and toyed with the idea of a sex change—would be just another caricature. But with Crystal’s input, Jodie became increasingly dimensional and sympathetic, the sanest person in the Soap loony bin.
Soap marked a turning point. Even so, a Sidney Shorr series, if it happened, would achieve a television breakthrough: a program built around a gay character, played by an established star. Shayne was well aware of Randall’s aversion to taking on another series; he was also aware that the actor, an outspoken liberal, was unhappy about the election results. On March 19, 1981, several weeks after Reagan’s inauguration, Shayne wrote Randall a two-page letter. It said, in part:
You know it is my business to get series on the air and there is no question that getting a series order would make me happy and more successful. But, the fact is, there are other series and some of them will even get on the air. So forget for a minute that it is my job to try and convince you to do SIDNEY SHORR as a series.
What I really have been brooding about is the uniqueness of SIDNEY SHORR. This is a very difficult period for our country. We all sense a stronger and stronger move to the right … It’s all very scary. More and more of what we’re showing people on television is conventional and conformist. It is no accident that “DUKES OF HAZZARD” and “ALICE” (both Warner shows by the way) are so successful. The country doesn’t want to think …
Which brings me, of course, to Sidney. Sidney is the perfect non-conformist at a time when we need him. He is, like you, in favor of romance, the opera, education, literature, travel, individuality, love – just about everything you and I take for granted, Sidney is for. Well, the sad thing is, I don’t know of another character on television today who stands for these things. Do you? What are we going to do? … Well enough. And, by the way, [SIDNEY SHORR] is never a moralistic soap box. It’s pure entertainment. All the values I speak of are subliminal – the best way to do it.
Within days, Randall agreed to star in the new series, which would be called Love, Sidney. He was granted a “very active role” in the creative content of the show, which, at the star’s insistence, was to be taped not in California but New York; and NBC agreed to pay him $50,000 a year—in addition to his salary—towards the establishment of his pet project, a repertory company that would perform classic works on Broadway. Lastly, it was understood that Sidney Shorr would remain homosexual.
Sidney becomes controversial
Once Randall agreed to the series, it was decided that the pilot film would premiere in early October, and the series, set to begin taping in August, would launch three weeks later. This was announced on April 20, but with a catch: the press release described a “warm, poignant” series about an older man who becomes a surrogate father; it was not mentioned that he was gay. Clearly, network brass were getting nervous. Rumors flew that the gay references in the pilot, ambiguous as they were, would be cut.
Despite NBC’s attempt to fly under the radar with Love, Sidney, publications such as the New York Times and Variety revealed the bombshell info deleted from the press release. On cue, NBC and Warners received an avalanche of irate letters and phone-calls denouncing the new show. In response, Randall expressed scorn for the protestors and openly criticized the network for cowardice, but in the late spring his public statements on the matter abruptly ceased. And in June, when NBC issued a statement saying that references to Sidney’s sexuality would remain in the pilot but would not be part of the series, Randall maintained his silence.
Brandon Tartikoff, NBC’s Entertainment President, held a press conference on June 20 and was grilled for more than an hour by reporters. Tartikoff insisted that the network’s decision to downplay Sidney’s sexuality was not an attempt to dodge public outcry, nor was there concern behind the scenes that the series would be shunned by potential advertisers. (Both assertions were questionable.) He claimed the network envisioned Love, Sidney as a “wholesome family entertainment show” in which sexual references would not be appropriate, and that the creative team wished to emphasize the “everyday problems” of Sidney and his housemates. Variety’s subsequent headline, TARTIKOFF DEFENDS NEUTERING RANDALL, could not have pleased the network or placated their star.
Less than two weeks later, it was announced that the brilliant but erratic Fred Silverman was stepping down as president of NBC, and would be replaced by Grant Tinker. Silverman’s tumultuous three-year reign at the network had been plagued by rash decisions and bad luck. Bottom line: annual profits had sharply declined, while the network continued to trail ABC and CBS in the all-important ratings race. Tinker, known for his stewardship of the MTM production company alongside his wife Mary Tyler Moore, was regarded as a steadier hand. In a widely quoted interview Tinker expressed support for Love, Sidney, pointedly termed Jerry Falwell “just another viewer,” and vowed he “won’t do my job for me.”
On October 5, at long last, Sidney Shorr: A Girl’s Best Friend premiered. It scored well in the ratings, drawing 40 percent of the viewing audience in New York City and 28 percent nationally, and was greeted with mixed but mostly positive reviews; Randall received some of the best personal notices of his long career. More than one critic remarked on the irony that such a warm, pro-family story had provoked such outrage. Oliver Hailey, who would stay on with the series as a story consultant, expressed pride in the finished product but also called it “a timid groundbreaker.”
While the phrase is apt, the film does have its audacious aspects, especially its central figure. The Tony Randall found here is conspicuously different from his usual, antic characterization. In the early scenes he is thoroughly defeated, and very much alone. Hailey said the star “knew exactly what he wanted” in script sessions, even insisting that Sidney’s neighbors shun him in the elevator. Based on what is known of Randall’s high school days, it follows he may have drawn upon unhappy Tulsa memories in crafting the role. Sidney the outcast is an older, wearier Lennie Rosenberg. The alienation of Randall’s teenage years, when he was barred from a club and had only two close friends, now serves as the actor’s source material. And it’s striking that Sidney is rescued, emotionally speaking, by two friends: Laurie and, later, Patti.
