Jack Klugman, who died Monday at age 90, was already 48 when he became a TV star, playing slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison on ABC’s adaptation of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.”
He was not unknown, being by that time the possessor of an Emmy for his work on episode of “The Defenders” (“The Odd Couple” would earn him two more) and a Tony nomination for the original Broadway production of “Gypsy.” But henceforth, and through seven seasons of NBC’s “Quincy, M.E.,” he would be better known and beloved.
He had played Jack Lemmon’s AA sponsor in “Days of Wine and Roses” and Juror No.5 in the film “12 Angry Men.” On “The Twilight Zone” he had appeared variously as a bookie, an alcoholic trumpeter, a pool player and a spaceship captain. He tended to play good guys, though sometimes good guys down on their luck or driven to extremes, and when he played bad guys, they were of the sympathetic rather than socio- or psychopathic sort.
Born in Philadelphia of Russian Jewish parents (a hat maker and a house painter), he was urban and Eastern and anything but posh and he never tried to disguise it, pronouncing “liver” as “livah” and “beer” as “beyah” and exclaiming “Whatevah? Whaddya mean whatevah?” as would any East Side Kid.
He had the slightly mournful face of a hound, when he wasn’t animating its deepening folds with a smile. His voice, before he lost a vocal cord to cancer in 1989, was a trombone he could take from pianissimo to fortissimo in the space of a sentence.
Carefree and careless where Tony Randall’s Felix is anxious and obsessive, Oscar is the well-adjusted member of “The Odd Couple,” happy with himself if not always his situation. (He’s the one you identify with, or heaven help you.)
To balance Felix’s neurotic grandiloquence, Klugman stayed down to earth. He was a dramatic actor primarily, and he played Oscar straight: His reactions are always authentic, his exasperation colored with tenderness. This was a love story, after all.
In 1976, one year after the fifth and final season of “Odd Couple,” Klugman went into the forensic pathology procedural “Quincy, M.E.,” one of the first of a now-familiar breed.
As Quincy, Klugman was called gruff, because that is what we call older people — he was 54 when the series began — who raise their voices to express a strong opinion. He could certainly get loud — loudness was a hallmark of his style — but he never sounded strident.
“Quincy” is, at bottom, about passion, about a man who cares too much to settle for quick or easy answers — Klugman pressed the producers to make it an issue-oriented show — and while watching the star solve murders the police had somehow missed, we also learn about child abuse, anorexia, punk rock, and the dumping of hazardous waste.
Quincy had his lighter side: He lived on a sailboat, and, like Oscar Madison, he was something of a ladies’ man. But we remember most the knit brow, the concerned look, the quick acceleration into a fifth-gear state of outrage.
The writing gets in the actor’s way at times, and the production can seem dated and laughable. But Klugman never does. He is right in the moment, then, now and forever.