Jack Klugman's Twilight Times
by Tony Albarella
With his guy-down-the-block appearance and a demeanor that captures the essence of the everyman, Jack Klugman is a hardly the leading-man type. Yet his face is as familiar as a favorite uncle. You may know him best as Oscar Madison, the slovenly sportswriter who played opposite Tony Randall’s fastidious photographer Felix Unger on one of the great comedic-tandem sitcoms, The Odd Couple (1970-1975). Perhaps you remember him in his title role as a medical examiner with a penchant for solving crimes in the popular Quincy, M.E. (1976-1983).
A veteran of hundreds of television appearances, the actor’s credentials span several decades. He worked on every major live TV show of the “Golden Age” and played a leading role in four different television series; in addition to The Odd Couple and Quincy, Klugman starred in Harris Against the World (1964-65) and You Again? (1986-87). His films include TWELVE ANGRY MEN (1957), CRY TERROR (1958), THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1962), ACT ONE (1963), THE DETECTIVE (1968), TWO MINUTE WARNING (1976) and DEAR GOD (1996). He also performed frequently in theater throughout his career and is still very active on the stage.
Skilled in comedy as well as drama, Klugman has amassed a collection of awards that reflects his diverse background. His portrayal of Oscar Madison earned him two Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe in the comedy category, while a performance on The Defenders in 1963 netted a third Emmy for Best Actor in a Drama. He was nominated for a Tony Award in 1960 for his feature role in the Broadway musical “Gypsy.” The actor even won a Chloe Award for an appearance opposite Tony Randall in an Eagle Brand snacks commercial.
For an actor who has seemingly tackled every challenge that television has to offer, Jack Klugman’s résumé is surprisingly devoid of science fiction or fantasy roles. There is, however, one major exception to this anomaly: Klugman starred in four different episodes of Rod Serling’s seminal series The Twilight Zone, equaling fellow thespian Burgess Meredith, who also made four return appearances.
Did Klugman purposely avoid the genre? “No,” the actor asserts, “but I didn’t like roles that were poorly written and many scripts of that type were. Twilight Zone scripts were different. I loved them. I love anything that’s well-written, and of course anything by Rod Serling was. The freedom that I had with Rod, I’m getting now, but back then I only had Rod Serling and maybe Clifford Odets. People whose words I loved to let roll out of my mouth.”
In fact, due to Serling’s hands-on approach to the series, Klugman never considered turning down any of the Twilight Zone roles offered to him. “Rod Serling’s words are always wonderful to deliver. You don’t get that today; you don’t get the writers today who write with that kind of compassion, in a cryptic yet sharp way. He always wrote wonderful characters, fighters, combative little guys. Even the Twilight Zones he didn’t write, he approved. He was just so feisty that I couldn’t believe it when he died. I loved him.”
“Feisty” is an adjective that also describes Jack Klugman. Overcoming a desperately poor childhood in a brutal neighborhood, his indomitable spirit has allowed him to persevere in the acting field, endure hardships in his personal life, and repeatedly triumph over throat cancer to regain a life that was nearly stolen away from him. Yet this self-proclaimed loner and noted perfectionist – with his smoking habit, reputation for on-set irascibility, and lifelong obsession with gambling – has proven to be his own worst enemy.
The youngest of six children, Jack Klugman was born on April 27, 1922, in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father, a house painter, died when Jack was just a child, and his mother crafted hats at home to raise money for groceries and rent. As a boy, Klugman helped to supplement the family income in a most industrious fashion. He would walk to nearby “good” neighborhoods to buy items such as pretzels from peddlers, then return home and sell them for a profit on the mean streets of South Philly, where vendors feared to tread.
This upbringing, as well as the hardships faced by his family, left lasting impressions on the actor. “When she found out she was pregnant with me,” Klugman candidly relates, “my mother went out to kill herself. Nobody understands the depth of that.” Because she was an immigrant trapped in a destitute neighborhood, her attempted suicide garnered little sympathy. “She said, ‘Why didn’t the doctor understand? I’ve got a Russian accent and five children. I’ve got no job and another child coming. If I was American and didn’t have an accent, they’d say, “Oh, isn’t this woman’s struggle tough?”’”
Despite these scars, Klugman’s attitude concerning his penniless youth is described in one of the actor’s favorite adages: “Poverty teaches lessons that privilege cannot.” He also credits his early lack of funds as the motivating factor in his discovery of the acting profession. “I became an actor because I owed a loan shark some money and I had to get out of town.”
Following a World War II service stint in the Army, Klugman returned home and ran up a significant gambling debt. Escaping from the threat of bodily harm, he used the GI Bill to attend Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Tech and enrolled in the drama program, where he fell head over heels in love with acting. Success did not come early. During his initial audition, Klugman's teacher flatly informed him that he was better suited to being a truck driver. But with so many men still overseas, the services of any young male actor, flawed or otherwise, were in demand.
Klugman used the opportunity to train and develop. Summer stock and occasional roles in local productions followed but provided an extremely meager income. Both Klugman and his roommate, fellow actor Charles Bronson, took on every available menial job to pay the rent. It was his admiration for the craft and the people who performed it that gave Klugman some of his happiest memories from this bleak period.
“I did an audition for an off-Broadway play [“Stevedore”] in 1947 and I got it. Rod Steiger was in, and Ossie Davis and George Roy Hill. It was a sensational show about racism. I mean it was powerful. In those days they never brought off-Broadway to Broadway but this came as close as anything did, and Ossie was just sensational.”
Klugman later took to the New York stage with Kim Stanley in a production of “St. Joan.” He debuted on Broadway in 1952 with a revival of Clifford Odet’s “Golden Boy,” featuring Lee J. Cobb and John Garfield. Subsequent Broadway shows include “Tchin-Tchin,” “The Sudden and Accidental Re-Education of Horse Johnson,” a lead opposite Ethel Merman in “Gypsy,” and a play by Neil Simon that would have a significant impact on Klugman’s later career, “The Odd Couple.” He also toured the country with Henry Fonda in the popular comedy “Mister Roberts.”
TV or Not TV, That is the Question
Thirteen stations of commercial television were made available to the American public in 1947, and by 1951 seventeen million TV sets had been sold. From the medium’s infancy until the late fifties – a period often referred to as “The Golden Age of Television” – live broadcasts filled the airwaves. Jack Klugman was present for all of it.
“I did a lot of live television. I did about five hundred shows, but that was all there was then. Sidney Lumet would be directing a half-hour show, an action show, while Johnny Frankenheimer was doing a half-hour show, so I knew these guys way, way back. And that’s where I learned my craft.”
In these early days, a struggling stage or screen actor could break into television with relative ease…only to remain a struggling actor. “I once got sixty dollars to play a lead in Suspense,” Klugman laughs. “There would be times where you wouldn’t get much money so you’d do a few of them, and there would be conflicts. You’d get in a show where you’d get five lines, and you’d rehearse until ten to one, then it’s off to somewhere else for two O’clock. Once I did three hour-long shows, three different roles, live, in three and a half weeks.”
As a result of television’s salary deficiencies and a reputation as the bastard child of film, the medium suffered during its fledgling years from another drawback: the perception that film actors were lowing their standards to work in television. As strange as it seems in this era of lucrative television contracts and the worldwide fame and recognition associated with a successful show, times were different in the early fifties. The movie business, just starting to break free from the dictatorial grip of the studio system, frowned upon the idea of sharing actors with the small screen. They hesitated to finance the career of a marketable performer who “gave it away” over the television airwaves.
Few actors were successful at maintaining a steady career in both venues, and to become known as a “television actor” was a stigma that could damage an active movie career or hinder a potential one. Jack Klugman, who felt most at home on the stage and the small screen that mimicked it, laughs at the pretentiousness of the film industry. “I never had a movie career,” he says, dismissing his film roles as nothing more than another expression of his craft. “I didn’t enjoy doing film. I did mostly theater and television. [On television,] I’d be cocky in rehearsal and they’d say to me, ‘Are you going to be that arrogant on the air?’ If I were doing film, I’d be nervous. But this was something I knew.”
Capable of churning out work of both quality and quantity, Klugman was a natural for television. It was, after all, merely an electronic form of the stage, repertory theater for the masses. In his element and in demand, the actor’s confidence continued to flourish. “Sidney [Lumet] would want me to be a foreman, and I’d say, ‘Nah, I don’t want to play a foreman.’ I was so cocky. He’d say, ‘What do you want to play?’ ‘How about that seventy-year-old guy?’ ‘You got it.’
Despite the threat of alienation from the film industry, it was a time of fantastic opportunity and a whole new generation of talented artists rose to meet the challenge of providing a wide variety of television programming. “You worked with the best. Good, good actors. Writers like Rod Serling, Paddy Cheyefsky, Reginald Rose. And the best directors around. It was wonderful. They took chances in those days. Johnny Frankenheimer flooded the studio to do the Faulkner piece [Playhouse 90’s “Old Man” in 1958]. The floor nearly collapsed, but we experimented. We cared. We did adaptations of Shakespeare, Faulkner…we did important things, with meaning. Now it’s all reality shows.”
Klugman’s association with Rod Serling began in these heady days of live television. The preeminent series of the era was an hour-and-a-half CBS show called Playhouse 90, which attracted the best and the brightest of television’s stars on both sides of the camera. Rod Serling penned a total of ten teleplays for the series, including the first and final installments as well as the multiple-Emmy Award winners “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and “The Comedian.” Klugman was cast as television agent Max Salter in Serling’s pseudo-autobiographical 1959 entry “The Velvet Alley.”
“I had met Rod Serling in New York,” Klugman explains, “but I really didn’t get to know him until we did “The Velvet Alley.” They wanted Walter Matthau for part of Max but Matthau wanted a lot of money. [Casting director] Ethyl Wynant suggested me to Martin Manulis, who was the associate producer, and he didn’t want me. So Ethyl said, ‘Look, don’t give me a Christmas present this year. Give Jack this part and that will be my present.’ So that’s how I got the role. She was a dear, dear friend of mine and very instrumental in my career.”
