Most people know Oscar Madison as a character in ‘The Odd Couple,’ but one Dallas woman knew him as Dad
Several years ago, Pam Gerber was sitting in the Wyly Theatre when it suddenly occurred to her: “I feel like I’m sitting in my dad’s living room.”
That’s because Dallas Theater Center was, at the time, staging a production of Neil Simon’s stage play, The Odd Couple. And Gerber’s father, Roy, was the inspiration for Oscar Madison, one of the two main characters in Simon’s play.
Although The Odd Couple began its life as a play in 1965, it was turned into a movie with a later sequel. That was followed by several TV shows, the most recent a current CBS Thursday night entry starring Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon.
Pam and her partner, Suzanne Slonim, moved to Dallas from California in 2000. Suzanne had been offered several positions around the country, but the couple chose Dallas because they were immediately drawn to the city’s active LGBT community.
Gerber’s parents were from New York where Roy became a talent agent after World War II. In the 1950s, the family moved to Las Vegas where he booked talent, including Frank Sinatra, for the casinos.
Pam’s parents separated in the early ’60s, and her father moved to California where he joined General Artists Corp., which managed The Beatles, The Mamas and The Papas and a variety of other musicians.
About the same time, Neil Simon’s brother, Danny, had broken up with his wife, so Danny moved into Roy’s West Hollywood home off the Sunset Strip.
“He went from one dysfunctional marriage to another,” Pam said of her father’s new living arrangement.
She said the two men moved in together partly out of economic necessity, but also because neither man liked being alone.
Despite the five-year run of the 1970-75 version of the TV show, which starred Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, Pam said her father and Simon only lived together about two years.
Of all the actors who’ve portrayed Roy, Pam said Walter Matthau was the one most like him. Once, when asked how he created his character, Matthau said, “I just did Roy, and it worked out great.”
Pam said Klugman, who not only starred in the original TV show but also replaced Matthau in the original Broadway run of the show, did a good job as well.
Along the way, other actors — including Craig Ferguson, Eugene Levy, Nathan Lane and even Rita Moreno, who starred in a female version — portrayed Pam’s father.
But the worst portrayal she’s seen, she said, comes from Matthew Perry, the current CBS Oscar Madison. “He’s too angry,” Pam said, recalling her father as always being the life of the party, always doing “shtick.”
Beginning with the first TV version starring Randall as Felix, the character based on Danny Simon, Felix started to become prissy. But Pam said Simon wasn’t prissy, just anal retentive.
She said when the two golfed, Danny would take out a tape measure to see which ball was inches closer to the hole to determine who putted first.
For two men with such high handicaps, Pam said, that hardly made a difference.
Danny was a good homemaker, with skills in chores such as cooking. Pam said the spaghetti scene in the play where Felix throws the pasta against the wall actually happened.
In her father’s obituary, Pam’s brother Bill told a story about how, soon after moving in together, the two men invited friends over for dinner. Danny made a pot roast.
“My dad was late, and it got dry and Danny never forgave him,” Bill Gerber said.
The next day, Roy asked Danny what he was making for dinner that night. Simon replied, “What do you mean, cook you dinner? You never take me out to dinner. You never bring me flowers.”
But despite the way the character of Felix is being played as probably gay in the current CBS reboot of the show and even the way Randall portrayed him, Pam described both men as womanizers.
She said her father was somewhat messy, but it was more a matter of collecting things. She called it “clean clutter.”
“He had snow globes — from every city,” she said. “Hats — dozens of them. Canes.”
Pam said there was paper everywhere, but not half eaten sandwiches; he wasn’t dirty. “He knew where everything was,” she said.
Danny, who was a TV writer, began writing a play about himself and his roommate Roy. But he never got past 14 pages and instead turned the idea over to his brother, who had already had a few hits on Broadway. Neil Simon won his first Tony Award for The Odd Couple, and it was that play that established his career.
Pam said her father and Danny were quite different, but not the complete opposites Neil Simon made them out to be in the play. “He made the couple polar opposite for laughs,” she said.
Neil also changed other details. The story was moved to New York from California to appeal to a Broadway audience. He changed Oscar’s career from talent manager to sports writer, because it was easier to imagine someone in that career as being the messy one. Felix became a photographer, a more exacting career than comedy writer.
Pam said her father loved the play. “It immortalized him,” she explained.
Roy eventually remarried. In 1970, he formed a management and production company that represented talent like Bette Midler, Al Pacino and others. From 1978 to 2002, he ran Roy Gerber and Associates and managed Diahann Carroll, Arsenio Hall, Sid Caeser, Shirley Jones and others.
In 1998, Neil Simon wrote the film The Odd Couple II, which again starred Matthau and Lemmon. He gave Roy a copy of the book that included scripts from the original play and its movie sequel.
“What inevitably happens to these roommates is that the fights and squabbles that they left behind after their marital breakups suddenly resurfaced in their new relationship,” Neil Simon wrote in the copy of book that Pam now cherishes.
For the rest of his life, Roy remained friendly with both Simons. Danny died in 2005 and Roy died in 2007.
Pam and Suzanne still live in Oak Lawn and on Thursday nights, they watch the new version of The Odd Couple.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 20, 2015.