There have not been many TV sitcoms like The Odd Couple, a comedy, based on the play and then film by Neil Simon, about two divorced roommates in New York City; not many TV good-time hours have been premised on the idea of loneliness. Fortunately, Jack Klugman, who died Monday at age 90, was not like many stars–a leading man, rough-voiced, with a face like a weathered stone, who could play hilarious comedy while giving just a hint of the soul and emotion behind a guy like blunt-talking sportswriter Oscar Madison.
That’s what Klugman did, in a long stage, movie and TV career: in roles from Twelve Angry Men to Quincy, M.E., he created weathered everymen who, through his tone and character, Klugman conveyed had been around the block–seen things, felt things, done things.
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In probably his most famous role, he took Oscar, the slovenly yin to Felix’s fussy yang, and developed him into a lasting, affecting creation (a collective project, of course, with Simon and Walter Matthau, from whom Klugman took over the Broadway role). Together with raw-nerve Felix (Klugman and Tony Randall were among the greatest sitcom pairings ever), Oscar would have been hilarious regardless. But the craggy humanity Klugman brought to his characters showed the bittersweetness Oscar tried to hide behind his blunt talk, wisecracks and cigar smoke. In the city of the Yankees, Oscar wore an underdog Mets cap, because of course he would–you gotta believe.
(Klugman died on Christmas Eve. Coincidentally, The Odd Couple was responsible for one of the most tartly funny Christmas episodes ever, in which Oscar became Scrooge in a nightmare, and his ex-wife Blanche–played on the show by real-life wife Brett Somers–has him serenaded by a singing messenger, to the tune of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen: “Season’s Greetings, Oscar boy, my alimony’s due / And if you don’t pay up real soon, I’ll have the cops on you / And you’ll spend Christmas in the clink with other bums like you.” That–and Klugman’s reaction, “You expect a tip from me for that!”–remains for whatever reason the first scene I think of when I remember the show.)
Klugman got the rare chance to bring that talent to a second hit TV show. Quincy was in many ways a standard procedural crime show, but Klugman was the difference, playing the title character as a medical examiner who not only solved crimes but felt them. Oscar Madison, though, will rightly remain Klugman’s signature role.
I dread to think how network TV might cast Oscar today; likely, he’d be either more of a blandly typical leading man or a cartoonish comic schlub. Klugman made him a man–rough around the edges, blustery, sometimes ridiculous but never a buffoon. It would be easy to suggest that they don’t make actors like Jack Klugman anymore. But really Klugman, as the greats do, made himself. RIP.
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