“The Velvet Alley” is a scathing examination of the pitfalls of fame and success. Ernie Pandish (Art Carney) plays an aspiring New York writer who, with the help of his friend and small-time agent Max (Klugman), eventually sells a script that airs on a prestigious Hollywood television series. When the production scores big ratings and Pandish is offered a contract, he and his wife head to the West Coast where Ernie falls prey to the lure of wealth and celebrity.
A pivotal scene occurs when Max finds out that Ernie has signed with a larger agency, forsaking their friendship for the promise of greater exposure. Brilliant in the role, Klugman shines brightest here, instilling Max with perfect blend of incredulous anger and pain. “It was one of the better performances I did,” concedes Klugman. “I never anticipated anything like that would happen, and to be betrayed by him was the last thing on my mind. It never occurred to me. I mean, we were friends, we were blood brothers. But that’s the temptation of success and I’ve seen guys fall into that trap.”
Klugman has fond memories of both the show and his co-star. “Art Carney was just the nicest human being that ever lived, ever. I adored him. Art and I had a scene in rehearsal where it was the day after the show premiered and we were reading reviews. We started laughing, and we didn’t get out the lines because we were laughing so much, having such a good time. Director Frank Shaffner said, ‘Gee, that’s good, the spirit is so right.’ I said, ‘But the lines…we can’t say the lines and laugh at the same time.’
“So he called Rod and told him the scene was funny but we couldn’t say the lines. Rod said, ‘No, no, the lines are very important in that scene. Let me come and see it.’ He came and saw what we were doing and said, ‘I don’t care if I don’t hear one line, the spirit is right.’ So we did it that way. Well, now we had seventeen days of rehearsal where we had to make each other laugh. So I would wear boxer shorts with hearts on them that said, ‘I pant for you’ and things like that to try and make Art laugh.”
Another improvisation can also be credited to Klugman. “I put in one line, something like, ‘Did I ever tell you you’re a wonderful guy.’ That’s my line, I did that. I needed a way to fade it out in that scene with David White [who played Freddie Henderson, Max’s rival agent].
An early scene – indicative of Klugman’s ability to read, and perform, between the lines – involves the sale of Ernie’s first television script and is a one of the actor’s favorite moments in the teleplay. Eager to deliver the good news and genuinely excited that his friend is about to live his dream, Klugman pauses to allow flashes of bittersweet to temper Max’s enthusiasm. The agent has witnessed the pattern before and, knowing what temptations await Ernie, is worried for his friend.
“I remember is the early scene where I go to tell Ernie he got the job, where his wife, [played by] Katherine Bard, comes down the steps. I loved that scene, every time we did it. It was live; there was something about it that you just don’t get anymore. You only get it in theater, sometimes.”
Passage to the Zone
Rod Serling was so impressed with Klugman’s performance in “The Velvet Alley” that he later tracked the actor down and, despite Klugman’s involvement in a celebrated Broadway musical, secured him for a role in his new series, The Twilight Zone.
“‘The Velvet Alley’ helped me to get ‘Gypsy,’” reports Klugman. “They saw that Max was the same kind of a part as was needed in the stage version of ‘Gypsy’ and hired me. While I was doing the show I got a call from Rod and he said, ‘Let’s put you in Twilight Zone. I want you to come over in January.’ I said, ‘But I’m in a play. I have a two-year contract.’ He replied, ‘I know you have vacation, two weeks in January, so that’s when we’re going to do it.’”
The first-season script that Serling had in mind concerned a down-on-his-luck trumpet player named Joey Crown who commits suicide and finds himself trapped between worlds, neither dead nor alive. His personal guide in this netherworld, played by John Anderson, is a mysterious figure with a supernatural flair for the trumpet and the angelic nickname “Gabe.” Unable to communicate with those around him, Joey dwells on the small joys of life that he had previously taken for granted, and with Gabe’s blessing he returns to the land of the living. The teleplay was Serling’s ode to Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1947) and a perfect vehicle for Klugman’s talents.
“The first Twilight Zone I did was ‘A Passage for Trumpet.’ When I read it, of course, the lines were so beautiful and it was so easy to do.”
The actor’s preparation for the role began long before he left the East Coast for the West. At various points in the script both Joey Crown and Gabe are required to play brief pieces on the trumpet, and while the actual music would be added in post-production, neither Klugman nor John Anderson knew how to work the instrument. Anderson was content to fake his trumpet-playing motions, but Klugman committed himself to hours of study. “I watched the musicians,” he says, “and I had a guy from the orchestra pit in ‘Gypsy’ teach me how to finger the trumpet.”
The attention to detail paid off. Klugman is utterly believable as a man at the end of his rope. “It’s all there,” he says, crediting a strong script as the foundation for a good character and an actor’s instinct to bring the role to life. “When it’s there you can play it any way you want. We have one tool as artists and that’s selectivity. One day at rehearsal I hit upon the interpretation that I wanted to use, to have the character on edge. And Rod was wonderful about it. I selected it because [Joey Crown] couldn’t play his music anymore, couldn’t get a job, couldn’t stop drinking. But then, when nobody saw him anymore, and he realized that death was not what he thought it was going to be, that it’s not over and not the end, he comes back.”
Klugman feels that the nature of the Twilight Zone set allowed actors to flourish. “Rod had everybody on his side on that show. That one-day dress rehearsal was so valuable. Sometimes it only took them four days [to produce an episode]. Unbelievable. But you had good people. And we always worked for them for nothing.
