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Jack Klugman, Lovable Lug of Stage and Screen, Dead at Age 90

Sections: Award Shows, Comedy, Emmy Award, TV

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Jack Klugman, whose roles included an overzealous pool shark and a crimefighting coroner, has died at age 90.

Most remember him as Oscar Madison, the slob of a sportswriter on the TV version of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. Initially he didn’t want the role, he preferred the theater. When the play he was in closed, the role of Oscar Madison looked a lot more enticing.

Klugman and Tony Randall had perfect chemistry as Madison and Felix Unger, a metrosexual before such a term existed. Klugman won two Emmys and Randall one, but the show wasn’t a big ratings draw. Like many shows, The Odd Couple found the majority of its viewers after entering reruns.

Sci-fi lovers will remember the actor from his four appearances on The Twilight Zone. He appeared in four episodes, including the classic “A Game of Pool.” His character Jesse asks for and receives a chance to play against the greatest pool player who ever lived. “Fats” Brown had died years before the episode begins, but such things aren’t a problem in the Twilight Zone. Suffice it to say Jesse’s reward isn’t what he thinks it’s going to be. I highly recommend looking that one up on Netflix.

Years before CSI brought an impossibly sexy group of crime scene detectives to TV, Klugman’s Quincy M.E. brought us into forensic medicine with its famous intro. Though this show was a drama, it still found ways to use the star’s comic timing:

By the end of The Odd Couple’s five-year run, we knew Oscar and Felix as well as they knew each other. Quincy kept us a little further away. In a TV trait he shared with characters such as Columbo and Gilligan, we never even learned the character’s first name. During his onscreen marriage, many viewers tuned in primarily to see if they’d mention it. The minister simply asked if “Quincy” took this woman to be his lawfully wedded bride.

Klugman wrote some of this show’s episodes, and wasn’t afraid to tackle tough issues. He was one of the first celebrities to champion a cause before Congress, and ultimately successful in his quest. One episode dealt with orphan drugs. They are so named because drug companies don’t consider them profitable. They treat rare conditions, and it’s hard to get pharmaceutical companies to get excited about their production. Thanks in large part of Klugman’s intervention, Congress passed the Orphan Drug Act in 1983. It offers economic incentives to the companies that develop those drugs.

The actor himself had a serious bout with throat cancer. Years of smoking ended in surgery to remove his vocal cord. That would have been the death knell for most actors’ career. Klugman taught himself to speak again, and kept working. He crusaded against smoking, and the TV shows/movies that glamorized it.

Fun Fact: While trying to start their acting careers, Klugman roomed in New York with another struggling actor. His name was Charles Bronson.

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