Jack Klugman, Sloppy Half of TV’s ‘The Odd Couple,’ Dies at 90

Jack Klugman appears in a 1971 episode of 'The Odd Couple.' Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images Close

Jack Klugman appears in a 1971 episode of 'The Odd Couple.' Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

Close
Open

Jack Klugman appears in a 1971 episode of 'The Odd Couple.' Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

Jack Klugman, who played the sports- loving, slobby-living Oscar Madison on television and stage in “The Odd Couple” across from his close friend Tony Randall, has died. He was 90.

Klugman, a resident of Malibu, California, died yesterday in Los Angeles, the Associated Press reported, citing his son Adam. He had surgery for throat cancer in 1989, then worked to rehabilitate his acting voice.

Raised in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood, Klugman carried a no-nonsense persona into roles as an agonized juror in the movie “12 Angry Men,” as a headstrong medical examiner in the TV series “Quincy, M.E.” and, most famously, as half of “The Odd Couple,” which ran on ABC from 1970 to 1975.

Klugman played the divorced, cigar-chomping, laundry- tossing sports columnist who, in a moment of charity, opened his apartment to his precise, finicky, hypochondriac photographer friend, Felix Unger, who needs a home after being expelled by his wife. They clashed -- over women and money, food and furniture, habits and style -- through five seasons and 114 episodes.

Klugman said the fact that he and Randall resembled their characters in real life helped the show succeed, as did their training as stage actors. Many of the show’s funniest scenes were improvised.

“Tony and I never saw the show as merely a frolic, but rather as a portrait of friendship,” Klugman wrote in his 2005 memoir, “Tony and Me.”

Friendship With Randall

Randall’s death in 2004, ending a 35-year friendship and collaboration, prompted Klugman to write his book. He credited Randall with helping him survive throat cancer in 1989 and in making him a more open person and a better father.

For each of the five seasons of “The Odd Couple,” Klugman and Randall both received nominations for Emmy Awards as best leading actor. Klugman won in 1973 and 1971. Randall won in 1975.

The series was facing a quick demise after the first 15 episodes, all but one of which “stunk,” Klugman said.

He and Randall argued for three cameras instead of one, and a live audience instead of a laugh track, and their public pleas produced an outpouring of letters to the network. The effort saved the show, although it always drew poor ratings and risked cancellation before each of its five seasons, Klugman said.

Klugman won his first Emmy for his role in a 1964 episode of “The Defenders.”

He also was nominated four times for Emmys for his starring role in “Quincy, M.E.,” which ran on NBC from 1976 to 1983. Klugman played the title character, a Los Angeles medical examiner who did his own detective work.

‘My Best Friend’

“Acting is my best friend,” Klugman said on CNN’s “Larry King Live” in 2001. “It always has been. It got me out of where I was living, got me an education. I met wonderful people, I got respect, I got identity.”

Jacob Klugman was born April 27, 1922, in Philadelphia, the youngest of six children. He was called “Jake” while growing up in what he described as “a pretty tough neighborhood.”

“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 memoir.

In 1945, back home after serving in the U.S. Army, Klugman lost $3,000, his entire savings, betting on baseball. To escape the “thugs” trying to collect on the debt, Klugman wrote, he drove to Pittsburgh to apply for acting school at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University), figuring he could make money as a waiter or busboy while learning to act.

Bronson as Roommate

Short of male actors due to the war, the school accepted him. He stayed two years, then moved to New York City to break into the business. There, he and his roommate -- another struggling actor who would hit it big, Charles Bronson -- went to blood banks to earn cash for food.

Klugman made his Broadway debut in “Golden Boy” (1952) and landed roles on television shows, including “Actor’s Studio.”

He and Randall worked together for the first time on a 1955 episode of CBS’s “Appointment With Adventure,” which foreshadowed their later odd coupling: Randall played a professor, Klugman a gangster. (“Gangsters were my bread and butter for years,” he later wrote.)

Klugman played one of Henry Fonda’s fellow jurors in the Sidney Lumet-directed “12 Angry Men” (1957), which was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture. Mirroring real life, Klugman played a juror who relates to the defendant’s upbringing in a tough neighborhood.

He received a Tony Award nomination for his role as a theatrical agent opposite Ethel Merman in “Gypsy” (1959). Klugman also appeared in four episodes of the hit TV series “The Twilight Zone” from 1960 to 1963, tying with Burgess Meredith for the most appearances by any actor on the show.

Broadway Version

The Neil Simon comedy “The Odd Couple” opened on Broadway in 1965 starring Walter Matthau and Art Carney. When Matthau took leave to film a movie, Klugman temporarily filled the Oscar Madison role.

Klugman reprised the role four years later in London, across from Victor Spinetti. Randall, meantime, played the Felix Unger role in summer stock across from Mickey Rooney.

Klugman and Randall finally coupled in 1970 to shoot the TV pilot of the play. During the four-month hiatus between each season, Klugman and Randall returned to the stage, taking “The Odd Couple” on tour.

A longtime, repentant smoker, Klugman received radiation treatment for the early stages of larynx cancer in the 1970s and suffered a recurrence in 1989 that required the surgical removal of his right vocal cord.

His inspiration for six months of intensive voice therapy after the surgery was Randall’s idea of a one-night benefit performance of “The Odd Couple” to support the National Actors Theater, which Randall had founded in New York.

‘Most Glorious Night’

Klugman recalled that performance -- on June 23, 1991 -- as “the most glorious night of my life.” It raised $1.2 million for Randall’s theater.

His voice continuing to mend, he performed with Randall in “Three Men on a Horse,” a 1993 production by the National Actors Theater, and in Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” in 1997.

His last play with Randall was Tom Stoppard’s “Rough Crossing” at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida in 1999.

Klugman’s other movies include “Days of Wine and Roses” (1962), “Goodbye Columbus” (1969) and “Dear God” (1996).

Klugman had two sons -- Adam and David -- with actress Brett Somers before the couple separated in 1974. Somers, known for her role on the 1970s quiz show “Match Game,” died in 2007. Klugman and his companion of 20 years, Peggy Crosby, married in February 2008.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laurence Arnold in Washington at larnold4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.