Where: his apartment. 11 am.
Even if I'm at a friend's house, I'm the type of person who feels intrusive and awkward sitting around in someone else's home. So you can imagine how anxious I was when I found out that I had to interview the legend that is Tony Randall, who I had never met before, in his home. At first I was as cautious as I usually am, sitting still in my seat and not nosily looking around. But after just a few minutes, he had me feeling so welcome and comfortable that I was falling over onto his couch from laughing so hard at his jokes.
Our first topic was what many had considered to be an impossible undertaking--a place where we can regularly see classic plays performed by outstanding actors. Now in the midst of its third successful season on Broadway, the National Actors Theatre has already done works by Ibsen, Chekhov, Miller, and ol' reliable Shakespeare, and the cast lists have read like a Who's Who of Actors--Ethan Hawke, Rob Lowe, Lynn Redgrave, Martin Sheen, etc. Randall himself has starred in National productions and explains that it was "blind faith and desire and commitment" that made him determined to make his dream a reality.
"This is all I wanted, and I could devote myself, not to my career, but to what I wanted to do because I had The Odd Couple running all the time supplying me with an income. I didn't have to work, and I could do what I set out to become an actor in the first place for. Thank God for The Odd Couple.
"But from the day I became an actor, I believed in this. Our teacher, Sanford Meisner, used to talk about this sort of thing. At that time, the Group Theatre existed and was a model for us. The Group Theatre was wonderful. They had only one failing as so far as I could see, and that is that they didn’t play the classics. They were devoted to contemporary drama, and there's nothing wrong with that. They were a great acting company.
"In subsequent years, I saw the great acting companies of the world. I saw the Moscow Art Theater. I saw the Kabuki of Japan. They all came to America. I saw most of them right here in New York, and we'd all walk out and say, ‘Why aren’t we doing this? Why do we have to import the Royal Shakespeare? Not that we shouldn't, but why do they have to show us what we ain't got?'
"It's ridiculous! We're too big a country for one company to be the National. Every city in the United States of over 100,000 should have a classical repertory theater so that everybody in the city, but especially the kids, can see our heritage starting with the Greeks. How many Americans have seen a Greek tragedy? In other countries, these things are everyday.
"We've had a tremendous explosion of the arts in America, but our theaters lag behind. We think of theater as show business. We don't think of it as an art like symphony or opera or ballet that ought to be supported. There’s room for everything, but there certainly should be room for the world's greatest plays."
Randall has a whole lot more in store for the National Actors Theatre, and it is only a lack of funds which keep him from proceeding towards his goals.
"My plans are rather grandiose. Let's see if they'll come about. They all depend on money. I want to have a second theater where I have a younger company performing experimental works and new works by eager young writers," he says, smiling and pointing a finger at me. "I want to have a school, and I want to operate year-round so I can hold my company together. You can't build a great acting company when everybody leaves after six months, and then the following year you have to put the company together again. You've lost half the people, and you have to audition new people and so forth. We now operate six months a year, and to operate six months cost me seven million dollars! I want to tour, but touring is ruinously expensive. The only way you can hope to tour is that in every town you play you're under-written. But that's very much resented by the local arts organizations who feel that the touring companies then drain off the money that they might have collected.
"It's a question of raising enough money. Most of my time is spent fundraising, and that's wrong too. We should have government funds. The government should be doing this. That's something for Americans to be ashamed of. It's as if every principal of every school had to go out raising money to keep his school open. It's wrong! And if you want to know why America is lagging behind other countries these days it's that we’re not educating people properly, and we know that. We admit it. Well, let's do it right, for God's sake! Education never stops. When you graduate from school, you're just ready to begin your education. School should have given you the tools so that you are now able to educate yourself. It's not just learning to read and write and learning business skills. It's becoming a complete human being so you can function on the highest level.
"It's a tragedy what's happening in the arts in America. People don't know what's going on. We're all out there fighting for the same money. We go to the foundations. We go to corporations. They help all they can. They're good people. But no. The government should be doing this. In every other civilized country, it's taken for granted.
"If people understood that the arts mean seven billion dollars a year to New York’s economy, they wouldn't argue so much about government support of the arts because it's not support. It's investment that pays off 4 to 1. It makes money for the area. All the parking, all the restaurants, all the hotels, all the attraction. New York City lives on tourism."
Every performer in the world has to contend with criticism. Some despise reviewers and dismiss anything they say, while others claim to have no idea of what critics have said about them. But when you're an actor and the founder and chairman of an entire theatrical company the way Tony Randall is, you become very aware of snide and negative remarks. To his credit, Randall does not shoot back with any venomous words of his own, but he does believe that critics should think responsibly before passing judgment.
