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Jack's Tony-Winning Friendship

November 2, 2006 By:
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Oscar Madison ... from slob to blog?

"Oh, I'm no good at those computers; I was never that friendly with typewriters, either. I haven't come into the 21st century yet."

Despite his protestations, Jack Klugman, who sported one of TV's most memorable roles as loveable loutish loser Oscar Madison -- one-half of the oddest of odd couples ever to debate the merits of linguini on the wall -- does blog after all. It's all there on http://blog.tonyandme.com, where he keeps in touch with fans and friends.

Not that he's ever been out of touch. At 84, Klugman doesn't need a computer to know he's clicked with the public, whether it be on TV as Oscar -- winning two Emmys -- or "Quincy, M.E." (1976 to '83) or even a recent role in "Crossing Jordan," where he crossed off another part as a medical examiner -- Dr. Gelber -- opposite star Jill Hennessy.

Turn off the TV and tune into history, and there are his theater credits, too, including "12 Angry Men."

"I'm the last one alive of the 12," he muses.

But angry? Not a bit. As he prepares to help headline the Blank Rome Festival of Arts, Books and Culture this Sunday morning at the Katz JCC of Cherry Hill, N.J., the soul man of old South Philadelphia -- whose career never went south, despite aging in a youth-oriented industry -- is eager to show off his Tony award -- the longtime friendship he shared and kvells over with the late Tony Randall, the even-steven part of "The Odd Couple" whose image as persnickety, fussy Felix felt nothing like the man Klugman knew.

At the Katz, he plans to discuss that bond of bonhomie and banter, which will also feature outtakes from "The Odd Couple" that would take a lot to resist from fans of TV history or those just wanting a guffaw from the guys. One of the golden boys from TV's Golden Age of the '50s -- he helped put the life in live broadcasts -- Klugman is not the leading voice he once was. Throat cancer will do that.

But if a once smokin' career seemed over in the '90s, good friend Randall wouldn't allow it. "He brought me back to theater; he was the first one at my hospital bed to see me," recalls Klugman, who lost a vocal chord to the disease.

Was the man who portrayed Felix Ungar so memorably unbearable to deal with when confronting his old friend's now hard-rasp of a voice? "No, he said to me, 'Let's face it; you never sounded like Richard Burton to begin with.' "

It was a new start that Klugman coveted. "He was the best friend; he never took credit for that."

There was this credit: Jack Klugman appearing opposite Randall in a post-operative revival/benefit of "The Odd Couple" in Philadelphia, as well as elsewhere.

And as he prepares to head into Cherry Hill, it's the over-the-hill crowd Klugman recalls just a pretzel pitch from Federal Street.

"They're all gone," he says of his South Philly pals, while conceding he focuses more on the old part of "old days" these days.

"It's catching up to me with my legs, when I walk," he says of sore spots about getting older.

Complaints? From Oscar Madison? "I feel very lucky."

And so should producers of last year's "When Do We Eat?" a Passover film comedy that passed through the area quickly.

What it did have on its plate was a matzah ball of a performance by Klugman as a zayda with some zing left under his old kipah. But it is theater and not film -- nevertheless, Klugman was as good as it gets as Ali MacGraw's father in "Goodbye, Columbus" -- that Klugman clutches as the best. "I love theater ... getting up on stage."

It was drama at its best stage, he says of the TV days when plays played out live before those in front of their Muntz TVs. "With 'Playhouse 90' ... we rehearsed for 17 days. Today, there's no rehearsal. It's terrible today."

Don't expect him getting real close to a reality show anytime soon. "Reality TV" -- and he nearly spits it out like Oscar using the street as his spittoon.

"That 'Dancing With the Stars,' the 'Idol' ... they're not new. We had Major Bowes [amateur hour].

"And then you see a show like 'Law & Order' -- which I like -- but we had 'Arrest & Trial.' It's nothing new."

What's not new either is the accolade-filled career, whether handling hosannas for his work in TV, films or books, including Tony and Me, the subject of his JCC talk.

Like Looking in a Mirror?

"I recently saw 'Odd Couple,' " he says of the Nathan Lane-Matthew Broderick brickbat of a revival on Broadway. "It wasn't bad, but there will never be another Felix like Tony."

And for those who don't know Jack about theater, they surely still know Klugman. "After the performance, Nathan introduced me to the audience. He's a funny guy," says Klugman with admiration for the new millennium's version of the sportswriter sporting a divorcee's dishwatered-down lonely life.

No such dishpan hands for Klugman, living with Peggy Crosby -- the ex of Philip Crosby, one of Bing's sons -- for close to 20 years. Before that, Klugman was wed to Brett Somers of TV's "The Match Game" for more than 20 years until they un-matched in 1974.

If there's one thing Klugman's learned over the years, it's to be able to read life between the lines. And, he points out, it doesn't hurt to have a library card while reading.

As a kid in South Philly, "I went to the library often. You get a library card and the world is yours."

But there was no chapter and verse on loyalty; Klugman learned to make book on that on the streets. And he still stays in touch with those out of the public's touch. "I know a guy, he's now in jail, he calls me two or three times a week. He's a painter in prison."

His brush with the law? "Allegedly for conspiracy for murder." But Klugman doesn't believe the charge.

What he does have faith in is friendship. At a Palumbo's roast of Klugman some time back, he brought in a friend, "who was a father figure to me. I would open his newsstand when I was a kid at 12th and Market every day."

It was a different kind of marketplace that left another indelible impression, this time on a much older Klugman. Though never Bar Mitzvah -- "None of us were," he says of his four brothers, whose late father didn't stress Judaism. "My father said he loved bacon too much" -- Klugman connected to Israel.

"The first time I went to Israel, about 20 years ago, I said I wasn't one of those, I wasn't going to be a sucker, I won't cry," he recalls of the trip he made with his buddy, Zubin Mehta, also known as conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and a global music magnate. "And then we passed the first street sign in Hebrew, and I burst into tears."

It was a sign of the times then and now. "I knew we have a place where we belong," says Klugman of his recognition of Israel as a birthright.

And if there's any place he belonged it was in friendship with Randall, the ultimate paradox of a pal. "He'd order in French, but he also loved to pig out on Kentucky Fried Chicken," laughs Klugman.

If his image was that of fussbudget, in real life, Randall always budgeted for the big laugh. "He was so smart, but he could tell the dirtiest joke in the world."

Regrets, he's had a few. One was not telling Randall how much he meant to him while the actor was still alive: "It was too late till I lost him."

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