Jack Klugman, the three-time Emmy Award-winning actor best known for his portrayals of slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison on TV’s “The Odd Couple” and the title role of the murder-solving medical examiner on “Quincy, M.E.,” died Monday at his home in Woodland Hills. He was 90.
Klugman had been in declining health for the last year, his son Adam said.
He had withdrawn from a production of “Twelve Angry Men” at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J., in Marchfor undisclosed health reasons. He had undergone successful surgery for cancer of the larynx in 1989.
Klugman was the last surviving member of the cast that played the jury in “12 Angry Men,” the classic 1957 movie drama about deliberations in a first-degree murder trial. He was also a veteran of live TV dramatic anthology series in the 1950s and appeared in several episodes of “Twilight Zone.”
On Broadway, Klugman played Ethel Merman’s boyfriend, Herbie, in the hit musical “Gypsy,” which earned him a 1960 Tony Award nomination. He won his first Emmy in 1964 for a guest appearance on “The Defenders.”
In 1965, he was back on Broadway, replacing Walter Matthau as Oscar Madison in the original production of “The Odd Couple,” Neil Simon’s classic comedy about two friends with polar-opposite personalities who become roommates — one is divorced and the other just broke up with his wife.
But that’s not why Klugman landed the role of the casually sloppy Oscar Madison in the TV version of “The Odd Couple” opposite Tony Randall’s fussy neat-freak Felix Unger.
Randall, who had appeared in a production of “The Odd Couple” with Mickey Rooney, had wanted Rooney to play Oscar in the TV series. But executive producer Garry Marshall fought for Klugman.
In his 2005 book “Tony and Me: A Story of Friendship,” Klugman wrote that during the first rehearsals for the TV series, Marshall told him he’d never seen him play Oscar on Broadway.
“What!” said Klugman. “Then why did you fight for me?”
“I saw you in ‘Gypsy,’ “ said Marshall. “You did a scene with Ethel Merman and I was impressed because as she was singing to you, she was spitting a lot and it was getting on your clothes and your face and in your eyes. You never even flinched. I said to myself, ‘Now that’s a good actor.’ “
Although “The Odd Couple” was not a hit when it aired on ABC from 1970 to 1975, it has had a long life in syndication and forever cemented the reputation of its two stars as one of TV’s great comedy teams.
In TV Guide’s 1999 listing of “TV’s Fifty Greatest Characters Ever,” Felix and Oscar ranked No. 12.
“Many acting tandems have played Neil Simon’s testosterone-and-teacup duo over the years on stage and screen,” the magazine observed. “But Tony Randall and Jack Klugman are the Felix and Oscar we love most. For five unflaggingly creative seasons, they were the most evenly matched ‘Odd Couple’ imaginable.”
Although Randall claimed he was “very little like” Felix, Klugman said in a 1996 interview with The Times, that he was “pretty close” to Oscar.
In fact, when members of the wardrobe department initially sought to outfit the unkempt Oscar, they looked no further than Klugman himself.
“They paid me $360 for everything in my closet, and I still made a profit on the deal,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2005.
As Oscar, Klugman won Emmys in 1971 and 1973 for outstanding continued performance by an actor in a leading role in a comedy series.
After “The Odd Couple” ended its run in 1975, Klugman said the last thing on his mind was doing another TV series.
Having “spent five years in the best situation comedy ever devised” and having worked with Randall, “the nicest guy in this business,” Klugman said, he turned down one pilot series script after another, particularly those for sitcoms.
But when he received the script for “Quincy, M.E.,” he said, he saw “potential in it — the gimmick of a doctor who solves crime for the police by medical and scientific deduction. It was not just another cop show.”
And with “Quincy, M.E.” which ran on NBC from 1976 to 1983 and earned Klugman four Emmy nominations, he saw a way to raise issues such as incest, child abuse, drunk driving and elderly abuse.
“I’m a muckraker,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1993. “I saw the possibilities in ‘Quincy’: We could entertain with what was essentially a good murder mystery but also do important shows on important subjects. This was why I got into the business.”
One of six children, Klugman was born in Philadelphia on April 27, 1922. His father, a financially struggling house painter, died when Klugman was 12. A year later, after a stint selling newspapers, Klugman began taking horse bets to earn extra money.
“The dealer said, ‘These guys will give you slips of paper. Just put them in the tin,'“ he recalled in a 1971 interview with The Times. “Then I was taking bets on the phone.”
A lifelong track aficionado, Klugman later owned a horse farm in Temecula, and his racehorse, Jaklin Klugman, finished third in the 1980 Kentucky Derby.
Back home in 1945 after serving in the Army during World War II, Klugman lost the $3,000 he had saved in U.S. savings bonds by betting on baseball games. Worse, he owed $500 to a loan shark and faced serious bodily injury unless he made a payment within three days.
Unable to come up with the cash, Klugman skipped town and moved to Pittsburgh, where he was accepted into the drama department of what is now Carnegie Mellon University. A few years later he moved to New York, where he landed parts in off-Broadway and summer stock.
He appeared in films such as “Days of Wine and Roses” and “Goodbye, Columbus,” and also starred in two short-lived situation comedies: “Harris Against the World” and “You Again?”
In 1989, Klugman, a heavy smoker, underwent surgery for cancer of the larynx in which the center of his right vocal cord was removed. Afterward, the actor famous for his raspy growl initially was unable to speak above a whisper.
After going public with his story a year-and-a-half later, he worked with voice specialist Gary Catona who put Klugman on a regimen of daily vocal exercises to strengthen his left vocal cord so that it could stretch to touch what was left of his right vocal cord and produce a sound.
His old friend Randall also played a key role in his return to acting in 1991.
After beginning his vocal exercises, Randall called Klugman to suggest that they do a one-night benefit performance of “The Odd Couple” on Broadway for Randall’s new National Actors Theatre.
“I said to Tony, ‘I can’t even talk. I don’t know how I can do it,’ “ Klugman recalled in a 1993 interview with the Chicago Tribune.
But, as he wrote in his memoir, after six months of working on his voice “like Rocky worked on his body,” the whisper “became a sound, and in time, the sound became a little voice. But was it enough to perform on Broadway?”
Nervous about facing an audience and hating the way he sounded, Klugman, who wore a small microphone on stage, was encouraged after getting his first laugh.
At the end of the performance, he took his bow to a standing ovation.
“After that, I knew I was back,” he said.
Klugman married actress and comedienne Brett Somers in 1953. They had been separated for many years when she died in 2007.
In addition to son Adam, he is survived by his wife, Peggy; son David; and two grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Dennis McLellan is a former staff writer.