‘The Odd Couple’: Mickey Rooney Almost Played an Iconic Main Character

When it was on the air in the 1970s, ABC’s sitcom The Odd Couple (technically entitled Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple) was one of the most popular TV shows of its time.

Over the course of its five seasons, The Odd Couple received several Primetime Emmy Award nominations for outstanding comedy. Oscar Madison was one of the show’s two lead characters. And while Madison was played by actor Jack Klugman, the show’s creators almost cast a different actor in the iconic role.

‘The Odd Couple’ first premiered on September 24, 1970

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The Odd Couple was originally a 1965 Broadway play. In 1968, Neil Simon — who penned the play itself — oversaw a movie remake. The show was a blockbuster success, with Box Office Mojo reporting that it earned more than $44 million back then. Based on that success, the studio executives at ABC decided to capitalize off of the play’s popularity and relaunch The Odd Couple as a sitcom.

The series premiered in September 1970, and would run for a total of 114 episodes. The Odd Couple follows two friends, Felix Unger (played by Tony Randall) and Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman). The former is depicted as a very tidy, organized person, and the latter is shown as a casual, messy sportswriter.

When Unger gets divorced, he moves in with Madison. The roommate dynamic and their wildly opposite personalities form the basis of much of the show’s running gags. In the series finale, which aired in March 1975, Unger remarries. 

Mickey Rooney was one of Randall and Klugman’s contemporaries 

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Actor Mickey Rooney moved in similar Hollywood circles as Klugman and Unger. He was one of the highest-paid actors of the ’30s and ’40s, and was also no stranger to theatrical stage work. 

“Rooney made his Broadway debut in 1979 in the successful Sugar Babies, a nostalgic tribute to burlesque, and continued to perform in popular musical theatre productions, appearing in the title role of The Wizard of Oz in 1998,” reports Britannica. Rooney even acted in the theatrical version of The Odd Couple in Las Vegas. 

This crossover between acting, stage productions, and Broadway specifically made Rooney a potential option when the writers of The Odd Couple were looking for someone to play the part of  

Rooney almost got cast in ‘The Odd Couple’ as Oscar Madison

Actor Mickey Rooney
Actor Mickey Rooney | Amanda Edwards/WireImage

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“When it came time to shoot the pilot for The Odd Couple series, Tony actually wanted Mickey Rooney to play the part of Oscar,” explains Klugman in an interview published by pop culture historian Garry Berman on Medium. “He had done the play with Mickey in summer stock and they had also gotten great notices.”

However, Klugman says that Gary Marshall, who was developing the sitcom for the TV network, specifically wanted Klugman to be the character. “[He] fought for me,” says Klugman. “I figured it was because he had seen me on Broadway.”

The end result is the show that audiences got, and some critics think it was for the better. Marshall himself explained: “I was very clear about my choice of Tony and Jack. The final decision came after a few potentially disastrous casting considerations such as Mickey Rooney in the part of Oscar and Dean Martin as Felix. But from the moment I envisioned Jack and Tony in the parts, there was never a second thought.”

“It’s hard to imagine the tone being the same with Rooney as Oscar,” agreed the critics at MeTV.