Jack Klugman: Actor best known as Oscar in ‘The Odd Couple’ and as Quincy, ME

He once said of himself: ‘I’m simple, sloppy, a womaniser – at least I was. I had all Oscar’s vices’

Jack Klugman, who has died at the age of 90, was an Emmy Award-winning actor who excelled in disarming everyman roles, notably in the sitcom The Odd Couple as a slovenly sportswriter and in the police drama Quincy, ME. Klugman became a household name with his comic role in The Odd Couple, for which he received two Emmys during the show’s run on ABC from 1970 to 1975.

The series was adapted from a 1965 Neil Simon comedy about mismatched New York oddballs: a compulsively tidy photographer named Felix Unger who rooms with his best friend and fellow divorced man, an unkempt sportswriter named Oscar Madison. The play was a Broadway hit with Art Carney as Felix and Walter Matthau as Oscar. Matthau and Jack Lemmon co-starred in a 1968 film version.

Klugman stepped in as a replacement for Matthau on Broadway soon after the play opened and was signed to play the role of Oscar in the television series, with Tony Randall cast as Felix. The show was taped before a live audience, and the use of a laugh track was forbidden. If the crowd didn’t react to the jokes, the actors would ad-lib scenes until they found something the audience liked. When the show was edited, only the funniest takes were used.

Klugman won the first of his three Emmy Awards in 1964 for The Defenders, a courtroom drama. He played an actor whose old membership in a Communist-front organisation had ugly repercussions during the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s.

Before turning to television, Klugman was an established character actor in films, with roles in Sidney Lumet’s courtroom drama 12 Angry Men (1957) and Blake Edwards’s Days of Wine and Roses (1962), in which he played an alcoholic. He also appeared in Goodbye, Columbus (1969) as the father of a spoiled young woman played by Ali MacGraw.

In 1976, Klugman returned to television in Quincy, ME as a medical examiner in the Los Angeles County coroner’s office who used forensic science to get to the bottom of suspicious deaths. Quincy aired on NBC until 1983 and garnered Klugman four Emmy nominations for lead actor in a dramatic series. He described Quincy as a precursor to later crime-scene investigation shows, which, he said, “just took what we did and made it bloodier and sexier.”

Jacob Joachim Klugman was born in 1922, in South Philadelphia to an impoverished Jewish family. He was in his teens when his father, a house painter, died. His mother became a hatmaker to support her six children. Klugman said he was initially drawn to acting after watching the child actor Jackie Cooper in the tear-jerking boxing drama The Champ (1931). He later said he did not pursue acting seriously because he thought actors “had to be born to a certain station in life.”

Klugman said he got into acting after he returned from Army service during the Second World War and acquired serious gambling debts. “I owed a loan shark, who was also a friend, some money,” he told an interviewer. “I had to get out of town. Since I had the GI Bill, I remembered my brother knew a guy in the Army who had been to Carnegie Mellon University, so I went there.”

He studied acting at the Pittsburgh college (although one of his teachers advised him that his talents were more suited to truck driving). He later moved to New York to study at the American Theatre Wing and take small roles on television and on Broadway.

Klugman received a Tony Award nomination for his supporting role in the Broadway musical Gypsy (1959) as the boyfriend of an indomitable stage mother played by Ethel Merman. Often described more as a reliable than a dynamic performer, Klugman impressed reviewers with his steady work ethic.

Amid an otherwise scathing analysis of 1968’s The Sudden & Accidental Re-Education of Horse Johnson, in which Klugman played a warehouse employee who quit his job to seek life’s meaning, the feared New York Times drama critic Clive Barnes applauded him for “giving the play everything he could short of a heart transplant.”

In 1953, Klugman married the actress and comedian Brett Somers, best known as a game-show panellist on The Match Game in the 1970s. He and Somers separated in 1974 but never divorced. She died in 2007.

Klugman’s 18-year relationship with the actress Barbara Neugass ended in 1992 and led to an ugly palimony suit that Neugass ultimately lost. In 2008, Klugman married the actress Peggy Crosby.

Klugman starred in the shortlived 1986 sitcom You Again? as a divorced supermarket manager. The next year, he returned to Broadway in Herb Gardner’s Tony-winning I’m Not Rappaport as a passionate octogenarian socialist. His co-star was Ossie Davis, with whom Klugman had made his stage debut nearly 40 years earlier in an Equity Library Theater production, Stevedore.

In 1989, an operation to remove a cancerous growth from his larynx left Klugman virtually unable to speak. Working with a vocal coach, he regained his speaking ability and performed with Randall in a 1991 stage revival of The Odd Couple. The two filmed a 1993 TV film, The Odd Couple: Together Again and performed together in many stage productions, including Simon’s The Sunshine Boys. Klugman credited Randall, who died in 2004, with motivating him to persevere after the loss of his voice. Klugman became a spokesman for the American Cancer Society. Television made him wealthy, and he invested millions in breeding horses.

He once said he felt closest to his character in The Odd Couple. “I am Oscar; I didn’t have to play him,” he said. “If I had my druthers, it would be to live my life carefree, and that was Oscar Madison’s philosophy, to simplify your life and enjoy. I’m simple, sloppy, a womaniser — or at least I was. I had all Oscar’s vices.”

Jacob Joachim Klugman, actor: born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 27 April 1922; married 1953 Brett Somers (separated 1974, died 2007; two sons), 2008 Peggy J Compton; died Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, California 24 December 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sports Simulator / Home Cinema Installation Technician

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Simulation Tec...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Consultants - OTE up to £35,000

£15000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Franchise Operations Manager - Midlands or North West

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The position will be home based...

Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue