The Odd Couple (1970-75) seems like an odd addition to the teen-friendly Friday night lineup that also included The Partridge Family, The Brady Bunch, and Room 222. No teens, no teen idol songs, just two middle aged men, the slovenly Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman) and the fastidious Felix Ungar (Tony Randall) as bickering heterosexual roommates in a New York apartment.
Ostensibly they are thrust together out of necessity after failed heterosexual unions: Felix is kicked out of his house because his wife, Gloria, finds him too fastidious, so he takes refuge with his divorced friend. But surely being a “neat freak” is insufficient cause for divorce. Nor does the sudden disruption of his life explain why Felix continues to live with Oscar for five years; a middle-aged heterosexual man with a sizeable business income (Felix is a professional photographer) may move in with a buddy for a few weeks in an emergency, but he would certainly want his own apartment as soon as possible. If Felix is understood as “gay,” however, it makes perfect sense.
Tony Randall would most likely favor a gay reading of his character: in the 1950’s and 1960’s he specialized in gay-stereotyped roles, sensitive, effete, artistic, snobbish, persnickety, and doting on macho best friends; in Send Me No Flowers (1964), his character all but jumps into bed with the hunky Rock Hudson. After The Odd Couple, he planned to make television history by playing the first openly gay character with a starring role in prime time, but network censors insisted on closeting Love, Sidney.
Randall notes that they did attempt to mention gay people a few times in The Odd Couple. Felix finds an article that Oscar is writing about gay liberation, assumes that he is gay, and muses, “If it was going to be anyone, you’d think it would be me.” Oscar and Felix accidentally book themselves onto a gay airplane flight, and fit right in with the other couples. But all such references were summarily nixed by the network censors. The producers got so fed up that they filmed clips of Oscar and Felix kissing, and sent them in just to get the censors mad.
The network was so squeamish about potential “misinterpretations” of the couple that in the first season they made the middle-aged men, one still aching from a breakup, flirt with women as aggressively as college fratboys. In the first episode, “The Laundry Orgy” (September 1970), Felix and Oscar scheme to end their weekly poker game early so they can go out on a date with the giggling British-mod Pigeon Sisters, who seem to have popped in directly from a stag film. Aside from the best-buddy dynamic, the fact that they can only conceive of a date with women when both of them go together, the plot is remarkably heterosexist, with poker-playing buddies mere hindrances on the road to heterosexual toddy.
As the show progressed, the poker pals and the Pigeon Sisters were dropped, and the tension about the duo’s conflicting personal habits faded into the background. Eventually their definition as an “odd couple” depended less upon the neat/sloppy interaction than upon appearance together in all public and private events, so obviously romantic partners that their occasional heterosexual dates and separate bedrooms seemed irrelevant. In “The Princess” (September 1972), Felix is hired to photograph the Princess of Luxembourg (Jean Simmons). Oscar and the Princess share a mutual attraction, but the walls of royal security make him despair of ever seeing her again. Then Felix receives an invitation to attend a royal ball, and gets an idea: “It says here that I can bring a guest. Oscar – you’ll be my date!” So Oscar and Felix, resplendent in tuxedos, mingle among the palace elite as same-sex partners without the least embarrassment. The Princess seems taken aback by this demonstration that the two are lovers, but only because she is herself interested in Oscar.
After the initial giggling Pigeon Sister phase, Oscar and Felix develop an extraordinary interest in children. They tutor a teenage jock, act as big brothers to a reform school boy, adopt a homeless boy, restore a lost infant to its mother, help Oscar’s homeless niece deliver her baby, and coach pee wee football. This domesticity helped The Odd Couple move beyond the sophomoric humor of Neil Simon’s hetero-sex farce, and sealed the duo’s popularity among adolescents.
Of 114 episodes, only fourteen concern Oscar or Felix seeking heterosexual romance, and eleven involve nurturing children or adolescents. Most of the remaining episodes show the couple acting as domestic partners: going on cruises and retreats together, relating anecdotes about how they first met, or helping friends sort through their romances. The romantic implication of their relationship is never far from the surface. For instance, in “Being Divorced Means Never Having to Say I Do” (December 1971), Oscar’s ex-wife Blanche announces that she is getting remarried. Oscar is delighted at the prospective liberation from alimony payments, but Felix objects (literally, during the ceremony!). He protests that Blanche is obviously not in love with her fiancé.
Oscar: [Sarcastically.] What is love, Dear Abby?
Felix: Love is that feeling between two people, a man and a woman. [Pause.] It doesn’t have to be a man and a woman. [Pause.] It could be a man and a dog, or a dog and a cat, or a. . .a bunny. [Pause]. Love is that intense, vital, passionate feeling one person has for another.
As Felix attempts to describe the romantic love that would justify a permanent monogamous commitment rather than a simple friendship, it is curious that he doesn’t make love exclusively heterosexual, as so many people still do today. His pause after “it doesn’t have to be a man and a woman” followed by an incoherent ramble about pets suggests that he has thought of another form of romantic love, one that he dares not speak aloud. Oscar agrees that he has a “intense, vital, passionate” feeling for Felix, but it is certainly not hate, and it is too passionate to be simple friendship.
The theme song had lyrics, never aired, that emphasize what gay viewers knew all along, that the two were literally in love, sharing a passion deep enough to withstand their conflicting personalities, their trivial pursuit of women, and the stares of passersby:
No matter where they go, they are known as the couple.
They’re never seen alone, so they’re known as the couple.
Their habits, I confess, none can guess with the couple. . .
Don’t you find, when love is blind, it’s kind of odd?