Klugman earned celebrity the hard way: by perseverance, dedication, a love of his craft, and a healthy dose of street-wise attitude.
by Tony Albarella
A first glance, the title above seems oxymoronic; as descriptive terms, “famous” and “everyman” exist at opposite extremes. Yet I once met a man who simultaneously occupied both positions. A legendary actor who excelled by capturing a guy-next-door essence, the great Jack Klugman earned celebrity the hard way: by perseverance, dedication, a love of his craft, and a healthy dose of plain ‘ol, street-wise attitude.
Klugman’s passing this bittersweet Christmas Eve has triggered a few warm memories, two of which I’d like to share: the accompanying article, which offers a glimpse into the man and his work, and the behind-the-scenes story of how it came to be.
As editor of the ten-volume book series AS TIMELESS AS INFINITY: THE COMPLETE TWILIGHT ZONE SCRIPTS OF ROD SERLING, I’ve had the honor of meeting and interviewing many dozens of the actors, directors, writers, and producers who worked with Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone. With the clout of Carol Serling’s support and a little diligent work of my own – more the former than the latter, I confess – most of my request letters, emails, and phone calls were returned and interviews granted.
Yet, for various reasons, a few interviews always remained elusive, and Jack Klugman was one of them. I started trying to contact him in the early stages of the project, some ten years ago, but nothing panned out. Sometimes it works out that way when requesting interviews with still-active celebrities; publishers promise contact that never develops, schedules conflict, publicists and assistants deliver only graceful dismissals, letters and emails are rerouted and languish in some nebulous in-box. Both because I couldn’t land him and because I wanted to so badly, Jack Klugman became my “Holy Grail” of actor interview subjects. I’d admired his television and movie work for as long as I can remember, and grew up watching him in dramas and comedies both new and old.
My quest came to fruition in March of 2005. Some months prior, I learned that Jack would be performing live in a one-week run of a dramatic play, THE VALUE OF NAMES, and that the White Plains, NY, venue was a mere 75-minutes away from my home. The attendance of my wife, Cindy, and I at a showing was a given; the March 12th performance coincided with our eleventh wedding anniversary, and what better night out for two Klugman fans? What remained to be seen was whether or not I could sweeten the deal by landing an interview while we where there.
My plan was simple: several weeks before the play opened, I sent a small package to the theater and requested it be held until Klugman arrived for rehearsals. An enclosed letter explained my credentials and requested a brief interview with a focus on Jack’s work with Rod Serling’s writing. I also included a copy of a tape (VHS was still in widespread use) of Serling’s 1959 Playhouse 90 episode “The Velvet Alley,” which co-starred Klugman and is not commercially available. Then I bought tickets for the show and hoped for the best.
The weekend before the show opened, my gambit was rewarded with a phone call; not from a theater manager or an agent or a press person, but from Jack Klugman himself. He thanked me for the tape, as “The Velvet Alley” was one of his favorite TV appearances, and told me that my wife and I were welcome to catch up with him after the 3/12 performance of the play. Only after I hung up the phone did I wonder about the specifics of “catching up” with him after the show.
On March 12th Cindy and I drove up to White Plains, found a restaurant near the theater for a cozy dinner, and took in the show. The play, about two best friends and performers who had, years ago, been torn apart by the Hollywood Blacklist, was strong, and Klugman’s performance was magnificently engaging. True to form and to his lifetime of theater, television, and movie work, he threw himself into the role and held nothing back. Had the night offered nothing more than the opportunity to see Jack perform live, it still would have been our most memorable anniversary celebration.
After the show we approached a theater hand in the wings, armed with no more than my story that Mr. Klugman was expecting us. After being passed around to several employees, none of whom knew what to do with us, we were finally asked to simply wait in the lobby for Jack to leave for the evening. We complied, a bit disappointedly; I’d hoped we could get Jack to grab a chair backstage for a ten-minute-or-so sit-down, and knew that catching the actor in a public area, all bundled in jacket and hat and ready to leave for the evening, would result in only the briefest of interviews. Still, it was a chat with Jack Klugman, and we waited excitedly.
The actor eventually emerged, engaged in conversation with several people, and at first assumed we were autograph-seekers. I mentioned the interview. He greeted us and asked if we could give him a half-hour before meeting him in his room at the hotel next door. We were more than happy to comply.
At the agreed-upon time, a freshly-showered and changed Jack Klugman welcomed us into his room, offered drinks, and sat down so I could clip the microphone of my digital recorder to his shirt. After some small talk (during which he learned more about us than we him, as he wished us a happy anniversary and asked after our two young girls), Jack supplied an interview that was more conversational – and animated – than I had anticipated. One might expect a jet-lagged octogenarian, fresh off a two-hour live performance that must have been emotionally and physically draining, to lag a bit late into the evening.
But not Jack Klugman – and certainly not when the subject was acting.
Jack answered all my questions, and his answers spiraled into reminiscences about his storied career, the people he’d worked with, his likes and dislikes. As one might expect, no punches were pulled; he was opinionated, passionate, and as quick to condemn actors he didn’t consider serious artists as he was to praise those he admired. He welcomed Cindy into the conversation. In fact, she extracted more from Jack than I did; he was more comfortable talking about acting and his idols than about himself, so his answers to my specific questions were not as elaborate as the more sweeping anecdotes that Cindy encouraged from him.
Over an hour later, we thanked Jack for such a special night, and left…with more (and more varied) interview information than I could have dreamed possible. So much more that on the drive home I realized I needed another format to properly disseminate what Jack had given us. I knew I had a lengthy magazine piece, with an overview of Jack’s entire career and a focus on his Serling-related work. That is how I pitched it, to the FilmfaxPlus editor to whom I’d worked before on several Serling-related articles. He gave me a quick and enthusiastic thumbs-up, and should you care to, you can read here the resulting two-part feature.
What we thought was a once-in-a-lifetime interaction with Klugman actually extended to two other events. Jack’s book TONY AND ME came out towards the end of 2005, and his subsequent book tour brought him back to the East Coast. All four of my family members were able to catch a Klugman reading, Q&A session, and signing in Pennsylvania. Even better, Jack continued to remain active on the stage, and in early 2007 (at the spry age of 87) he appeared in a revival of THE SUNSHINE BOYS at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey. Again we were able to meet him and see him perform live.
It appeared as if this streak would continue when it was announced that in the spring of 2012, Jack would return to the George Street Playhouse in one of my all-time favorite non-Serling plays, Reginald Rose’s 12 ANGRY MEN. The last surviving cast member of the classic 1957 Sidney Lumet movie version (in which he played one of the youngest jurors), Jack was to switch to the role of the eldest juror…and again take to the stage, this time just prior to his 90th birthday!
We bought our tickets and eagerly awaited the show. Unfortunately, after several weeks in rehearsal and just days away from opening night, Jack developed health issues that forced him to withdraw from the production. Our disappointment was tempered with concern; we knew that only a very serious medical problem could keep Jack away from his first love, the live stage. His health continued to fail and Jack passed away on December 24th, 2012.
My family and I will never forget Jack Klugman’s graciousness, professionalism, raw talent, and infectious vitality. I hope that readers of the attached article will join me in celebrating his work rather than mourning his loss. Godspeed, Jack.