The recent death of celebrated playwright Neil Simon brought back a flood of memories of some of his most famous works. For sports fans, one of Simon’s characters will live on forever.
We’re talking about sloppy, grumpy sportswriter Oscar Madison, whom Simon created for the Broadway play “The Odd Couple” in 1965. The play was made into a movie that debuted in 1968, a classic TV series that ran from 1970 to 1975 and many, many revivals.
Simon was born in the Bronx and lived in Manhattan until his death at the age of 91. “The Odd Couple” was set in New York, and a memorable scene in the movie was filmed at Shea Stadium in 1967. A less-remembered scene for the TV series was filmed at Yankee Stadium in 1973.
In the movie scene, Madison (played by Walter Matthau) is watching a Mets-Pirates game from the press box. The Mets are leading 1-0 in the ninth inning, and the Pirates have the bases loaded with nobody out and Bill Mazeroski at the plate.
Another sportswriter (played by real sportswriter Heywood Hale Broun) tells Madison the Mets have no chance.
“What’s the matter?” Madison retorts. “You never heard of a triple play?”
(Matthau pronounced “heard” as “hoid” — it was supposed to be New Yawk, remember.)
Just then, the press box phone rings. The other writer answers it and tells Madison he has an “emergency” call.
Madison leaves his typewriter and takes the call with his back to the field. It’s from his fussy roommate Felix Ungar (played by Jack Lemmon), who called to tell Madison not to eat any “frankfurters” at the game because he was making franks and beans for dinner.
At that moment, Mazeroski hits into a 5-4-3 triple play.
A game-ending triple play, and Madison missed it!
“Are you crazy?” Madison yells into the phone. “Are you out of your mind? Take your frankfurters and . . . ”
And he slams down the phone (back when people still could slam down phones.)
That scene was filmed on June 27, 1967, before the Mets played the Pirates in a real game. According to the next day’s account in The New York Times — written by film and theater critic Vincent Canby — the scene took 4 1⁄2 minutes, needed a crew of 75 and cost $10,000.
According to Canby, Mazeroski lined the first pitch from Mets righthander Jack Fisher to leftfield, which didn’t help the film’s narrative. Mazeroski took the next two pitches before hitting another line drive.
Finally, on the fifth pitch, the future Hall of Famer grounded one to third for an around-the-horn triple play.
Canby reported that Mazeroski wasn’t supposed to be the batter. It was supposed to be Roberto Clemente. According to Canby, Clemente felt the $100 fee he would receive was an “insult” and refused to participate. Later accounts said Clemente didn’t want to be shown hitting into a triple play.
Veteran Newsday sports copy editor Greg Gutes, who attended the filming and the subsequent 5-2 Mets win as part of a crowd of 18,167 on a Tuesday afternoon, recalled in a 2009 article that “the fans were asked to go crazy when the triple play was turned.”
Also in the stands that day was future Mets broadcaster Howie Rose.
“I think I can say we cut school that day,” Rose said this past week. “One thing I remember when they filmed that scene: Buddy Harrelson jumping onto Jack Fisher’s shoulders after they got Mazeroski to hit into the triple play.”
Rose’s memory, as usual, is spot on: You can see the Mets infielders celebrating over Madison’s right shoulder as he is bellowing at Ungar in the expertly shot scene by Simon’s longtime Broadway and movie director, Gene Saks.
Nothing in Simon’s backstory tells why he chose to shoot the scene at Shea Stadium instead of Yankee Stadium. Both were losing teams in 1967 — the 6-year-old Mets went 61-101, the post-dynasty Yankees 72-90.
“I think a lot of it has to do with timing,” Rose said. “The Yankees were almost passé when ‘The Odd Couple’ movie was being filmed. The Yankees has absolutely bottomed out and the Mets, they were a relatively new team; they were hip, they were young, they appealed to the kids and they appealed, I think, to a wide cross-section of fans, some of whom would never allow themselves to root for the Yankees . . .
“Even in the Mets’ infancy, when they had some terrible teams, they still somehow caught the imagination of most New York baseball fans. It was, if nothing else, a smart little piece of marketing — maybe that’s not the right word — but certainly a pretty savvy move on Neil Simon’s part to latch on to what really was the majority team in town.”
Because Madison was a sports columnist for the New York Herald, sports was a huge part of the classic ABC-TV series version as well. Madison was played on TV by Jack Klugman and often was shown wearing a backwards Mets cap with sports memorabilia on the wall of his bedroom and offices.
The Yankees finally got their due in a 1973 episode when Felix (now played by Tony Randall and with his last name spelled “Unger”) followed Madison around New York with a 16-millimeter camera to film a documentary.
Madison is shown entering the press gate at the first Yankee Stadium, walking behind home plate carrying a briefcase while a group of Yankees are warming up, and leaving the press gate, where he throws his jacket over Unger’s camera.
Unlike fictitious Newsday sports columnist Ray Barone of the hit 1996-2005 show “Everybody Loves Raymond” — who seemed to always be home and never worked — Madison actually was shown working as a sportswriter during the movie and TV series.
Simon didn’t have much to do with the TV version of his creation, although in the first season, it was titled “Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.”
Simon did appear as himself in a 1974 episode. He did not have a line. His work spoke for itself. And sports fans are thankful for that.