Friday, 30 October 2015

Murray and Al

Al Molinaro never struck me as being an actor. He was that genuine on camera.

He was a likeable lump of a guy who was perfect in The Odd Couple, which proved in reruns to be one of the best-written and acted sitcoms of all time. The show had to overcome the almost impossible—being inevitably compared to the terrific movie it was based on. It succeeded. The casting was flawless. The TV show included the same poker-playing buddy characters the movie did but, eventually, Molinaro’s Murray was the only one left. The writers found enough in Molinaro’s camera presence to make his character more than one-dimensional.

Molinaro was fortunate enough to appear in the supporting casts of two monster comedies of the ’70s. He moved on to the cast of Happy Days.

Let’s pass on a few newspaper clippings about Molinaro, who died this week at the age of 96. This is an unbylined story, published on this date 44 years ago, not too many weeks after The Odd Couple began its run on TV. His background is quite surprising.
Bungled Assignments Pay Off for TV Actor
Al Molinaro has a generous-size nose, brown eyes as guileless as a puppy's and the overall aspect of a man who keeps taking wooden nickels, misses buses by seconds and gets a busy signal whenever he dials the telephone.
A born loser. A schlemiel.
Al, who plays Murray the Cop on the ABC's "The Odd Couple," has been acting only three years.
No johnny - come - lately to Hollywood, he arrived in lotus land 20 years ago on tour with a four-piece combo, playing piano and guitar. Fancying the idea of doubling in brass as an actor, he remained when the other sidemen split the scene.
He landed a $75-a-week job as staff producer at a local TV outlet, made good contacts, and throe years later quit the job and began packaging and selling his own video shows. Business was good for six years, and when it petered out he took the plunge into commercial TV as a performer. His first effort, selling frying pans on a Joe Pyne show. "It's Your Nickel." was pure disaster.
"It was live television." he recalls, "and if you goofed once there weren't any second chances. I was kicked off the show and out of the studio."
Al also bungled his next assignment, a foreign car commercial. But he was so funny the producer decided to play the blurb for laughs. The commercial ran two years. In another comedy of errors, he landed his first acting job in a TV series when the casting director of "Green Acres" hired him for a role, thinking he was somebody else. His next break came when the producer of "Get Smart" saw Al in a commercial and signed him to play Agent 44. He appeared in six episodes.
To polish his thesping techniques, Al enrolled in a Hollywood school of acting. While performing in one of the school plays, he attracted the attention of writer - producer Garry Marshall. After the performance. Garry went backstage and told Al he'd keep him in mind when he cast "The Odd Couple."
When Garry began auditioning performers to play the poker players in the series. Al sent him a series of blowups of himself in various poses around a poker table. The hint was obvious — and it worked. He was hired as Murray, the Cop.
King Features interviewed Molinaro a couple of times. First up, a piece that ran in newspapers around May 31, 1973. The photo accompanied the story.
Al Molinaro's Finest' Role Extends Security

TV Key, Inc.
NEW YORK (KFS)— The Jewish cop—one of New York's Finest—on ABC's "The Odd Couple" is an Italian from Milwaukee.
Al Molinaro, who is the perfect third party foil for Tony Randall and Jack Klugman on the series, is one of those pleasant success stories that offer hope to all who are approaching the middle-age crisis. Al changed careers about four years ago and, as a featured player in a hit TV series, is now relatively secure in his new profession.
"And if it goes bad, I'll find something else," said Molinaro, laughing. Even as "The Odd Couple" begins its fourth season, he is not completely convinced it has all happened.
Despite the fact that he started acting but a few years ago, Al has lived in Hollywood since the early '50s, when he arrived as part of a 4-piece musical combo touring the country. "I liked California, so I stayed," is his only explanation for abandoning the tour.
He landed a job at a local TV station for a lot less money than he earned as a musician, but he stuck with it for three years learning all he could about the local TV operation. Then he went out on his own and began packaging his own ideas. He developed a business which netted him almost $100,000 a year, but each show he sold was either a hit and stolen, or a flop and cancelled. As a result after some seasons of lucrative returns, the business began to falter and Al looked about for something new.
Since most aspiring actors in Hollywood still haven't heard that this is the era of the average looking guy, Al decided to offer his average, man-in-the-street face around for TV commercials.
His first shot was a live spot selling drying pans, and he was not only fired by tossed out of the studio. His second job was also a disaster, but some astute producer thought it might work as a funny commercial, and the spot played for two years, giving Al his first delightful experience with residuals.
After several years of making a buck in commercials, Al decided he should reinvest some of his money and actually take acting lessons. He was spotted by Harvey Lembeck, who told him he had a lot of natural talent. Lembeck invited Al to join his acting lab which specializes in improvisations.
"That was the turning point for me," said Al. "I really found out what it was all about. Harvey runs it as a labor of love, yet anybody who has spent time in the group not only learns his craft but is seen by producers. That's how Garry Marshall first saw me work, and he came back to tell me he'd keep me in mind for a TV series."
Then Al heard that Marshall was in charge of "The Odd Couple" and was looking for types to appear in the famous poker game scene, which established the characters in the original play and was expected to do the same for the TV version. Al called to remind Marshall about their first meeting.
"I couldn't get past the front office," Al said, "but I sent him pictures and notes reminding him. I finally got through. And I got the job."
Al is the only poker player still with the series. The chemistry he created while working with his co-stars was recognized, and he was signed on as a regular. Despite his success playing a New York cop, Al was on his first visit to the big town when I met him. He was bringing his family East for a vacation, and had come ahead hoping to line up enough commercials to cover expenses.
"It's a great town?" Al said. "And everybody recognizes me."
Molinaro had the unenviable job of coming into a sitcom and replacing a well-liked character. How well did he pull it off? Judging by the fact most of the headlines in his obits refer to his role on Happy Days, I’d say pretty well. This column is from Dec. 22, 1976.
For Molinaro, 'Happy Days' Return

