Saturday, December 29, 2012

In Praise of JACK KLUGMAN

The greatness of average-guy Jack Klugman, is that when his death was announced in Christmas Eve, the 90 year-old star was remembered by so many people in quite a few different ways. For some:

1) He was "the last of the 12 Angry Men," the others in that famous movie all having passed on before him.

2) He was the lovable slob Oscar Madison, the only sports writer in the world who would ever be seen wearing a baseball cap backwards (even toupee-wearing Howard Cosell would rather glue his rug on rather than be such a gamer).

3) He was the empathetic everyman lost in "The Twilight Zone," in several memorable episodes.

4) He was Quincy (no first name, please), the crime-fighting coroner who fought bravely and constantly in matters of social issues and morality.

5) He was a singer!

OK, five only applies to someone ill! But since this is a music blog, how else to pay tribute to the guy? The Emmy-winning, Tony-nominated (for the musical "Gypsy" back in 1960) star was a favorite of mine. I most certainly did NOT see him sing opposite Ethel Merman in a few songs in "Gypsy." (He had no solo number). I can't say I remember his first sitcom, "Harris Against the World," which has so far disappeared into obscurity, but I got to know him through re-runs of "Twilight Zone" and various movies and TV shows he appeared on, when he was a familiar character actor if not a famous name.

Naturally it was "The Odd Couple" (1970-1975) that endeared him to millions, and made him a star. He and Tony Randall made every moment enjoyable with their perfect comic timing. Klugman's great versatility allowed him to almost instantly return to TV after the sitcom ended. He became "Quincy," a far more responsible and crusading man than Oscar Madison, but still 100% Jack Klugman, "Quincy" actually ran two years longer than "The Odd Couple." Think about it…it took a long time before other sitcom legends (Andy Griffith, Buddy Ebsen, Dick Van Dyke) aged from their youthful comedy hits to become believable stars in a drama series.

Klugman probably considered "Quincy" a much more memorable and important character than "Oscar Madison." Oscar, after all, was just a sloppy sportswriter. Said Klugman: '"Quincy was a muckraker, like Upton Sinclair, who wrote about injustices. He was my ideal as a youngster, my author, my hero. Everybody said, 'Quincy'll never be a hit.' I said, 'You guys are wrong. He's two heroes in one, a cop and a doctor.' A coroner has power. He can tell the police commissioner to investigate a murder. I saw the opportunity to do what I'd gotten into the theater to do — give a message. They were going to do cops and robbers with 'Quincy.' I said, 'You promised me I could do causes.' They said, 'Nobody wants to see that.' I said, 'Look at the success of "60 Minutes." They want to see it if you present it as entertainment.'"

Klugman was a big enough star to get his way, and he was proved correct. Other shows that veered from solid writing and social issues to pander to formulaic "action" scenes (such as "Cagney and Lacy") would find their audience losing interest. It was that sense of "haven't I seen this before," that doomed Jack's last foray into series television. Three years after "Quincy," Jack starred in a forgettable two-year sitcom with John Stamos. It was called "You Again," which hardly suggested something new. It ended in 1988.

In 1989, Klugman's career nearly ended due to what he admitted was the stupidest decision of his life: smoking. Hit in an area fatal to an actor's career, throat cancer took away his voice. Jack should've known better from actor William Gargan, who had to have his larynx removed, and in some memorably scary commercials for the American Cancer Society, used an artificial voice box to warn against the dangers of tobacco. Fortunately for Jack, not all of his vocal cords were completely damaged, and working with a skilled therapist, he was able to create a raspy sound that allowed him to be heard. But to ever work again? With the avid encouragement of his old "Odd Couple" friend Tony Randall, Jack forayed back into the public eye, first in coy, non-speaking roles (including a TV commercial with Randall doing all the talking) and then, in the toughest setting possible: the Broadway stage. Tony booked Jack for "Three Men on a Horse" in 1993, an after more film and TV work, he and Tony returned to broadway in 1997 for "The Sunshine Boys," which I was fortunate enough to see. Klugman's voice was certainly harsh and alarming at first, but it didn't take long to acclimate to it, especially when he was speaking those great Neil Simon lines, being his familiar comic-irascible self, and partnered with the ever encouraging and ebullient Tony Randall. A humble, no-nonsense guy, Jack never did write an autobiography, but was moved to write a memoir, "Tony and Me," following Randall's passing in 2004.

Jack had two sons from his marriage to Brett Somers, the actress who played Oscar Madison's wife. Something of an odd couple themselves, they were amicably separated in the 70's, but never divorced. After her death in 2007, Klugman married long-time girlfriend Peggy Crosby the following year. His son Adam, who had a bit part in an episode of "The Odd Couple," was the one to announce the sad news, in a one-liner that was very much in the spirit of his realist father: "He had a great life and he enjoyed every moment of it and he would encourage others to do the same."

The choice for the download is "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," a duet from Tony Randall and Jack Klugman that is a lot more entertaining than the duets Jack did with Ethel Merman in "Gypsy." The lyrics by Cole Porter are from the show "Kiss Me Kate," and several couplets are still amusingly rude. Playing on titles of Shakespeare plays: "When your baby is pleading for pleasure…Let her sample your Measure for Measure" and "If she says your behavior is heinous…kick her right in the Coriolanus."

The photo above? It's one that Jack autographed for me, but now it's been slightly Photoshopped for all of you.

Jack Klugman and Tony Randall sing... Brush Up Your Shakespeare!

1 comment:

Con Fused said...

Jack and Tony also performed a revival of "The Odd Couple" live on stage in the London West End in the mid 90's after the surgery. I remember reading favourable reviews of it back in the days when I still bought newspapers.

That TV show and "Quincy" proved to be very popular here in Britain as well, testament to the man's talent since we were very picky about what shows to import. "Quincy" pops up every so often, but it's a good ten years or so since "The Odd Couple" had any kind of re-run which is a shame since that was a worthy comedy show I always enjoyed.