27 December 2012
American television actor who played Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple and the eponymous medical examiner in Quincy, M.E.
Best known for the characters he played in two television series, The Odd Couple and Quincy, M.E., Jack Klugman always preferred the intimacy of theatre or live television to a film set, on which one might never meet some of the other cast members. His mentor was Henry Fonda, who taught him that an actor can never lie and that he has a duty to help the other person on the stage, no matter what, rather than simply show off. “I’m never going to retire," he once declared. “I want to die on stage saying, ‘The name of the murderer is. . .’ and then drop dead."
Apart from his wives and two sons, the central relationship in Klugman’s life was with his fellow actor Tony Randall, his co-star in the 1970s TV sitcom The Odd Couple, whom he credited with transforming his private character as well as being a sensitive actor and steadfast work colleague, companion and friend. In 2004 Klugman delivered the eulogy at Randall’s memorial service and in 2005 he published a memoir, Tony and Me: A Story of Friendship, in which he celebrated his profound love and respect for Randall.
Born in Philadelphia, Jacob Joachim Klugman was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father was a house painter and his mother a hat maker. Both parents were physically and emotionally aloof from Jack, his four brothers and his sister. “I was the only Jew in an all-Italian neighborhood and spoke as if I had just left the company of Tony Soprano," he wrote in his 2005 memoir.
During the Second World War, Klugman served in the US Army. After returning home, he lost his savings of $3,000 on a baseball bet and, still owing money to the bookie, he drove to Pittsburgh and applied for acting school at Carnegie Tech, which accepted him because the war had led to a shortage of male actors. After two years of study, Klugman moved to New York City, where he shared a room with another budding actor, Charles Bronson. Both men were forced to sell blood in order to feed themselves. Nonetheless, Klugman spent every extra cent he earned on watching plays. He saw Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire 17 times: he saw the second act ten times — wandering in during the interval and finding an empty seat or standing — and paid to see it seven times. He also saw Lee J. Cobb in Death of a Salesman five times. His first professional job was in 1950 understudying the part of “Doc" in the Mister Roberts road company at the Colonial Theatre in Boston, with Henry Fonda in the lead. “I was 28-years old and every night I couldn’t believe it. When the show was over I would say ‘I just acted with Henry Fonda’."
He made his Broadway debut in Golden Boy in 1952, the same year that he had his first film role, in a lowbudget western. But it was in the early days of live television that he made his mark. “There was nothing in the world like the early days of television," he once reflected. “It combined everything I love about the theatre with the potential to reach millions of people... It was the most exciting time in my life."
In 1955 he first played alongside Tony Randall in an episode of CBS’s Appointment with Adventure. Klugman played a gangster to Randall’s professor and later recalled that “gangsters were my bread and butter for years".
In 1957 he performed the only film role he would always cherish, as one of the jurors in sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men. While he always regarded film as a less stimulating and satisfying medium than theatre and television, in 12 Angry Men he got to act alongside “eleven of the finest actors that I have ever worked with", including Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, and Martin Balsam. They rehearsed for two weeks as if it were a play and “everybody was there every minute of every day... It was a wonderful experience and the only good experience I ever had in film."
Klugman was cast in the original Broadway production of the musical Gypsy in 1959, opposite Ethel Merman, whom he admired and adored. Songs written for his character had to be dropped because of his underwhelming singing voice, but the run lasted for two years and Klugman was nominated for a Tony Award in 1960.
It was in 1965 that Klugman first played what turned out to be his greatest role, that of the slobbish sports writer Oscar Madison, who is forced to share an apartment with the anallyretentive fellow-divorcé Felix Unger in Neil Simon’s comedy The Odd Couple. Walter Matthau had created the role on Broadway and Klugman stepped into his shoes, though for a far lower wage. He received good notices and the play was still packing in audiences, but he quit when the producers refused to give him a $500 raise.
Four years later, he played Oscar Madison again, this time in London, opposite Victor Spinetti. In 1970 he was chosen to reprise the role in the pilot for a TV series based on the play, and this time Felix Unger, the other half of the odd couple, was played by Tony Randall, who had done it in summer stock.