"Our first production was The Crucible. The notices were murderous. You'd think they would lean over backwards to welcome us. But we did 94 percent capacity on that one, and the critics have not made much difference in our box office. But there's an animus there. There's ill will. There's a brutality about people's feelings. It's cruel. This is the work of bitter, unhappy people.
"I remember when I first saw Marlon Brando, he was an unparalleled success in Streetcar. There's never been such a success. But you should read the reviews. There are certain people who are gifts from God, and you should never question a gift from God. You shouldn't criticize a Marlon Brando. You shouldn't criticize a Pavarotti. Just thank God that you are entitled to see such a thing. Even if only once in your life. This is a proof that God exists! Such miracles!'' Randall exclaims with heart-felt emotion. "And to criticize it? It hurts me that people can be so blind to God's miracles."
Even though the media has constantly referred to the company as "Tony Randall's National Actors Theatre,'' Randall is the first person to admit that he has had tremendous assistance from the folks who are helping him to keep the company going strong.
"I seek everyone's advice," he says proudly. "And then go on my own instincts!" he jokes. "No, no, no. A great many people have given me very good advice. Laura Pels and several of my board members have come up with wonderful suggestions.”
Randall's cooperative attitude also stretches into his acting philosophy, where there is no room for egotistical or coddled behavior.
"Certainly when I'm acting I listen to the director. I listen to him as if he's God. I don't believe in arguing with the director. I just take anything he says. He's the director. I generally try it through the rehearsal period and at least ten or twelve performances before I decide, 'No. I can't make that work. I'll have to change it.' But the actor's job is to make it work!
"Sometimes you can't, but don't argue at the first rehearsal and say, 'No, I can't do that!' I've seen them. 'No. That's not organic. I don't feel that. I can't do it.' Well, that's ridiculous. You do it until you feel it! Nothing's organic in the first rehearsal. It's not organic to walk around holding a script," Randall chuckles. "It comes from repetition. Until it feels as if it's second nature, as if you've always done this.
"This is what I believe acting is. I believe that acting must be totally human. Every part of the body and the face and the emotions and the heart and the lungs. Everything must be involved,” he declares, punctuating his words by swinging his limbs and bouncing in his chair. "Otherwise, I'm bored. I want to see everything moving. Not displayed. I'm not talking about that. I mean involved. This is our instrument,” Randall indicates his whole body. "This is all we've got as actors. You must develop it, and you must free it so that it responds to your emotions.
"You must also train your emotions to be very available, as they are with all us actors. They come to the surface very easily. An actor must be the child in us. Watch a dog. Watch a child. How free they are. You can read their emotions instantly. You look at Charlie Chaplin act. Or you look at a movie called Twentieth Century with John Barrymore, and you see that instrument. From the tip of his finger to the tip of his toe! Everything in constant moving arabesque. The voice! A range of two and a half octaves. All of it used for the purpose of the movie. You see that movie, and you’ll see what it means for an actor to use himself completely. You won't believe a human being can put himself through so much with such ease."
Of course an interview with Randall would not be complete without some discussion of The Odd Couple. Throughout television history, other "buddy” shows never seemed quite believable either because the talent simply was not there or the animosity between the two leads was obviously apparent. But the combination of Tony Randall and Jack Klugman clicked for audiences, and the two have since remained great friends.
When asked what it initially was that made them work so well together, Randall shrugs and says, "That's like falling in love. What is it? You can't explain that. It's chemistry. You have to love each other, but you don’t have to like each other. Jack and I always fight about everything artistic. We fight like brothers. But we're always after the same goal—to make the show better.
"Also we have exactly the same philosophy of what acting is. A great many actors are out for themselves, but the really good actors know that you should be out for the show. Make the scene work. If making it work means that the other guy gets all the laughs, then absolutely that’s the way it ought to be. Many actors are jealous if you get a laugh. They'll try to kill your laugh even though that's the reason why the scene was written--for that laugh. It's an instinct to show off and the jealousy of anyone else getting attention. Maybe that's in all of us, but the good actor learns to subdue that. And if you're not a good actor, you're a bad actor. Even if the audience loves you and everything else.
"I remember when we first were working together, Jack used to be astonished that I'd say, 'No, I shouldn't have this line. Give that line to him. The scene would be better that way.' He'd never heard of an actor doing such a thing before," Randall laughs at the memory. "But everybody comes out better if the scene works."
From his early theatrical and live television appearances to his film roles in 1960's comedy classics, and now with the National Actors Theatre, everyone knows that Randall has certainly helped to make many scenes work. But if Odd Couple reruns and the warm reception that is given to him by passersby on the streets of New York are any indication of his popularity, then it only proves that Tony Randall is still cool after all these years. AAA
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