Oscar Madison, in my opinion, is one the greatest fictional characters ever created. And, for those of you that don’t know, The Odd Couple is one of my favorite TV shows of all time. So, to put it mildly, my Christmas was a little bit off this year, because on Christmas Eve, the world lost Oscar Madison when the gifted actor, Jack Klugman passed away at the age of 90. I know this is not a political column, but sometimes I can do what I want on my web site.
Some of my earliest memories of TV were watching The Odd Couple on Friday nights in the early 70s during it’s original run. And, then it continued to humor me ad infinitum in reruns. I had the pleasure of meeting Jack a few times in the past twenty years and each time he was a gentleman. He was also always ready to talk about Tony.
Klugman’s career spanned more than six decades with award-winning performances in theatre, television and film, but it was his portrayal of the ‘every-slob’ Oscar Madison, opposite the uber-sanitary Felix Unger (portrayed by his closest friend Tony Randall) in the classic television series The Odd Couple for which he is instantly remembered.
Klugman was born Jacob Joachim Klugman on April 27,1922 in Philadelphia, PA. He began his career on the New York stage and made his Broadway debut in Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy in 1952. He would go on to appear in numerous stage productions, and was nominated for a Tony Award for his role as Herbie, opposite Ethel Merman in Gypsy. In the ‘60’s he got his first opportunity to step into the sneakers of Oscar Madison, as he replaced Walter Matthau in the original Broadway production of The Odd Couple.
During the Golden Age of Television, many production utilized talent from the New York stage in their casts, and Klugman was no exception. He found work on such television shows as Actor’s Studio and The Philco Television Playhouse. It was in a 1955 episode of Appointment with Adventure, produced by David Susskind, where Klugman first appeared and acted opposite the man with whom he would later be inextricably linked—Tony Randall. Klugman was awarded for his first Emmy for his performance on the series The Defenders in 1964. He appeared in countless series including the classic episode of The Twilight Zone in which he played a game of pool with Jonathan Winters with the stakes being life and death.
For his role as the slovenly sportswriter, Oscar Madison, in The Odd Couple, he received two Emmys and millions of laughs in the show’s five-season run. Even though his starring role as medical examiner Quincy lasted for eight seasons, Klugman would first and forever be thought of as Oscar, Oscar, Oscar. His partnership with Randall continued far beyond the series, as the two performed their iconic characters on stage in Neil Simon’s original play, as well as other stage productions including The Sunshine Boys.
Klugman’s well-publicized treatment for throat cancer did not deter the actor from pursuing his craft, and at the urging of Tony Randall, they incorporated his recovery from the disease into his familiar persona of Oscar Madison for the television movie The Odd Couple: Together Again. After Randall’s death, Klugman turned author with Tony and Me: A Story of Friendship, a book that recounted the details of their friendship that spanned over 50 years.
Klugman married Brett Somers in 1953, and although the two separated in 1974, neither ever filed for divorce. Somers would also become a part of The Odd Couple series, portraying Madison’s ex-wife Blanche on a number of episodes. In 2008, a year after Somers’ passing, he married his longtime girlfriend Peggy Crosby.
He admitted on more than one occasion that he wasn’t really like Oscar Madison in real life (although they did share a proclivity for billiards, the ponies and cigars), but what is not generally known about Klugman is that he used his continuing celebrity from the Quincy series to play an integral role in passing critical healthcare legislation in the early 1980’s: