By Steve Vertlieb: I grew up with television in the 1950s. The little box sitting in my living room, brightly lit from within, became a lifelong companion. During those most impressionable years, I came to recognize a variety of character actors and actresses who, in my private adolescent world, became trusted friends. Their faces were comforting affirmations of my youthful belief in the ultimate goodness of mankind. Among the most reassuring of these, both then and now, belonged to Jack Klugman. While he later established a delightful persona as Oscar Madison (opposite Tony Randall) in television’s adaptation of The Odd Couple, I will always regard Jack Klugman as one of the most vulnerable, deeply honest, and passionate actors in television history. He was “everyman” … a poor, simple “Joe,” trying to lift himself out of the gutter and become a “Mentsch.”
Klugman, along with Burgess Meredith, was particularly cherished by Rod Serling, who utilized their talents in four separate episodes each of his classic Twilight Zone series on CBS. Two of those episodes in particular affected me deeply during my formative years. In “A Passage For Trumpet,” Klugman played Joey Crown, a sad, lonely man with an affinity for his horn. In a world filled with strangers, his trumpet seemed his only friend … an instrument of beauty that alone elevated his soul. In a later episode of the classic series, Klugman was an inconsequential gambler (Max Phillips) whose sole meaning and value in life seemed the future of his only son, wounded in Vietnam. He sacrifices his own shabby life in order to save his boy … a selfless act “In Praise of Pip.”
In 1957, Jack Klugman co-starred with, perhaps, the most startling ensemble of young actors ever assembled in a single motion picture. Alongside Henry Fonda, Lee J Cobb, Martin Balsam, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, Robert Webber, and George Voskovic as “Juror No. 5” in Sidney Lumet’s landmark courtroom drama, Twelve Angry Men, Klugman delivered an impassioned performance as a loner struggling to voice his humanity in a sea of cynicism. He was always the common man, the quiet, dignified soul yearning to find expression in a world that often had no time for him.
His powerful guest starring role in the CBS dramatic series The Defenders in 1964 (“The Blacklist”) won him a well deserved Emmy Award. Klugman could always be counted on to deliver a strong, moralistic performance as he did opposite Jack Lemmon, as Jim Hungerford, in Blake Edwards’ tragic study of alcoholism, The Days of Wine and Roses (1962). He created the role of Ethel Merman’s friend and companion in the original production of Gypsy on Broadway (later re-created by Karl Malden in the motion picture version opposite Rosalind Russell). He delivered comforting support to Frank Sinatra in a strong performance as a loyal police officer in The Detective.
I was running the film department at WTAF TV 29 in Philadelphia during the late Seventies and early Eighties, and had become friendly with Dan Silverman, the head of publicity at Universal, who would take my brother and I on private walking tours of the studio’s back lot. On one such occasion, we visited the set of the popular Quincy series during filming and had a lovely meeting with the superb Jack Klugman whose heart melted upon learning that we had come from his favorite city, Philadelphia. I’d always wanted to meet him, and so this opportunity was quite literally a dream come true.
I’d been warned that the actor could be somewhat temperamental, and so I made sure that he knew right from the start that I had journeyed to Hollywood from The City of Brotherly Love. He was very warm, and threw his arms around me immediately.
After chatting for a few moments, Jack asked if my brother Erwin and I might like to return to the set after lunch to watch them film an episode of the weekly NBC series. “Would you boys like to come back after lunch, and watch us shoot,” he asked. I watched him walk over to his director. Pointing to us, he said “These gentlemen are going to come back after lunch and watch us “shoot.” “They’re from Philadelphia … Ya know … PHILADELPHIA!” He was very cute.
Jack Klugman remains one of my favorite actors, both on the small and large screens. His charm and self effacing humor when I met him on the set of Quincy is a memory that I’ll cherish always … as I will his profound body of work both in film and television.