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Local News

January 20, 2013

BILL EGGERT | Oscar the Grouch: Remembering Jack Klugman

— We have lost another television icon recently. A versatile and highly respected character actor of stage, screen and television, Jack Klugman’s career spanned approximately 60 years. His performances garnered three Emmy Awards and several additional nominations. Klugman’s Broadway credits include “Golden Boy,” Gypsy” and “The Odd Couple.” His film credits include memorable performances in “12 Angry Men” (1957), “Days of Wine and Roses” (1962) and “Goodbye Columbus” (1969).

But it was on television that Klugman shone the brightest. Many remember him from his longest-running medical drama “Quincy, ME” (1976-1983). (Klugman, echoing his Quincy role, also had a real-life impact in helping to pass the Orphan Drug Act of 1983.) However, most of us remember him best as the sloppy, grouchy Oscar Madison of the classic sitcom “The Odd Couple” (1970-1975) to Tony Randall’s fastidious Felix Unger. It was Klugman and Randall’s portrayals of Oscar and Felix that best personified Neil Simon’s comic meditation of the yin and yang of two best friends forced to live together.

There was a sense of these two actors, Klugman and Randall, playing off each other to a higher level, in a rarified air that few could attain. It was like watching Larry Bird play basketball against Magic Johnson, or Arnold Palmer play golf against Jack Nicklaus. The comic timing, complemented with a few poignant moments of drama, led these two actors to rise to a higher plane not often seen in standard sitcoms. It made this Garry Marshall sitcom a must-see program for five years on network television. The show remains popular today on the retro channel MeTV.

Of course, those of us of a certain age also remember Klugman for starring roles in four of the most beloved episodes of Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” program. Klugman usually played lovable losers, down on their luck, seeking some form of redemption. My two personal favorites were “A Passage for a Trumpet” (1960), where Klugman plays Joey Crowne, a trumpet player with an alcohol problem who gets a chance to see his life where he has died (a bit like “It’s a Wonderful Life”) after attempting suicide. Another trumpet player, named “Gabe” (the angel Gabriel) shows him the folly of his ways. My other favorite episode is “In Praise of Pip” (1963) where Klugman plays a bookie who finds out his son Pip (in the Army) is dying in a hospital in Vietnam.

Regretful of not spending more time with his son when he was younger, Max Philips (Klugman) asks God to take him instead and to let Pip live.

There is a local connection with Klugman. Born in Philadelphia, Klugman migrated to the other side of the state to Pittsburgh after serving in World War II.  Bitten by the acting bug, Klugman applied to, and was accepted, into the drama department of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University). Told at one point by faculty there he would make a better truck driver than actor, Klugman nevertheless persisted at his craft, and moved onto Broadway productions, sharing an apartment with another Pennsylvanian actor: Charles Bronson.

Fast-forward to 2005. I had just moved back to Johnstown and learned that Klugman would be appearing at a book signing (his memoir “Tony and Me,” about his friendship with Randall, who had died the previous year) at a bookstore on Pittsburgh’s trendy South Side. While making plans to meet my Uncle Ronny’s family that weekend, I hit the road to Pittsburgh to meet them and Klugman, of whom I was a longtime fan.

It was a big thrill to meet Klugman, and to tell him how much I enjoyed not only “The Odd Couple,” but also those “Twilight Zone” episodes. While very gracious, the then-83-year-old actor was still dealing with the effects of throat cancer that he suffered from his 1989 surgery. That distinctive voice was barely a wispery shadow of its former self (as was he), but it was still exciting to meet one of my acting heroes from childhood.

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