Four years ago, Jack Klugman was diagnosed with throat cancer. After surgery removed a cancerous vocal cord, Klugman was told it was doubtful he'd ever talk again.
The actor proved the experts wrong. He's starring with Tony Randall in the new TV movie "The Odd Couple," airing Friday on CBS. Klugman and Randall reprise their Emmy Award-winning roles as slob Oscar Madison and neatnik Felix Unger. The two played the mismatched roomies on the classic 1970-75 ABC sitcom based on Neil Simon's hit 1965 play and 1968 movie.
"It's really an exciting venture considering I never thought I would speak again, let alone act again," Klugman says in his raspy but clear voice. "And then to come back and do something as good as this with Tony is very, very gratifying."
Before Klugman became ill, there was an "Odd Couple" reunion movie in development. "We made an agreement with Paramount," Randall says. "Then we never got a script that was any good. You have to have a story. We had wonderful people working on it. We never agreed on the story."
Klugman credits Randall for encouraging him to regain his voice and act again. "He has been so supportive," Klugman says warmly. "When I couldn't speak he said, 'Oh, come on. We can do it. We will try.' " Klugman finally got help from a specialist, who gave him a voice through vocal exercises--"not a pretty voice, but a voice and a voice that could be heard, understood and distinguished in terms of clarity." Every morning, Klugman religiously performs the exercises.
Two years ago, Klugman's voice was strong enough to do a benefit stage performance of "The Odd Couple" with Randall. Shortly afterward, Klugman received a call from Howard W. Koch, who produced the original "Odd Couple" movie and is producing the new CBS version.
Klugman recalls Koch telling him: " 'If you can do the play, you can certainly do the television show.' So I said, 'OK. But you must use the voice; it has to be part of the show.' "
"Jack came up with this wonderful story," Randall says. "I didn't think you could make it funny. He said, 'We can make it funny. You will make it funny.' "
There were two reasons Klugman wanted the cancer plotline woven into the movie. Not only did he want to explain his voice, he wanted to give hope to cancer patients.
"There are seven million cancer survivors and we are very supportive of each other," Klugman says. "We found out that early detection can cure almost any kind of cancer. Only a few years ago, one out of five survived. Today, one out of two survive. I wanted to say that."
And the message comes through loud and clear in a scene where Oscar discovers his poker buddies feel sorry for him and let him win. "I tell them they are writing me off," Klugman says. "But we do it very funny."
"It's more than just a comedy," Koch says. "It's emotional too."
The new movie is written and directed by Robert Klane. But it's still Randall and Klugman's baby. "When it was over I said, 'Jack, if this isn't any good, we have no one to blame but ourselves,' " Randall says. "We were up there in Vancouver shooting it where the suits (executives) from the studio couldn't control us. We did anything we wanted to do."
Including improvising and rewriting. "He improvises better than anybody I ever worked with," Klugman says. "When we did the old 'Odd Couple' and we did it in this show, the script would say, 'Tony teaches Jack manners,' and there would be four blank pages."
Randall believes Oscar and Felix have become part of pop culture because Simon's play is a masterpiece. "It's a wonderful play," he enthuses. "He created characters who are so real. Whenever two people live together, they get on each other's nerves. One is always sloppier than the other. One is always more of something than the other one is. That makes for conflict. People can identify with these characters."
Oddly enough, "Odd Couple" was not a hit 20 years ago. But it's built up a loyal following over the years in syndication. The series joined USA Network's lineup earlier this month.
"We were canceled every year," Klugman says. "ABC was the third network, and it was very cheap to do. (ABC) said, 'We have nothing better, leave it on.' I was getting no money at all and neither was Tony."
The series, Randall says, has enabled him to fulfill his lifelong dream. "The only thing I've wanted to do was have a classical repertory theater," he says. This fall, Randall's National Actors Theatre commences its third Broadway season with Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens."
Next summer, Klugman and Randall will tour for eight weeks in "The Odd Couple."
"That was Jack's idea," Randall says. "He said, 'I will work for you all summer for nothing and we will make money for the National Actors Theatre.' That's the kind of guy he is."
Koch isn't ruling out other "Odd Couple" movies if this one scores in the ratings. "Remember the 'Road' pictures with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby? We can have the 'Odd Couple' in London. Can you imagine them in high hats at the race track? I can just see it now."
"The Odd Couple" airs Friday at 9 p.m. on CBS; repeats of the series air Mondays-Thursdays at midnight on USA.