When Klugman had first played Oscar on Broadway, he had insisted on making the character more empathetic, while Neil Simon wanted him to play it exclusively for laughs. Similarly, in the TV series, his attitude towards the scripts was “it’s all funny, but where’s the love scene". The Odd Couple was a “bromance" before the term was coined. It ran for 114 episodes from 1970 to 1975, the first 15 of which Klugman said “stunk" until they switched from one camera to three and replaced a laughtrack with a recording in front of a live studio audience.
It was not much loved by the network that broadcast it. Every year ABC cancelled the show, but recommissioned it in the summer once the re-runs had brought in new viewers. Klugman’s agent eventually negotiated a lucrative deal for both stars with Paramount Television, guaranteeing them a sizable share of the profits. Klugman boasted that he sent his kids to college on the back of it. In addition, both actors were nominated five times for Emmy Awards, Klugman winning twice and Randall once.
Klugman often explained the irony that his and Randall’s on screen personae were the opposite of their characters in real life. Klugman was a loner who never felt comfortable in his own skin, whereas Randall was socially confident and easy-going. Klugman believed that Randall taught him how to unbutton himself emotionally and expose his vulnerability. Except for the first couple of days on The Odd Couple, when Randall objected to sharing a limousine with Klugman because he smoked heavily, he said “we never had an argument in 50 years". In 1973 they even recorded an offbeat album with the London Festival Orchestra and Chorus called The Odd Couple Sings. The next year Klugman began treatment for throat cancer.
Klugman played Dr R. Quincy, M.E., in 148 episodes of Quincy, M.E. from 1976 to 1983. A doughty, assertive Los Angeles County medical examiner with keen moral principles, who was always up against the bureaucratic intransigence of his superiors and the Los Angeles Police Department as well as murderers and other criminals, Quincy would seek to prove in each episode that a death seemingly attributable to natural causes was in fact the result of foul play, acting more as a detective than a medical examiner.
Quincy, M.E. earned Klugman four Emmy nominations and was an immensely successful export to the UK (where it has played on ITV, BBC and cable TV), Australia, Japan and Germany. In 2008 Klugman sued Universal Studios and NBC Television for failing to provide accountings of the revenue of the series, of which he was entitled to a quarter of the net profits. Despite Quincy, M.E. grossing $242 million in its lifetime, Universal reported a $66.4 million net loss on the show. The lawsuit was settled in 2010, though the scale of any remuneration Klugman may have received remains confidential.
When Klugman’s throat cancer returned with a vengeance in 1989, requiring the excision of a vocal cord, it was Randall who coaxed him back onto the stage in 1991 with a one-off benefit performance of The Odd Couple, which raised $1.2 million for Randall’s Broadway repertory company, the National Actors Theatre. After six months of intensive therapy his voice was still a hoarse whisper, but Klugman was encouraged by Randall whose eyes lit up every time his co-star raised a laugh from the audience. Klugman said in his memoir that “it was the most glorious night of my life". He subsequently joined Randall in productions of Three Men on a Horse, The Sunshine Boys and Inherit the Wind.
In the early 1950s Klugman had met a Canadian-American actress called Brett Somers, trained at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, who was playing in some of the same television shows as he was. They married in 1953, had two sons, and performed together in four stage plays. She played Oscar Madison’s ex-wife Blanche in various episodes of The Odd Couple and although she and Klugman separated in 1974, they never divorced. Klugman lived with Peggy Crosby, the ex-wife of one of Bing Crosby’s sons, from 1988 until his death, but he did not marry her until 2008, after Somers’s death.
Outside of acting, Klugman had a passion for the racetrack and was the owner of a racehorse, Jaklin Klugman, which finished third in the 1980 Kentucky Derby. “He made $480,000," Klugman once said. “And he only cost me four million."
He is survived by his wife Peggy and by two sons from his previous marriage.
Jack Klugman, actor, was born on April 27, 1922. He died on December 24, 2012, aged 90
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