R.I.P. Odd Couple and Quincy actor Jack Klugman

R.I.P. Odd Couple and Quincy actor Jack Klugman

Jack Klugman, a character actor who became a midlife TV star with two consecutive hit series to his credit, has died at the age of 90. A product of the streets from Philadelphia, he was one of the six children of a family of Russian immigrants. He studied drama at what is now Carnegie Mellon University, though he later told interviewers that he only got in because it was 1945, World War II was still going on, and there the school was desperate for male applicants. (Klugman had been in the Army himself, but was discharged for health reasons.) He hit New York two years later, where he roomed with another struggling young actor, Charles Bronson, and eventually landed a role on Broadway, as an understudy in Mister Roberts. There, he was befriended by the play’s star, Henry Fonda, whom Klugman later credited with helping him secure his first notable movie role, as Juror #5 in 12 Angry Men.

In 1952, Klugman had a bigger role in another legendary Broadway production, as Ethel Merman’s lover in the musical Gypsy. (The producers must have really liked his acting, since, after they heard Klugman’s voice, they largely reconceived the character as a non-singing role and started cutting his songs instead of replacing him with someone who could sing.) But his biggest break onstage turned out to be a job replacing Walter Matthau as Oscar Madison, bachelor slob extraordinaire, in the original run of The Odd Couple.  In 1970, when the play was adapted into a TV sitcom, Klugman was tapped to co-star alongside Tony Randall, who played the prissy neat-freak Felix Unger. 

The series, which ran for five seasons, gave Klugman the chance to redefine himself as a comedian while creating a new TV type, the male divorcee as unkempt man-about-town, playing the field with the ladies and entertaining his poker pals in his man cave. He won two Emmys for his performance. (Actress and Match Game regular Brett Somers, who Klugman married in 1953, appeared in the recurring role of Oscar’s ex-wife.) His and Randall’s teamwork on the series made them all but inseparable in the public’s mind, and after the show was canceled, they reunited onstage in a benefit performance of The Odd Couple in 1991 and co-starred in another Neil Simon play, The Sunshine Boys, in 1997. (In 1973, they even recorded an album, The Odd Couple Sings.) In 2005, Klugman published a memoir, Tony And Me: A Story Of Friendship.

In 1976, Klugman starred in the procedural drama Quincy, about a Los Angeles Medical Examiner. The show’s conventional nature may have partly obscured its historical importance: Klugman and series creator Glen A. Larson got to the forensic-detective genre before either Thomas Harris or the CSI team. In its day, Quincy was also one of those shows that made headlines by spinning prime-time melodrama from the social issues of the day. The most notorious example of this is probably the instantly infamous “punk kills!” episode, “Next Stop, Nowhere.” Another episode earned Klugman an invitation to testify before the House Subcommittee on Health and Environment. 

Before striking gold, Klugman worked steadily onstage and on TV, appearing on such dramatic anthology series as Playhouse 90, Kraft Theatre, and The United States Steel Hour, as well as four different episodes of The Twilight Zone. (The best-remembered of those is probably “A Game Of Pool,” which let him make use of the experience he’d soaked up as a young pool shark in the billiard halls of South Philly.) He had guest spots on The Naked City, The Untouchables, The Fugitive, Ben Casey, and The Defenders, for which he won an Emmy. He also starred in the short-lived 1964-65 series Harris Against The World and the 1971 TV movie Who Says I Can’t Ride A Rainbow! (He’s also said to have put in an uncredited appearance as one of the guys in the helicopter who rescue Larry Hagman and his bottle in the pilot for I Dream Of Jeannie.) In movies, he played one of Jim Brown’s partners in crime in the heist movie The Split (1968), one of Frank Sinatra’s colleagues on the NYPD in The Detective (1968), Ali MacGraw’s father in Goodbye, Columbus (1969), and a degenerate gambler in Two-Minute Warning (1976).

By the time he was well into his tenure on Quincy, Klugman was living large, middle-aged-Philly-guy style, and in 1980, TV cameras recorded his delight at the successful racing career of a horse he had raised, Jaklyn Klugman, which came in third at the Kentucky Derby. He starred in the sitcom You Again? for two seasons, starting in 1986. Klugman, who was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1974, had surgery on his vocal cords in 1989, which left him with a muted, raspy voice, but he rallied and continued to act, including guest appearances on Diagnosis Murder, Third Watch, Crossing Jordan, and the reboot of The Outer Limits, and the 1996 movie Dear God. His final screen performance was in the 2010 horror film Camera Obscura.

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