Audiences, young and old, absolutely adore him. A sentiment he quickly credits to his years starring opposite Jack Klugman, still a close friend, in TV's "The Odd Couple." So how does one of theater's most loved actors end up starring (at the Theater at Madison Square Garden) as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol? "I have to pay the rent!" laughs Tony Randall. Actually, he means the theater rent and actors and directors' salaries for his "first love," the National Actor's Theater, which this spring will revive The Gin Game. "It's hard to believe it's really happened,"said Randall during a rehearsal break at Christmas Carol. "I thought, 'It'll happen. It'll happen.' Then I realized if I didn't start it, I wouldn't live to see it." Randall started writing proposals as early as 1946! "When I got out of the army, I went to the unions, since as anon-profit group we'd have to be subsidized. Everyone thought it was a wonderful idea and asked how much it would cost. To this day, I'm working on the answer! I didn't know then what costs were. Today I'm finding out.
"The years passed and I was still talking. People suspected I was off my rocker. Someone said, 'You're a great talker, Tony, but you don't do anything.' That motivated me, but I never had a dime. I didn't know you needed money. I thought you just get your friends together and you have a theater."

The turning point was 1980, when Warner Bros. went after Randall to star in the landmark (the first to portray a gay character) TV sitcom, "Love, Sidney." "After The Odd Couple, I swore I'd never do another TV series." Warner wouldn't take no for an answer. "They made me an offer I couldn't refuse. They'd shoot it in New York and give me a big sum of money for my theater. Finally, I was in business!" Randall has seen his ups and a lot of downs with the NAT. Yet audiences have stuck by him. Critics finally gave him his overdue due with his theater's revivals of Timon Of Athens and Inherit The Wind. But Randall still has a goal. "I want a year-round acting company," he said. "I want to hold on to good people. Now I can't pay what they deserve, but they work in great plays with great directors. The problem is as soon as someone makes it, they're offered TV or movies. It's security. If I could give more security, I could compete better."

Randall's story has as upbeat an ending as that classic of the Christmas season he's appearing in opposite Ben Vereen. Through all the drubbing, he maintained his vision. "The stars still want to work with the NAT. I'm talking major stars from every medium. To me, an actor's an actor. There's no difference between a TV, movie, and stage actor. I've seen the worst acting in the world on Broadway! What's the difference if an actor works on a sound stage or a Broadway stage? Box office, that's the difference!"

Key Subjects: 
Tony Randall, A Christmas Carol; National Actors Theater
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).