For most, Jacob “Jack” Klugman’s defining role was Oscar Madison, the quintessential white collar guy with a blue collar New York sensibility – loud, oafish, impulsive, a compulsive gambler and an inveterate slob – on the TV series adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, which ran on ABC 1970-75. Those among the AARP crowd who like their vintage 1970s cop shows – stuff like Cannon, McCloud, Barnaby Jones, MacMillan and Wife — might also have fond remembrances of Klugman in Quincy M.E. (1976-1983) as a pushy, passionate medical examiner – who was also, at times, loud, oafish, impulsive, a compulsive gambler and a bit of a slob.
But when I heard Klugman had passed away on Christmas Eve, what flashed through my mind was the singular appropriateness of his passing on such a spirit-filled day, because my favorite onscreen memories of the actor were his four appearances on The Twilight Zone. What was the tie for me? All four of Klugman’s Zone episodes dealt, in one way or another, with matters of the spirit: death, a meaningful life, legacy.
By the time Klugman made his first appearance on the series, he was already moving easily between stage (where he’d begun and to where he’d regularly return throughout his career), the big screen (most notably as the streetwise Juror #5 in the Sidney Lumet 1957 classic, 12 Angry Men), and television. Evidence of his professional status: the same year Klugman showed up on Zone for the first time – 1960 – he received a Tony nomination for his role in the original Broadway run of the musical Gypsy.
With his everyman looks and the slouch-shouldered trudge of a man who always had more bills to pay than money to pay them, Klugman was a perfect choice for The Twilight Zone whose best stories were about little people: their frailties and foibles, their admirable if minor nobilities, their often small ambitions and hopes.
In the 1960 Zone episode “A Passage for Trumpet,” Klugman plays a washed-up, alcoholic trumpet player who attempts to commit suicide. A visit from the best trumpet player in the universe – the angel Gabriel (John Anderson) – persuades him that even when life is at its worst, there’s always something worth living for, including the ability to move people with music.
It was a bit heavy-handedly sentimental, but a virtual rehearsal for the more hard-edged “A Game of Pool” during the next season which seemed to be capitalizing on the success of Robert Rossen’s big screen pool room classic, The Hustler (1961). In a vaguely similar plot construct to “Trumpet,” instead of a down and out horn man, Klugman is a neighborhood pool ace frustrated at his second-class status in being constantly compared to long-dead pool great Fats Brown (Jonathan Winters). Klugman is visited by the spirit of Brown who challenges him to a game for the highest stakes of all: his life.
Klugman was back in “Death Ship,” this time as the commander of a space exploration mission which discovers the wreck of their own ship occupied by their dead selves, and is damned to relive the inexplicable discovery time and time again.
But easily the actor’s best work on the series was his last: the 1963 offering, “In Praise of Pip.” Klugman plays another low-life, a bookie, whose singular positive accomplishment is his grown son, Pip. Hearing that Pip has been critically wounded in what was then a little brushfire war in a part of the world few Americans had ever heard of – Vietnam – Klugman attempts an act of atonement for his otherwise grubby little life and intercedes on behalf of one of his luckless bettors, taking a bullet from one of his boss’s enforcers in the process. The wounded Klugman visits the local amusement park where he’s visited by the spirit (or hallucination?) of his son as a young boy (Billy Mumy). They relive their fun days on the midway, but when young Pip disappears, the dying Klugman turns to the night sky and beseeches God to take his life in trade for that of his son. Klugman dies, Pip lives. Coincidence? Divine intervention? In the world of The Twilight Zone, it could be either…or even both.
With the exception of being a space commander of the future, Klugman was always eminently relatable in his Zone roles; someone who looked like us, sounded like us, and even had the same little dreams as us: a desire for minor greatness (“Passage for Trumpet,” “Game of Pool”), to accomplish at least one decent thing (“Praise of Pip”), to be remembered fondly and well.
These pieces came to me when I heard of his Christmas Eve passing because they seemed to provide a kind of epitaph which, in true Klugman fashion, was something to which we could all relate and which seemed so seasonably appropriate: he had managed his minor greatness, never having been a major star, but yet becoming a much beloved Familiar Face; illustrating, in so much of his work, the decency that could be found in the most – at first glance – ignoble of souls, like a third-rate bookie or even a cigar-puffing, constantly indebted sports writer like Oscar Madison; and he will always be remembered fondly…and well.
– Bill Mesce