Friday, December 28, 2012

Hidden beneath the clothes on the bed: Deceased Artiste Jack Klugman

Every year around this time celebrity (and a lot of non-celebrity) old folk kick off. I believe that a lot of them leave this mortal coil around Xmas time because it’s a “good” time to do so — the emotionally overwhelming notion of another holiday season is deftly avoided, and the end of the year is a great place to call a halt to the proceedings — think of the ailing George Burns and Bob Hope somehow both living until 100, and then giving up the ghost within two months of that milestone birthday. This year we lost two great character people in the span of a day, the first being TV everyman Jack Klugman.

Klugman was a hearty, driven soul who kept active after losing a vocal cord to cancer in 1989. He performed on stage (most notably with his Odd Couple partner Tony Randall), in movies, and on TV. The only thing that suffered a bit was his work in comedies — he was still a damned good comic actor, but it was discomforting to laugh at a person with a scratchy, faint voice (the 1993 TV movie The Odd Couple: Together Again included Klugman’s real-life triumph over throat cancer as one of its plot points, thereby making it a hard sell as a rollicking comedy).

He did an impressive amount of work on stage and in the movies, but he will forever be enshrined as both Oscar Madison and as the skeptical medical examiner Quincy. He won three Emmys for his TV work (two for The Odd Couple and one for a guest-starring role on The Defenders), but is also well-remembered for his starring roles in four episodes of the Twilight Zone (and six Naked City eps).

Born to Russian-Jewish parents and raised in Philadelphia, Klugman worked (after serving in WWII) in the Golden Age of dramatic TV, appearing in both the shows that highlighted sterling performances and playwriting (Actor’s Studio, Goodyear Playhouse), and the aforementioned anthology series — although he guested on Suspense, Big Town, and Inner Sanctum before he journeyed to the Twilight Zone and Naked City.  He claimed his proudest moment was on Producers’ Showcase in 1955, when he had a supporting role in The Petrified Forest with Bogart, Bacall, and Henry Fonda.

I will confess to having been terribly bored by Quincy, as I was by the very similar Quinn Martin productions of that same era (The Streets of San Francisco being an exception). However, I loved the Odd Couple TV series and continue to love it after all these years — it is the ONLY example that I can cite of a network comedy getting appreciably better season by season (esp. in regards to the quantum leap the show took after its first, extremely drab and laughtracked, season).

My favorite thing about Klugman’s acting is that (especially when he did comedy) Jack talked with his hands. This is commonly thought of as a Italian-American trait (“Why aren’t there any Italian dogs? Can’t find anyone who can bark with their hands!” — George Carlin). It’s really an ethnic American trait that can be found in Italians, Jews, Germans, the Irish, the Poles, Puerto Ricans, and pretty much anyone who grew up in an urban area in the mid-20th Century. As Oscar Madison, Klugman spent a good deal of time trying to get things across to Felix with his hands, emphasizing and punctuating his statements as he spoke.

The character of Oscar Madison is supposed to be the biggest slob in the world, but he’s not a lazy lout. In fact, that was what made Klugman’s performance as the character so special — while Randall as Felix was supposed to be the more cultured half of the two, we knew that Oscar was actually the creative one. He wasn’t acquainted with high culture, but he pounded out sports columns on his typewriter for his bread and butter, and seemed to be capable of being a novelist, if only he could overcome his writer’s block.

The other thoroughly winning aspect of Klugman’s excellent work on the show was that, despite the fact that Felix was supposed to be the “sensitive” half of the duo, Oscar actually supplied the “heart” of the program. Most of the times that there was a complex emotion to be displayed on The Odd Couple, Klugman handled it, and did so wonderfully. This is no knock against Tony Randall, who was a superb comic actor — Klugman, however, was clearly the better dramatic actor and handled sentimental moments with no trace of mawkishness.

Finally, aside from his acting work, Klugman publicly took political stances in his lifetime. In one such instance, at the urging of his brother, he spotlighted the concept of “orphaned diseases” (diseases that pharmaceutical companies had abandoned because they didn't yield a profit) on an episode of Quincy, and he subsequently testified to a congressional subcommittee looking into the matter. 

His presence got the subcommittee’s hearing news coverage, and thus helped get a bill passed (the “Orphan Drug Act of 1983”) that offered drug makers incentives to do trials on drugs for diseases that had been “forgotten.” Klugman’s place in this campaign (including a *second* Quincy episode written by Jack and his brother to shame obstructionist Senator Orrin Hatch) are detailed in this clip from The Rachel Maddow Show.

At 85, Klugman became involved in a second campaign called “First Freedom,” an interfaith initiative intended to get candidates to move away from infusing their religious beliefs into their policies. Here he argues for “sound science… and not religious dogma”:

In this spot for the campaign, he argues that it is the patient’s right to choose how he/she should live or die:

There’s a very good clip on YT of Klugman’s final interview, and here he is in much better shape on The Tonight Show, hosted on this occasion by fellow Philadelphian David Brenner. As for performance clips: Klugman’s four Twilight Zone episodes are in permanent rotation, but here’s a good sample of one of the most dramatic of the four, “In Praise of Pip”:

Here’s a clip from the Defenders episode for which he won an Emmy. The plot is a sharp one about show business blacklisting (which was occurring up through the early Sixties). E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed were the show’s stars:

Klugman appeared on pretty much every conceivable type of TV program. He did the rounds of the game shows (while one of the best-remembered Odd Couple eps found Felix and Oscar on Password). Here he is on Match Game with his then-wife Brett Somers, raisin’ a ruckus:

There were countless great moments on the Odd Couple series, but since the series is in syndication (it’s about to enter the schedule on the MeTV network) , here is a series of amusing outtakes from the show (apparently from the DVD that was sold with Klugman’s book about his friendship with Randall):

One of the odder artifacts from Klugman’s TV career: his guest-starring appearance in the Sammy Davis comedy pilot film Poor Devil (1973), which finds Sammy playing a demonic assistant to Lucifer (Christopher Lee) who’s out to claim the soul of a gambler (Klugman):

As I noted above, much as I liked Klugman I was terribly bored by Quincy. One of the most famous shows in the series and the most compulsively watchable one (for people of my age group) was the infamous “punk episode.” It was a sublimely corny message drama about the dangers of punk music. Here is the TV ad for the episode. This short set of clips sets up the premise and shows Jack trying to convince the punks he’s only trying to help:

A bit more of the scene that sets up the plot (with a very concerned Anita Gillette) and the punk club that Quincy visits:

A clip of the punk show and slam-dancing that Jack witnesses:

Perhaps the finest moment in pure silliness that Klugman and Randall were involved in was the tie-in album for the Odd Couple series, The Odd Couple Sing. Here is the best track on the LP, the duo taking on Carly Simon’s classic of vague identification, “You’re So Vain”:

1 comment:

The Literary Lioness said...

I loved both The Odd Couple and Quincy, too, although I will admit that the punk rock episode of Quincy is hilariously bad. But you always love the shows you grow up with, don't you?

Anyway, this was a fine tribute to a fine actor. Thanks.