-John Stamos in his eulogy for Jack Klugman
I was on vacation sailing the rocky seas of the Gulf coast when Jack Klugman died. I didn't have the proper time to write a blog about him then, but 4 weeks later I do. Like many stars of the early days of Television, he made an impression on me. I will share a few of those memories.
Much like Larry Hagman, who died last month (and I wrote a blog on), Jack Klugman was always there in some capacity for most of my life. And just like Hagman, he was a fine stage actor then character actor in movies and TV, and finally a lead in a tremendously successful sitcom, The Odd Couple, followed by a unique drama called Quincy. I will share some thoughts of my encounters with Klugman as I grew up and also add an Artist Profile separately if you wish to view that as well.
My one impression of Klugman is that he was very different than Hagman. Hagman was the good looking guy. Larger than life at times when he portrayed characters like J.R. Ewing on Dallas.
Both could be really intense in the way they played a role. But Klugman was the everyman. He would never play the role of an Astronaut or an Oil Tycoon. He played sports writers, or rogue coroners, billiard hustlers and trumpet players in dives. He really resonated with the everyman, while with Hagman he was a fascination. He showed us a world we never had access to. Klugman showed us how we look in our own world. One was a spectacle while the other was a reflection of the mirror we looked in to.
My first memory of Jack Klugman was watching The Odd Couple at my grandmothers house in the TV room, sitting on the couch with my grandmothers blind black poodle Angel. She was such a nice dog and very gentle. You could pet her all day and she just never moved but you knew she loved it. I watched many a sitcom there, as I spent a good portion of my first 10 years in that house and on that couch.
We also watched a lot of shows like Let's Make A Deal, The Price Is Right, along with a whole whack of soap operas which I never paid attention to. Except for All My Children. That is the one that still sticks in my head. In those days, everyone from teens to great grandmas, and most in between were watching All My Children.
But this blog is about Jack Klugman. Of course, I was much too young to know anything about what he had done before The Odd Couple, although he was a seasoned veteran by then. But, I think Klugman and Randall were the perfect comedy pairing, or at least they made it seem that way. Maybe they weren't actually those characters, but they made it seem that way. I love Jack Lemmon and Walter Mathau, but I never got that sense from the movie. Jack Klugman was Oscar Madison, and he made him his own.
Two single, middle aged men living together was something very foreign in those days. There was even talk the show would not air because it was perceived that it was about homosexuality. The opening they created, now famous, was formulated to stop those fears. But it made for a great situation comedy. The show was not a ratings hit, but it was very funny and classic TV. That is how I remember it, and if you watch the reruns today it still stands up.
However, as all good things come to an end, so did The Odd Couple. In 1975, after 5 years it was done. But Jack Klugman would not be out of work long. He landed in another time slot, one of my other favorite memories of 1970's TV.
I used to love the Sunday night NBC Mysteries. McMillan and Wife, Columbo, McCloud and some others, but I don't remember Quincy from those. But that is how Quincy started. Watching them in my basement with the lime green flat carpet completely worn from years of rambunctious playing. It seemed that was the place I watched them all. And I certainly watched them all. Part of the joy was that you didn't know which one you were going to get until right up to the time the opening ended. In those days, we didn't have a remote control nor something at the bottom of the screen to tell us what was on. And although there was TV Guide, and my parents and grandmother always bought it, I never read it. So, the surprise was always there. In later years, I actually collected all the TV Guides that my parents and grandmother had bought. My grandmother knew that and she saved them all for me. Whenever I went over to her house, she always gave me a shopping bag full of them.
I watched Quincy in first run and also watched the reruns everyday while in high school. I just loved them, even though they weren't terribly creative shows. Klugman really sold that character, as he always did.
There was one common thread in both the Oscar Madison and the Quincy characters. Anger, caring and frustration. Klugman could play all those at once. It is a great talent he had. It was also something he learned and honed in the very early days of his acting and television career.
"We didn't start in television. We'd been making rounds. We'd been in summer stock. We learned how to work with characters...we were stretching and we were creative. We were interested in the theater. We saw every play. I saw Streetcar From Desire 17 times....it was inspiring. I learned from it. Every penny I could get...studied, observed. And we all did. We were excited. There was no money it...We were curious. We wanted to act. And we loved it."
Jack Klugman wasn't iconic. The shows he was on were not iconic. He will never be thought of as a great actor. He was pretty good. He wont be remembered in 50 years like Brando, Deniro or Pacino. But what I can say about him is that he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. When clever sitcoms were in vogue, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bob Newhart Show, All In The Family, etc, he was on The Odd Couple. When iconic shows like McMillan And Wife, Columbo, McCloud were the biggest shows on TV, he was in Quincy. He always seemed to be in the right place at the right time to take advantage of whatever was out there.
In that way, he was just very sharp. Astute.
And he started out that way. In the 1950s when Playhouse productions started to pervade the TV airwaves, he made sure to find his way on some of the best ones. He made sure to get his foot in the door. And he never seemed to take it out.
He did the same with Rod Serling. He was in the production that helped launch Serling's career, The Velvet Alley, and then appeared 4 times in The Twilight Zone when that was one of the most popular shows on Television.
Jack Klugman played the everyman. But he played him as extraordinary, yet flawed and vulnerable. And he did it as well as anyone can. Much like Dustin Hoffman does today. That is why the audience always related to him and why he endured. At any age, at any stage, he was you. That is how I will remember him, and why I will always stop to watch an episode of The Odd Couple or Quincy or whatever he was in. He stood out in a world that the everyman usually didn't stand out.