“That first show I think I had twenty dollars in my pocket. I stayed at the Montecito Hotel, which used to charge twenty-five dollars for the week with a messy bed and without a kitchen, but by then they had put in a swimming pool and it went to thirty a week. Peter Falk was there; everybody was at that pool. It was a fun week, a great weekend.”
Despite the enjoyable atmosphere, Klugman had one sour experience with the director that tempers his otherwise pleasant recollections of the shoot. “Don Medford was a wonderful director,” Klugman explains. “He had won all kinds of awards; he was good with cameras. Wasn’t good with actors but he was good with cameras. He was worth twenty-five thousand a year for me. He helped me with everything…lawyers, doctors, you name it, and we were good friends.
“Now there was a moment where I was supposed to be drunk and he wanted me to do something. I did it, and I said, ‘Gee, Don, it doesn’t feel honest.’ He said we had a great shot but I wanted to do it again, so we did it again. And again I didn’t like it. It wasn’t something the character would do.
“He said, ‘Jack, would I give you a bum steer?’ I said, ‘Don, do you think I really care? You call me to the set and I have to be whatever you want me to be. Next week I’m with another director and I have to be what he wants me to be. Then another. Before you know it I’m a comedian, I don’t know how I feel. There’s only one person with me all the time, me. I have to please me. I’ll accommodate, or else I’m out of business, and if it’s not working one way I’ll try to find another way to please you that also pleases me, but I will not eliminate one person, and that is me.’
“Now, he was as stubborn as I was so we had to call Rod down. I did it Don’s way and I did it my way, and Rod said, ‘Let’s do it Jack’s way.’ And because of that, Don and I were never close again. I lost jobs but it was the best money I ever lost. I was a coward in every other area but not with my acting. I will not compromise my acting. It became my best friend.”
Klugman’s second appearance on Serling’s show occurred on October 13, 1961, early into Twilight Zone’s third season. Written not by Serling but by series regular George Clayton Johnson, “A Game of Pool” became Klugman’s personal favorite of his four Twilight Zone entries. He again portrays a social outcast in this gem, essaying a reclusive pool shark named Jessie Cardiff. Jessie’s sole desire is to prove that he is the best pool player in the area by ousting the legendary “Fats” Brown, a reigning champion who has been dead for fifteen years. Brown returns from the grave to answer Cardiff’s challenge and the two men engage in a tense battle of skill and wits; the stakes, for Jessie, are literally life and death.
“My favorite one is ‘A Game of Pool,’ notes Klugman. “It was great and I was a pool shooter anyway, so I knew what I was doing. I loved [pool great Willie] Masconi; he had a poolroom around my neighborhood in South Philly so I knew Masconi from way back. I just loved that show.”
In a bold casting move, the great “Fats” Brown was played by a legend of a different sort: Jonathan Winters, who is widely considered to be one of the most gifted improvisational comics in the business. Winters had recently been released from an institution, where he was recovering from a nervous breakdown – his second, the first occurring in 1959 – and “A Game of Pool” was the first dramatic role ever offered to the famed comedian. His gripping performance as “Fats” displayed a talent for drama and opened new doors for Winters, culminating with a 1990 Best Supporting Actor Emmy win for his stint in the series Davis Rules.
“It was rare for me to get a dramatic part,” Winters stated in a recent commentary recorded for a DVD release of the episode. “It’s unfortunate that the Hollywood big cats are leery of you because you’re labeled a comedian. When [a comedian performs] with a straight actor or in a dramatic story, they’re fearful that you’ll break out and do a face or just act up in general and be a problem. Was I nervous doing this? Yes, I was. But this particular Twilight Zone, the only one I did, was a great shot in the arm for me. It gave me a chance to play off Jack. Jack is a hell of an actor.”
“I loved working with Johnny Winters,” beams Klugman, citing his co-star as one of the main factors the shoot was such a pleasurable experience. “I just love him and his humor. Whenever he would forget a line he would come up to you and do a half-hour of comedy routines, and I would laugh so much, and eventually say, ‘Johnny, we’ve got to get back to work.’ But he was wonderful. I had been cast first so I had top billing, and he would kid around about that, but he also told everybody – and he meant it – ‘Jack’s a serious actor and I’m a comedian. He deserves top billing.’”
Introducing Winters to the world of dramatic acting may have been an honor but was not, as Klugman explains, completely effortless. “He came in and we were rehearsing one day. There’s a moment where he shoots on a break and makes a wonderful shot, supposedly, and I look at him and say, ‘Wow.’ I took a long time, because I had to see the shot, I’m a different kind of actor than he is. Johnny said his line before I said my line and the director said, ‘No, you’ve got to wait for Jack.’ Johnny replied, ‘I’m a comedian, I don’t know these things.’
“He did it about three times. Finally he asked me, ‘How long is it going to take?’ I told him, ‘John, it’s going to take as long as it takes.’ We got along beautifully. I loved him, and I thought he was excellent in it. He had the right touch. I just loved what he did with it.”
Klugman also enjoyed working with director Buzz Kulik, a Twilight Zone veteran who would go on to helm a total of nine episodes of the series. “He was so accommodating. I got everything I wanted. I was very brazen – not all the time, but back then – and I said, ‘I need more room to work, more pictures [on the wall]. So Buzz put up another wall and extended the set for me.”
As for the technically flawless stick work executed by Jessie and “Fats,” Klugman admits that while he and Winters eventually hit all their acting cues, they weren’t required to use their pool cues for the more impressive trick shots. A professional pool player was brought in and careful editing did the rest. “God, he could do anything,” marvels Klugman. “He came on set when we filmed but he didn’t do the shots then. They filmed the shots later on.”
At the tale’s conclusion, Jessie beats the ex-living legend and earns bragging rights. He discovers, however, that being the best brings with it obligations that extend beyond this life. Upon his death, Jessie is required to defend his title and take on all contenders. “Fats,” freed from the position, retires to enjoy his Heavenly rewards.
In the original script, Cardiff loses the game and is informed by Brown that his “death” will not be literal; he will grow old with the knowledge that he was beaten and eventually die a forgotten second-rater. This ending – which had been altered at the request of Serling and producer Buck Houghton – was eventually reinstated when the script was remade as a third-season installment of the syndicated, eighties-version Twilight Zone series. “I saw the remake that they did of it,” Klugman notes with typical candor, “and I thought it was terrible. It was so much better the way we filmed it in the original. I just loved that show.”
Death Becomes Him
Klugman’s next trip into The Twilight Zone found him piloting a doomed spaceship in Richard Matheson’s superior fourth-season episode, “Death Ship.” This hour-long installment aired on February 7, 1963 and features Klugman (Captain Paul Ross), Ross Martin (Lieutenant Ted Mason) and Fredrick Beir (Lieutenant Mike Carter) as three interplanetary astronauts who investigate an alien planet and discover the wreckage of their crashed ship, their own dead bodies at the controls. Captain Ross struggles to maintain sanity and order while his shipmates experience metaphysical visits with deceased family members. While Mason and Carter realize that they are indeed dead and attempt to move on, the pragmatic Captain Ross stubbornly refuses to accept this fate, dooming them all to repeat the crash over and over again.
The episode is an effective blend of science fiction and horror, with the crashed ship filling in for the standard “haunted house.” As with most of his other performances, Klugman seems real, identifiable; more an average man struggling with command than the futuristic captain of a flying saucer. This perception served to ground scripts with fantastic elements and worked to Klugman’s advantage in his various Twilight Zone roles. He appears to be an everyday man trapped in extraordinary circumstances.
The actor, not at all pleased to again be under the thumb of director Don Medford, also criticizes the histrionics that were required of his fellow actors. “I had two guys who were crying all the time,” he chuckles. “There was more filmed, you don’t know how much they cried. I said to Ross [Martin], ‘Jesus Christ,’ it’s like acting with Joan Crawford!’ I mean, he never stopped crying!”
Far more satisfying was Klugman’s final series appearance, “In Praise of Pip,” the opener of the fifth and final season. In this poignant and superbly-acted story, Klugman plays Max Phillips, a small-time hustler and bookie who receives word that his beloved son Pip is dying from injuries while serving in South Vietnam (“There isn’t even supposed to be a war there,” Max intones in this 1963 script, uttering the first mention of the Vietnam conflict on network television).
Consumed by grief that he is losing the best part of himself, and sick with regret that he wasted Pip’s childhood years being a drunk and absent father, Max takes pity on a young gambler by returning the money owed to a mob boss and receives a bullet in the belly for his troubles. Dying, he stumbles into the night and to the gate of the local amusement park that was Pip’s favorite haunt as a child. Miraculously, the park flares to life as Max encounters his Pip – unharmed and restored to the age of seven – and father and son enjoy one final hour of frivolity together. When Pip departs, telling his father that he is dying, Max makes an impassioned plea to God and trades his life for the boy’s.
Both Klugman and child actor Bill Mumy (later to become Will Robinson in Lost in Space) deliver superb performances as father and son. “Klugman was amazing in that role,” says Bill Mumy. “When he sees me [as Pip] for the first time, he hugs me and spins me around, and he was really into it. My parents were on the set and he warned them that he’d be a little rough with me in that scene. He told them not to worry.”
The nighttime amusement park scenes were filmed on location at California’s Pacific Ocean Park. A suitably eerie effect is created when garish lights erupt in the shadowy park and unmanned rides spring into motion to the accompaniment of calliope music. “It was kind of weird,” Klugman says of the shoot. “We started at night. But you get used to it and do your job. There were good jobs and bad jobs. Everything I did for Rod was a good job.”
Klugman is at his finest towards the end, when he realizes that his hour with Pip is up and the boy must die. The combination of Serling’s words and Klugman’s intense delivery make for a heartrending scene in the house of mirrors, where all the lost years of fatherhood come rushing back to Max. The loss of Pip is a overwhelming weight that squeezes the will to live from Max, and his bargain with God – a soliloquy that could have fallen flat in the hands of a lesser actor – gives way to one of Twilight Zone’s most impressive and emotional death scenes.
