The Odd Couple
August 20, 2012 by JoBe Cerny
Early in my career, I did a lot of plays. And I learned the play must go on, no matter what. On the day my wife and I married, we had to schedule our wedding in the morning, and our reception at noon because I had to act in the final performance of a play that evening because the theatre was sold out. The play was The Odd Couple. My wife and I decided to get married on that day because it was the first day of college spring break, and we decided to drive to Florida for our honeymoon. The whole cast came to our wedding and reception; and many of our wedding guests attended the show. As a surprise the cast showered us with rice during the curtain call and the theatre marquis was changed to read “Congratulations Eileen and JoBe!” as we drove off on our honeymoon. I never thought of us as an odd couple, but I did another production of The Odd Couple.
My next production of The Odd Couple was a few years later at Drury Lane Theartre in McCormick Place, and Sherman Hemsley, at the height of his fame in The Jeffersons television series, decided to play Felix in The Odd Couple for the entire summer. Drury Lane Producer, Tony DiSantis hired Jerry Guiteriz, who won a Tony Award as best director to direct the show. Sherman’s best friend Andre Pavon was going to play Oscar, the sport’s columnist and slob. Andre was an unusual choice for Oscar because he was much younger than Sherman. So the rest of the casting became very non-traditional, too. The Cuckoo Pigeon sisters were cast as older, eccentric, and free-spirited (Mary Best and Paula Francis). Murray the Policeman was Marvin Elkins, a huge, one-eyed actor from Los Angeles who was the size of an All-Pro Defensive End. I was cast as Roy the accountant. Louis Plante was a method actor who played the finicky Vinnie, and he had an unusual habit that he did as a ritual before each performance “to prepare”. And Gerry Castillo played Speed like an angry, aggressive, hopped up New York street merchant. All in all this was one of the wildest, wooliest, craziest productions I have ever been a part of. But, without a doubt, it was one of the most successful. We did eight shows a week for ten weeks and every single performance was sold out.
Sherman Hemsley was a really loving guy who embraced all the beliefs of the 1960’s. He believed in love. He was always happy. If you needed anything, he was right there for you. He didn’t care about money; he just loved to perform. He was the opposite of everything George Jefferson was, and that was why he made that character so funny and memorable. Sherman was great to work with. Any time I called him, he was happy to talk to me. Sherman was trusting to a fault and very tolerant. He especially liked to help his friends. Andre was an odd choice for Oscar, but when he was on, he was good. But sometimes, he didn’t put the show first. And sometimes, he made bad decisions and looked for help from the medicine cabinet. After a particularly stressful day, Andre arrived at the theatre acting edgy and a little hyperactive. So he took something to calm himself down. The show was clipping along at break-neck pace, and we were doing the card player scene. It is a smelly scene filled with food, warm beers and men smoking big stinky cigars. It was always funny, but if you were doing the scene, it sort of turned your stomach. Andre made his big entrance, and his speech pattern was very slow and his timing was way off. It seemed that the pill he took kicked in. As the scene progressed his speeches got slower and slower. When he sat next to me, he whispered, “JoBe, I’m going to barf. What should I do?” Since I had done the show so many times, I said, “Get off the stage. I’ll do your lines until you get back.” So, Andre stood up and ran for the dressing room. As he disappeared behind the drapes, we all heard the stage manager scream (The stage manager later related Andre barfed a stream in his direction). But the audience laughter covered the scream, and I said both Oscar’s lines and mine until Andre came back on stage. After the show, Andre called the cast into his dressing room and apologized for what happened. We all forgave him and did many more successful performances. Thirty years later, I am still laughing about that night.
I was reading People Magazine today, and I learned that Sherman passed away on July 24, 2012. Whenever I think of him, it makes me smile. I appreciated his talent, his friendship and his ability to forgive and forget.