Monday, 2 September 2013

Klugman: Jack of all roles

Jack Klugman with Tony Randall
in "The Odd Couple".
The death of Jack Klugman over Christmas reminded me of just how versatile an actor he was. Beyond being Quincy, the M.E., he played a wide range of characters from the comedic to dramatic and even tragic.

My favourite sportswriter
It was reruns where I first saw Jack Klugman playing the sloppy sportswriter Oscar Madison, who roomed with neat freak Felix Unger (played by Tony Randall). The show, which ran from 1970 to 1975, was based on the Neil Simon play and movie of the same name. The chemistry that Klugman and Randal had, made the show. It was off the air by the time the '80s dawned, but I saw it in reruns. I even bought the first season DVD and it holds up pretty well.

Still, it was in comedy where I first saw Jack Klugman in action, making it a little jarring when he appeared in the dramatic, and at times intense "Quincy, M.E."

Jack Klugman in "12 Angry Men".
One of the angry ones
Christmas 1985 was when I received my first VCR, and I wore it out taping shows I could not stay up late enough to watch.

It was a few months into 1986 when I was browsing "TV Guide", as I did every week, when I saw Channel 7 was airing "12 Angry Men" after midnight, on a school night.

Faithfully, I set the timer, and when I had some time, watched one of the best movies I have ever seen.

The premise is well known. It is a hot, sweltering day in the city, and no one wants to be cooped up inside, especially a jury of 12 men deliberating over a murder case. A guilty verdict means the death penalty, and seemingly everyone believes, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the defendant is guilty. The foreman takes a vote and the result is: 11-1. Juror number eight, played by Henry Fonda, is not completely convinced either way, but he wants to talk about it given the life-or-death stakes of the situation. It concerns him that everyone seems to want to vote guilty just to be done with jury duty. Slowly, he points out inconsistencies, convincing juror after juror there really is reasonable doubt.

Jack Klugman plays juror number five, who is dressed in a suit and seems to be a young professional. He is one of the first to change his vote to not guilty. It turns out he grew up in a tough neighbourhood and, when discussion turns to the mechanics of a knife fight, he shares his personal observations. He points out that in a knife fight, someone experienced would thrust up, not down, as one of the witnesses had testified.

Klugman's performance, although as dramatic as any episode of Quincy, is even more intense. However, instead of the brash and opinionated coroner, here he plays the opposite, a quiet, understated man with a more difficult past than he lets on. He was part of an amazing ensemble that included Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden, E.G.Marshall, John Fiedler, Ed Begley, Robert Webber, and others.

Return to comedy
Jack Klugman with
John Stamos in "You Again".
In 1986, a new comedy debuted starring Klugman and teen heart throb John Stamos. It followed another new comedy "Valerie", starring Valerie Harper, on NBC, and was based on a British comedy. In fact, the actress who played housekeeper Enid Tompkins on "You Again" simultaneously played the same role on the British comedy, frequently commuting from England to the U.S.

Klugman was a grocery store manager, divorced for a decade, who had a son he never paid much attention to. One day the son appears to live with him. Subsequently, the sparks begin to fly.

I really liked the show, although it took some getting used to seeing Klugman doing comedy once again. However, not many other people did as it only lasted parts of two seasons, for a total of 26 episodes.

"You Again" must ave made an impression though, because when Klugman died, Stamos was one of the people close to the deceased actor, who was interviewed about his time with Klugman.

He posted this tribute:

Given the current state of network television, we likely will never see an actor as versatile as Jack Klugman again. He truly was a master of his craft, just as convincing doing comedy as heart-stopping drama. He was as durable in life as he was on the screen. Throat cancer would take part of his voice, but it did not dampen his enthusiasm or drive. Instead, the aftermath of his throat cancer was worked into the story of the "Odd Couple: Together Again" reunion movie in 1993.

Comedy, drama, Jack Klugman could do it all, and anyone who saw him in action was richer for the experience. Just ask John Stamos.

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