Surprisingly, it was these moments of dramatic import that gave Klugman the least satisfaction. “I was more impressed with the beginning,” he explains, “with that kid in the apartment and the woman, the landlady. That dialogue was so good. I really enjoyed that. I loved that part of it, the freedom.
“The other part, the dramatic part, I didn’t care much for. At that last moment, when I looked up at God, I was never satisfied with that. I mean, it was right, but I always feel I came up short of what it could be. It wasn’t bad but I wasn’t happy. Now I could do it. I know now I can do better. I did the best I could then but it wasn’t enough. I used to play it safe. I don’t play it safe anymore.”
For the Birds
Jack Klugman’s final association with Rod Serling came when the actor agreed to appear in the film THE YELLOW CANARY (1963), a Whit Masterson novel adapted to the big screen by Serling. This forgettable, offbeat tale involves a self-obsessed rock star (clean-cut crooner Pat Boone, in an imaginative casting decision) who must put aside his selfishness when his infant son is kidnapped. The film also reunited Klugman with Twilight Zone director Buzz Kulik.
“Buzz Kulik thought I was Marlon Brando or something,” laughs Klugman. “He’d call and I’d say, ‘I don’t want to do it, I don’t want to work with Pat Boone,’ who turned out to be a lovely guy. Buzz called me and called me and had Pat Boone call me, like I was some kind of prize. So I read the script and I decided to do it.”
The role was small and no challenge at all for the actor. “I was just a cop. It was just a job, and I wasn’t very good in it. You’ve got to have the words, you’ve got to have the character that Rod would give you, or else you can’t do anything with it.”
THE YELLOW CANARY isn’t the only film in his past that dissatisfies Jack Klugman. In fact, although he has over fifteen theatrically released movies to his credit, he feels only one merits any particular attention. “I’ve got a movie coming out this year and [filming it] was lousy. You wait around until four in the morning. It’s just terrible. The only movie I enjoyed making was TWELVE ANGRY MEN. I don’t enjoy film, with the exception of that movie. I loved it. It was a good cast, a good director. What I remember most was Ed Begley. He would bring a different, beautiful ‘niece’ to the set every day. I’d say, ‘Jesus, how many nieces do you have?’ He said, ‘As many as I can get.’”
Without a doubt, it was the small screen that Klugman enjoyed, and television rewarded him with fame and recognition. A 1963 appearance in an episode of The Defenders entitled “Blacklist” earned the actor an Emmy Award for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (coincidentally, at the same awards ceremony Rod Serling took home his record sixth Emmy for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama, this one for “It’s Mental Work,” a script for Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre). Klugman played Joe Larch, an actor who spent a decade on the blacklist due to his alleged Communist affiliation.
“I felt the subject matter was very important, and it was well done. I liked that show. I liked it for the blacklisted actor. It was well directed, too, by Stuart Rosenberg. He was a wonderful director. Had a lot of guts. I liked him; he gave me a freedom that I enjoyed. Some of the guys who [competed that year in the same category] were Jason Robards, James Earl Jones, Rod Steiger, Roddy McDowell, so it was amazing to win. But [industry awards] don’t really mean anything.”
Having witnessed firsthand the sting of Hollywood blacklisting, Klugman was well-suited for the part, as he is for his current project, a tour of THE VALUE OF NAMES. In this play, Klugman portrays Benny Silverman, a retired actor whose career lagged in the wake of his blacklisting. Leo Greshen, Benny’s former friend and the man who testified against him before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, is suddenly thrust back into his life when Greshen is chosen to direct a play that stars Silverman’s daughter.
The script blends comedy with drama, and Klugman, a master of both, is perfect in the role. He calls on his own memories of the era to provide adequate motivation. “I worked with John Garfield, who was blacklisted, and he was forty-three when he died. You’ve only got one life, and suddenly somebody cuts you off from acting. So Garfield was never allowed to find out how good he could be. It was a terrible time in this country, the way people would squeal on other people. Elia Kazan squealed on John Garfield, and he loved Garfield.
“I have a picture that I dug up in the background of the set; you can’t see it, of me and Lee Cobb. He was cut off from acting. He was once called the greatest actor in America and he couldn’t get a job in movies afterward. That’s the essence of what I found out and what I’m using in the play.”
Odd Man In
While he labored successfully as a television character actor throughout the fifties and sixties, Jack Klugman’s biggest break came in 1970, when he accepted the role of Oscar Madison in the network series version of Neil Simon’s play THE ODD COUPLE. The 1965 Broadway hit, which ran for three years, was most accurately described by Simon in his one-sentence treatment proposal: "Two men – one divorced and one estranged and neither quite sure why their marriages fell apart – move in together to save money for alimony and suddenly discover they're having the same conflicts and fights they had in their marriages."
The Broadway production starred Art Carney as Felix and Walter Matthau as Oscar (the same two actors who, ironically, were originally slated to star in Playhouse 90’s “The Velvet Alley”). Klugman, who earlier stepped in to replace Matthau in the Playhouse 90 episode, likewise took up the role of Oscar in later performances of THE ODD COUPLE. Matthau returned to play the character, opposite Jack Lemmon’s Felix, in a successful 1968 film version that paved the way for the television series.
