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.

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