Jack Klugman, who has died at 90, was a TV-star anomaly — not conventionally handsome, with the jagged voice and hangdog demeanor of a character actor, and a performer who was as comfortable being part of an ensemble as he was a lead actor. His two signature roles — sloppy sportswriter Oscar Madison on The Odd Couple and shrewd medical examiner in
Quincy, M.E. — were as different as could be, yet Klugman was expansively comfortable as both of those men.
Of the two, the greatest creation was Klugman’s Oscar. You could say that the quality of the character was clearly defined by playwright Neil Simon, but it’s one thing to fashion a character who’ll keep you entertained for a couple of hours in the theater. In weekly television, there’s an innate collusion between writer and actor that makes an audience want to return to that character week after week. So it was with Klugman’s Oscar. Not merely a slob
but loud and brash, a street-smart guy who could be made nervous around more cultured folk, this Oscar was very much the result of Klugman’s thinking-through of this man. Look at the way Klugman plays this great Odd Couple moment when he and his neat-nik pal,
Tony Randall’s Felix Unger, appeared on Password, the great game show. Nervous yet
irritated, eager yet blustery, Klugman was as capable of pulling you into Oscar’s anxiety as much as Randall did Felix’s:
It’s always rare when a TV star gets a second role as popular as his first, and Klugman was
in that rare company, along with actors such as Raymond Burr and Dick Van Dyke. You could argue that Quincy, M.E., was a role even closer to Klugman’s heart as a theater vet — a chance to play a crusader who was never too strident. Like all superb TV stars, Klugman revealed himself through his characters, but was careful to dole out only small bits of his real personality. Part of his enduring achievement was to have brought the intensity of his dramatic performances — in movies such as Twelve Angry Men and Days of Wine and Roses — to his comic strategy in The Odd Couple. He wasn’t afraid to have you think he or the men he portrayed were prickly, stubborn, bull-headed. Because they could also be sweetly sentimental and generous.