Emmy-winning thesp built loyal fan base as character actor
With his rumpled face and scratchy voice, Jack Klugman, who died Monday at the age of 90, was the very definition of a character actor. But after years of supporting roles in theater, films and TV, Klugman showed that characters can become stars, as TV sitcom “The Odd Couple” and lighthearted crime drama “Quincy ME” earned him a fan base that was more faithful and long-lasting than those of most leading men.
Klugman, who lost his voice to throat cancer in the 1980s and trained himself to speak again, died with his wife Peggy Crosby at his side, according to his son Adam. He said has father had been convalescing for some time but had apparently died suddenly and the family was not sure of the exact cause on Monday.
Klugman, whose active career spanned five decades, parlayed his irascible wit and warmth into hits via the two skeins he was most associated with in the 1970s and 1980s.
He won three Emmys, two for “The Odd Couple” as Oscar Madison (a character he inherited from Walter Matthau, who played it onstage and in the film version), and another for starring on a 1964 episode of “The Defenders” called “The Blacklist.”
He also starred in classic films such as “12 Angry Men” and memorable episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” and achieved musical-theater immortality as Herbie in the original “Gypsy” opposite Ethel Merman.
In the late ’80s he was diagnosed with throat cancer and had most of his vocal chords removed. He could not speak for some time, but by the mid-’90s, he had recovered part of this ability thanks to a new vocal prostheses technique.
He was born in Philadelphia and educated at Carnegie Tech. He received his theatrical training at the American Theater Wing in New York, keeping himself solvent by working menial jobs. His first break came in the Equity Library Theater production of “Stevedore” in 1949, and thereafter he worked regularly in early television.
He appeared on the early show “Hollywood Screen Test,” which featured up-and-comers performing with established veterans, and was a guest villain on “Captain Video.” He was also a guest star on early ’50s series “Treasury Men in Action.”
During the 1954-55 season he was a featured player on daytime medical drama “The Greatest Gift,” and in 1955 appeared in a TV version of “Petrified Forest” with Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall.
He continued to appear in anthology series such as “Playhouse 90,” “Kraft Theatre” and “Studio One.” His 1959 performance in Rod Serling’s “The Velvet Alley” on “Playhouse 90” led to his casting in “Gypsy”; he was nominated for a Tony for featured actor in a musical. His next Broadway assignment was as Anthony Quinn’s replacement in the drama “Tchin-Tchin.” He appeared in four episodes of Serling’s “The Twilight Zone,” including on the memorably noirish “In Praise of Pip.”
Klugman also wrote some television, including dramas for “Kraft Theatre,” and appeared in the telepic “Fame Is the Name of the Game.”
An early attempt at a TV sitcom, “Harris Against the World,” in 1964, lasted less than a season.
Klugman made his feature film debut in 1956’s “Timetable” and the following year was one of the “12 Angry Men.” Over the next several years he appeared in films including “Cry Terror,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “I Could Go on Singing,” “The Yellow Canary,” “Hail Mafia,” “The Detective,” “The Split” and “Goodbye, Columbus.” After he became a successful TV star he made only two other films, 1971’s “Who Says I Can’t Ride a Rainbow” and “Two Minute Warning” in 1976.
But Oscar Madison made him a household name. Madison and Tony Randall’s Felix Unger ruled ABC from 1970-75, scoring Klugman Emmys as best actor in a comedy series in 1971 and 1973.
He scored again with “Quincy,” in which he was a pathologist who couldn’t help but play detective. It began on NBC as a rotating series with “Columbo” and others but was soon spun off into its own hour and showed amazing longevity, going off the air in 1983.
Shortly thereafter, he performed a one-man show, “Lyndon,” adapted by James Prideaux from a Merle Miller biography of President Johnson.
In 1986 he tried again with the short lived sitcom “You Again?” on NBC. He returned to the stage in the Broadway production of Herb Gardner’s “I’m Not Rappaport” in 1987.
Two years later he was diagnosed with throat cancer — the penalty for many years as a heavy smoker. An operation to stay the spread of the cancer effectively canceled his career, though he recovered almost full use of his voice over the next several years.
In 1993 he made a brief comeback in an “Odd Couple” reunion and then in a Broadway production of “Three Men on a Horse,” both with Randall; in 1998 the pair starred in a revival of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” on Broadway.
While Klugman and Randall portrayed squabbling rivals onscreen and onstage, they were the best of friends in real life. When Randall died in 2004 at age 84, Klugman delivered the euology and told CNN: “A world without Tony Randall is a world that I cannot recognize.” The next year Klugman published “Tony And Me: A Story of Friendship,” a book about his relationship with Randall.
In 2008 Klugman sued NBC over what he maintained were missing profits from “Quincy,” asserting that his production company, Sweater Prods., should have received 25% of the net profits. NBC Universal and Klugman settled the lawsuit on undisclosed terms in August 2010.
In his later years he guest-starred on TV series including “Third Watch.”
In 1974, Klugman was legally separated from his first wife, actress Brett Somers (they were married in 1953), but they remained married until her death in 2007. They had two sons, Adam and David. He lived for many years with his companion, Barbara Neugass.
Klugman is survived by his second wife, Crosby, whom he had lived with since 1988 and married in 2008; and his two sons.