“I went into the series to get rich,” Klugman admitted at the time, “and I felt the chances were better than anything else I’d seen. I just didn’t let myself expect too much.” Riches he found, along with critical acclaim, a lifelong friend and one of the most satisfying working experiences of his career. “We had wonderful writers,” declares the actor. “We worked hard but it was a quality show and we had a great time. And working with Tony Randall…he taught me so much. He taught me how to improvise.”
According to Klugman, Randall – who passed away in 2004 at the age of eighty-four – combined the best traits of both Odd Couple characters. “He’d go to the best restaurants and he knew the food, the wine. But every six months he would have a bottle of ice-cold beer, and you would see him relish it. And every six months he would buy Kentucky Fried Chicken. He loved it, but he would only eat it once or twice a year.
It was during a series hiatus in 1974, late in The Odd Couple’s run, that Klugman endured his first bout of throat cancer. An inveterate smoker with a three-pack-a-day habit, Klugman quietly visited a doctor after experiencing throat irritation and was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. Told that he would have to lose his voicebox – along with the acting career that sustained him – Klugman refused to surrender. He quit smoking cold-turkey and flew to New York to seek out the services of Dr. Max Som, a friend who had successfully treated throat problems for Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. Som removed a malignant growth without damaging the voicebox, was Klugman was able to resume his duties as Oscar Madison without missing a show.
The experience led Klugman to consider future projects and life after The Odd Couple. Unwilling to become involved with a police drama (the popular genre of the day) or tackle another sitcom (“I never could top what Tony Randall and I did in The Odd Couple.”), Klugman proposed a series based on a dedicated, Max Som-like doctor. He was told that he was crazy; medical dramas were on the way out. The actor, now a valuable commodity, was offered over fifty pilot scripts – every one a sitcom or cop show. Sticking to his guns, he sat out the 1975-76 season and did not work until the role of a crime-fighting coroner came his way.
Doctor in Disguise
Quincy, M.E. was a risky show. Several concepts dealing with forensic medicine had been pitched to reluctant networks; all were turned down for fear that the viewing public would deem them too gruesome. Yet with Klugman’s name attached, NBC greenlighted Quincy without so much as a pilot. The series became the first show of its kind and is a forerunner of modern forensic science shows such as C.S.I.
Klugman, hoping for an experience similar to The Odd Couple, was quickly disillusioned. From the very start it was clear that Quincy would be little more than a cop show with a gimmick. The good doctor spent more screen time out on the street than in his lab; he involved himself in non-medical aspects of police work and engaged in gun battles, car chases and confrontations with victim’s killers. At first, Klugman tried to take the format in stride.
“I realized this guy Quincy was doing mostly detective work,” he said in 1977, “but at least he was a doctor and I figured I could swing the character more in the medical direction.” He was wrong. Frequent clashes over script quality and content made for a brutally long albeit successful seven-year run. Of a typical script, Klugman complained, “[It’s] ridiculous. We talk all through the show about this giant guy with superhuman strength who breaks people’s necks with his fingers, and then in the climax, a 54-year-old character like me gives him one crack on the head and takes him out. I’m supposed to be a doctor, right? What kind of doctor goes around hitting people?”
Another source of Klugman’s ire was the placating treatment bestowed on him by a patronizing network. “‘There he goes with his big mouth,’ they say. What does he want this time? Give it to him. What the hell! As long as the ratings are good…’”
Eventually, the actor settled into a grudging acceptance of the show and the industry behind it. “I love Quincy,” he confessed in 1978. “If I didn’t feel it has the capability of greatness then maybe I could be content with mediocre shows. But I can’t. Maybe it’s true you’re going to turn out one good segment of every four – but that doesn’t mean you can dog the rest. You’ve got to try. Today television is saying more than any other medium. It was more courage. That’s why I love Quincy and fight for it. We can do what 60 Minutes does dramatically – point up injustices.”
Today, Jack Klugman has resigned himself to a more philosophical attitude regarding the series. “When I did Quincy, I used to go home thinking, ‘Geez, you weren’t listening, you didn’t do this, you didn’t do that…’ And I realized you couldn’t worry about your performance when you’re doing a television show. You just do your personality and what you’ve learned as an actor. So I worried about content, only content. I put my concentration on what the story was about, and I became a muckraker. [An actor can] get carried away when [he] gets publicity and all that crap. It goes to your head. It’s just a job. I do the best I can every time and that’s all I can do.”
The Still, Small Voice
Upon receiving a clean bill of health following his 1974 operation, the actor had celebrated by buying a pack of cigarettes, and his rejuvenated smoking habit caught up with him. In 1989, Jack Klugman – whose life had been a series of phenomenal highs and crushing lows – was tasked with his greatest challenge when he was diagnosed with a reoccurrence of aggressive throat cancer. This time, treatment required the complete removal of his right vocal chord and painful chemotherapy.
The surgery left him without the ability to talk, and more importantly to Klugman, robbed him of his beloved acting career. Depression threatened everyday for three years but Klugman, always a fighter, began the long battle to salvage his voice and vocation. He credits best friend Tony Randall with saving both.
