Klugman’s credentials span decades. He worked on every major live TV show of the “Golden Age” and starred in four different television series.
by Tony Albarella
Television veteran Jack Klugman reflects on his craft, career, and life in the Zone.
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 Randallâ€™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 resume 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