TV Key, Inc.
HOLLYWOOD—(KFS)—Needing an exit line on "Happy Days," the fat Italian, Al Molinaro, yells, "Garry, give me a clap-off line" to producer Garry Marshall. Later, during the filming of the show before an audience, Molinaro, as Alfred the new drive-in owner this season replacing Japanese comic Pat Morita, uses the Marshall line and gets a big laugh as he departs.
By now Molinaro knows almost anything Garry Marshall gives him will work. When Al portrayed Murray the poker-playing cop on "The Odd Couple," Marshall always fed him boffo lines. Marshall never had any trouble pegging Al.
When Al protested a line one day as being "hard" during a reading, Marshall urged the staff writers to scan the pudgy actor. "Look at him," said Garry. "He's not a hard man. Write for him, don't worry about the character."
The best thing about Al Molinaro is that he doesn't fit the image of a Hollywood actor. He is the garageman down the street, the Italian minding the store. The body is full of pasta, and the face with the expansive nose can turn dark with fury or light up a gloomy room. On camera beside neatly proportioned actors, Al is reality. Therefore he can say almost anything and be believable.
Hearing about his past, it's apparent Molinaro can do almost anything. Barely out of school in Kenosha, Wis. Al, 17, went to work in a bedspring factory, and soon led the employes out on strike to protest the terrible working conditions. Al didn't know what he was getting into. The strike lasted a month. But the workers stuck by the kid and won.
Next to last in a family of 10 children, Al watched his dad work day and night to keep the family going, but drove his father crazy when he quit a job as assistant city manager to hit the road as a guitar player in a 4-piece band.
Twenty-five years ago, Molinaro the musician hit Hollywood and decided to try acting. Perhaps he was a shade too handsome in his youth. His face needed seasoning. No one would hire the Italian. A girl hit Al with the truth, "How can you get what you never were?"
Television was in its infancy during Al's rounds of rejection, so he decided he would be a TV producer, and muscled his way into an independent station manager's office. Lying about his credits, Al walked out with a $75-a-week job as producer. His tenacity had worn down the manager.
"I moved around the Sunset Boulevard studio with a clipboard under my arm to see what the business was about," Al said. Taking the worst air time available, Molinaro put on a 2-hour square dance party, a show that ran two years. He brokered the air time, fought off an agency man who wanted kickbacks, and got so involved in the rat race his emotions took over. It was time to clear out.
The Molinaro face, and his anger rising up during the reading of a foreign car commercial, changed Al's life not many years ago. Soon that Italian face under a chef's cap appeared on Los Angeles billboards for the gas company. The "Get Smart" producers spotted the billboard and hired Al for six episodes as Agent 44. A "Green Acres" series job followed.
Actor Harvey Lembeck caught his TV roles on the air and asked Al to join Lembeck's comedy improvisational class: "You're a funny guy, but I don't think you know what you're doing."
Al didn't, but he learned with Lembeck. Penny Marshall, Garry's sister of "Laverne & Shirley" fame, was in the class. One night brother Garry came to pick up his sister and watched the final improvisation of the night by Molinaro. It was a rocker, and Marshall came up to congratulate Al: "You are terrific."
Al thought "The Odd Couple" producer was merely another actor, but when auditions for the role of a poker player on "Odd Couple" came up, Al sent Marshall a huge board of Molinaro photos sitting around a poker table. Marshall has never mentioned the promo, but Al's job on the Tony Randall-Jack Klugman comedy speaks for itself.
Al was part of Happy Days when there was far too much applause and cheering from the studio audience greeting every arrival and characters from the ‘50s ridiculously wearing 1970s hairstyles (“Cut it? I’m a star!”). While Happy Days is accused of being the quintessential show that jumped the shark, and despite a best-forgotten spin-off, shark-jumping is something Al Molinaro’s career never did.

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