“When I first lost my voice I had no sound at all. He came down to the hospital and he told me, ‘If you ever get your voice back, we’re going to do a show together and I’ll find a venue for it.’ So about three years later I found this teacher who gave me a little bit of sound. And Tony said, ‘Gee, if we could do one performance of THE ODD COUPLE, I could raise a million dollars for my theater.’ I said, ‘What are you smoking? I can’t even talk to you on the phone!’ My teacher said, ‘Tell him you can do it in six months.’”
Klugman worked feverishly to attain a level of clarity that would enable him to act within the six-month time frame. The problem was developing his existing vocal chord to compensate for the lost one. “Your vocal chords meet in the middle when you talk,” Klugman explains, “and one of mine is just a stationary stump. I had to make the other strong enough to go past the middle and hit [the damaged] chord.”
With incredible dedication, Klugman slowly regenerated his voice while Randall arranged for a London revival of THE ODD COUPLE. To thunderous applause, the two friends reunited Oscar and Felix in 1996. They went on to star in a 1998 production of THE SUNSHINE BOYS for Randall’s nonprofit company, the National Actor’s Theatre. “Tony gave me the first venue,” Klugman adds with a smile, “and I’ve been working ever since.”
Randall’s death in 2004 was a severe blow to Klugman. As a tribute to his friend, and a catharsis for his grief, Klugman decided to record and share his anecdotes and memories. “I wrote a book about Tony and me – it’s coming out this year – called TONY AND ME: A STORY OF FRIENDSHIP. It’s the story of what he did for me and what he did with his theater. Even I told him, ‘What are you crazy? On Broadway? You’ll never make it work.’ But he put eight million dollars of his own money into it. He believed strongly in it.”
Now, although his voice is still raspy and requires the use of a wireless microphone on stage, Jack Klugman is more than able to perform. He has even regained many of the vocal inflections that help him translate emotion to an audience. “I’m so pleased that I’m able to talk,” the actor says with a genuine appreciation for the simple act he used to take for granted. “People think it hurts but it doesn’t. It’s a privilege to be able to talk, and the more I do it the stronger my voice gets. It doesn’t get pretty but it does get stronger. Every morning of every day I do violent vocal exercises to make the muscle stronger. I’ve done it for the last sixteen years.”
This kind of commitment has allowed Klugman to remain active as an actor. In recent years he has returned to television as a guest star in shows such as Diagnosis Murder, Third Watch and Crossing Jordan. But it is the stage and the reaction of a live audience that continues to enthrall Klugman. “I just love the theater,” he remarks. “I did DEATH OF A SALESMAN and ON GOLDEN POND a few years back and I still do a one-man show called AN EVENING WITH JACK KLUGMAN. I did a play with Charles Durning just recently [“Golf with Alan Shepard”] and I loved it. That’s why I work the theater.”
All the World’s a Stage
Jack Klugman and his chosen profession share a symbiotic relationship. He still has much to offer as an actor, and he knows that the craft still has a lot to give back in return. Age is certainly not a hurdle for this man. “I’m eighty-three. I’ve grown. I understand it now. Three years ago I did [Arthur Miller’s] ‘The Price’ down in Florida and that’s where I broke free. I found the most freedom there and ever since I’ve been free.
“[My character] had a scene where he talks about his daughter dying. I had a stepdaughter who I loved very much, who died recently. In my acting, I always had trouble expressing [sorrow]. I could cry, but I’d always stop myself. I censored myself. And I knew how to do it well, pretending I was crying, but I always fought it. I was a coward.
“So one day when I was doing the show, I talked about the daughter committing suicide and I felt the gushing coming, but I stopped it. I said to the director, ‘Tomorrow when we do the scene, I may go too far, but let me go as far as I want to.’ And the next day as I was doing the scene I started crying and I cried for about five minutes. I was unable to stop. And it freed me. It was like, ‘Now I can do it. I’m not afraid of an emotional moment.’ So I’m learning all the time.”
Asked to reflect on his career, Klugman is almost in awe of the good fortune he has experienced. “I was lucky. All my life I worked with people who I admired and loved. I worked with so many…Bogart, Garfield, Lee Cobb, Henry Fonda, Ethyl Merman, James Mason. When I worked with Mason I used to call him ‘Jim.’ Once he said, ‘There’s only one other person who used to call me Jim and it was me Mum.’”
While memories of his fellow actors are precious to him and spark a melancholy smile, talk of the creative forces behind the camera bring out the curmudgeon in Klugman. “I didn’t pay much attention to producers,” he says with a dismissive shrug. “It’s the writers who were valuable. I liked writers, although I got into trouble with them. I’ve been around sixty-something years and here’s how many good directors I’ve worked with: four. Maybe. And I’m exaggerating. Bob Mulligan, he was the best I ever worked with. Sidney Lumet. A couple of others.
“And I could tell right away if [a director] was any good,” continues the soft-spoken, outspoken actor.
“Please, I won’t tell you what to do, don’t tell me what to do. There’s been jobs I quit, walked out on; they came back and said, ‘Okay, we’ll do it your way.’ And that’s the way I do it. I’m willing to blow any job, if I believe they’re doing the wrong thing.”
Now who can argue with Jack Klugman? After seven decades in the business and several years spent suffering in silence, he deserves to be heard.