Not everyone who opposed Sidney Shorr attacked from the same direction. Newt Dieter, head of the Los Angeles-based Gay Media Task Force, bluntly called the film “a piece of shit.” Dieter, whose lobbying group had considerable influence with the three networks’ standards and practices departments, was shown the script before it went before the cameras and was encouraged to make suggestions. He allowed that Sidney was a plausible character, but remained unsatisfied, mainly because the man’s sexual identity was so understated as to be irrelevant. Why, Dieter asked, was he even made a homosexual in the first place? Randall contended that the character’s sexuality served a crucial dramatic function, i.e. Sidney could not be Laurie’s lover, or Patti’s father, because he is gay. To Randall, seemingly, that was why Sidney was gay. Marilyn Cantor Baker, for her part, saw the character differently. She held that the Sidney Shorr she created was meant to be “a complete winner,” a successful gay man who transcended the usual stereotype.7
7. In a 1996 letter to the New York Times, Baker called the Sidney of the TV series “asexual.”
Three weeks later, Love, Sidney made its debut. The most obvious change from the pilot was a matter of casting: Lorna Patterson, who played Laurie in the film, was not available for the series, so her role was taken by stage veteran Swoosie Kurtz. The premiere episode picks up where the pilot left off, after a quick plot recap covered in dialog: as a result of the legal battle, Laurie and her husband have been awarded full custody of Patti, and the trio now live in L.A. In “Welcome Home,” the series’ first episode, Sidney is reunited with Patti and her mother when they return to New York for a visit. Considering the circumstances of their parting, the reunion is surprisingly cordial. It is soon revealed that Laurie’s marriage is on the rocks. Before the closing credits roll, Laurie and Patti have moved in with Sidney once again, and their unconventional family is set to continue as before.
With the launch of the series, Randall’s muzzle was off. He fell silent during the spring “selling season,” he explained, because this was when networks try to attract sponsors for new shows, and he didn’t want to scare them away. He told the New York Daily News that the Moral Majority protestors had done his team a great favor. “I bless them. They’ve given us millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity. My attitude toward them is very similar to Ronald Reagan’s. He used them to get elected, and then forgot about them.” Gay references would be permitted on the show, he said, but not emphasized.8 He called the controversy overblown, and said he had received only four letters of protest. What Randall failed to clarify was that those were merely the letters addressed to his home; NBC received hundreds. In any event, during its first two months on the air the show was the top-rated new series in the nation.
8. In one episode, on the verge of a Florida vacation, Sidney gleefully exclaims “Anita Bryant, here I come!” That’s as edgy as it gets.
The verdict of posterity
Viewing episodes of the program today, it’s hard to imagine what all the fuss was about. Love, Sidney is a standard sitcom of its time, no worse than most but not much better, either. The tone is set by the opening credit sequence, a montage of hugs, merry-go-round rides, waltzing, and more hugs, accompanied by the schmaltzy theme song “Friends Forever,” sung in turn by Randall, Kurtz, and Kiff, in a manner redolent of Hallmark card commercials. It’s as if the show’s creators were eager to reassure Falwell and his ilk they would find nothing objectionable here. Punchlines are delivered with clockwork precision. Plotlines revolve around childcare issues, roommate issues, or an occasional ethical issue, e.g. should Sidney, commercial artist, take a job advertising a poor quality product? For added laughs, Laurie’s role on a daytime soap, As Thus We Are, permitted self-referential digs at television.
After several episodes had aired, sociologist Todd Gitlin observed that the Sidney Shorr controversy revealed more about the national zeitgeist than the series itself. The show’s star, who at first seemed ready and willing to take on the reactionaries, resigned himself to a less aggressive attitude. A few weeks after Love, Sidney premiered, Randall was walking near Rockefeller Center with a friend when a young woman approached him, told him she greatly enjoyed the show, and thanked him for fighting to keep it on the air. After she walked on, Randall turned to his friend and said: “I guess she thought I fought the Moral Majority. But the battle was never really joined.”
After the initial flurry of interest the show’s ratings were mediocre. NBC’s Tinker, known for giving shows time to find their audiences, renewed Love, Sidney for a second season. He affirmed his support in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, but acknowledged “we obviously live and die by audience reaction,” adding that if interest waned, he would not hesitate to pull the plug. In spring of 1983, in the face of indifferent ratings, the series was cancelled.
For the rest of his career, Tony Randall focused on stage work. He invested much of his time, and a great deal of his own money, in his pet project the National Actors Theatre, of which he was artistic director. Three years after his wife Florence died in 1992 he married Heather Harlan, an intern at N.A.T. 50 years his junior. Randall became a father for the first time in 1997, and again the following year, at the age of 78.9 He died in 2004.
Several years before his death, Randall donated his papers to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, at Lincoln Center. The collection holds a slim file of material devoted to Love, Sidney which contains this letter, handwritten on lined paper, dated December 2, 1981:
9. When his wife became pregnant the first time, Randall called his friend Klugman and happily announced: “The equipment still works!”
Dear Mr. Randall,
I just finished watching tonight’s episode of your show Love, Sidney and I just had to let you know how I felt. I’ve been in prison now for almost six years and I’ve got eleven more to go. But that’s not the point. The point is, I haven’t allowed myself to cry since I was a little boy. I’ve been imperious to emotion for so long that I almost forgot what it was like to feel. But tonight I felt. And I cried. Your show about Laurie’s reunion with her family was filled with so much feeling and love that, for the first time in a long time, I couldn’t control my tears. For the first time I didn’t want to. Thank you so very much. Please give my blessed thanks to the rest of the cast and also to the entire production staff. I know that prison viewers aren’t counted in the ratings, but at least you’ll know that this viewer sincerely appreciates your efforts. Again, thank you and god bless.
Kevin M. Warner
There is no sign of the letters of protest attacking the program, but the donor made a point of including this one.
Originally published in This Land: Fall 2016