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Jack & Tony: A Not So Odd Couple After all

By Gary Wien

Actors generally have to do a little research for their roles to really understand their characters. Jack Klugman, on the other hand, didn't need to look any further than his own life to play Benny Silverman in The Value Of Names. Silverman is a retired actor whose career was derailed when Leo Gershen named him in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Years later, Silverman is faced with the prospect of his daughter performing in a play directed by Gershen. While Klugman never had to go in front of the Committee and was never blacklisted, he worked with and knew many who were.

"Art Smith was a character actor who played little parts like the father in movies and stuff," said Klugman. "And he was in Golden Boy with me. He got on the subway stop after I did the day after (Clifford) Odets had named half of the cast in the play and he said, 'what do they want from me?' And then he started crying. He didn't want to cry on the subway, but he cried. It was terrible to see. It was a terrible time."

Klugman worked with actors like Lee J. Cobb and John Garfield who were also put on the infamous blacklist. He watched as their careers faded in the same way his character's career slipped away.

"When someone cuts you off before you can find out how good you are or how bad you are - you're incomplete," he adds. "You're in exile. And that's what really got me. I know I wouldn't have squealed. I wouldn't have named names. I think I would have done what Larry Parks first did, 'please, I'll tell you whatever you want to know about me, but don't ask me to name names.' He eventually named names and that's what killed him."

Klugman says he really doesn't know why he was never named since he admits to signing every petition that was placed in front of him. It was either luck of the draw or the fact that his career was just taking off during the blacklist period.

Another thing Klugman had in common with his character was knowing what it is like to be cut off from the thing you love the most. Klugman was one of the pioneers in the early television years appearing on hundreds of shows; he then moved back and forth from television to film and theatre for the next forty some years. He is best remembered for a pair of long running television characters (Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple and Quincy in Quincy M.E.) but his resume also includes an Emmy for his work on The Defenders; classic films like 12 Angry Man, Goodbye, Columbus, and Days of Wine and Roses; several roles on Broadway like Golden Boy, Gypsy (for which he got a Tony nomination), I'm Not Rappaport, and Sunshine Boys. And then, one day in the early '90s, Klugman's acting career appeared to come to a halt.

A battle with cancer forced Klugman to lose a vocal chord, which dramatically altered his speech. After surgery, he barely had any voice at all and worried that his career was over.

"If it wasn't for Tony Randall, I would never have come back," he said. "He was the first one to visit me in the hospital besides my kids. I was so angry because it was worse than I thought it would be. I had no voice... no sound. I said, 'I lost my voice' and he said, 'oh, that's all right Jack. You never did sound like Richard Burton anyway!' And I remember him saying one day as he was leaving, 'if and when you're ready to come back we'll find a venue for you.'

About two years later, Klugman found a teacher who was able to help him develop a particular sound for his voice. It was around this time that his old Odd Couple partner called him back and said that if they could team up for one performance of The Odd Couple they could gross a million dollars for Randall's theatre (National Actors Theatre).

"I said what are you smoking?" recalled Klugman.

He told his teacher about the offer and was told to tell Randall that he could do the play in six months. And so, Klugman's returned to the stage as Oscar Madison for the special performance of The Odd Couple. It would wind up being the greatest night of his life, although it didn't start off that way.

"Before the show, everybody told me I had a voice," he recalled. "The guys all said don't worry about it, but before Oscar comes on there are four poker players getting big laughs with normal voices. I come out and say my first line and I was feeling confident and then I heard them moving in their seats. I thought, oh my God, they can't hear me. How in the hell am I going to get through these next two hours? And I hated everybody! Oh, I was so mad at them, but about a minute and a half later I was had a line after 'what do you have to eat?' I said 'brown sandwiches and green sandwiches.' They said what's the green? I said it's either very new cheese or very old meat... And they laughed and I knew they had heard me. They had adjusted their hearing.

"They say when you lose one arm the other gets twice as strong. I think that's what happened. My concentration got stronger. My voice didn't get stronger, but my concentration did. That was the best night of my life. They gave a seven or eight minute standing ovation. We cried and they cried. In the audience were two women I had worked with - Silvia Sidney and Helen Hayes. Sidney turned to Helen and said, 'have you ever been to the theatre where you've seen so much love come from the audience to the stage and back?' And Helen Hayes said, 'I've never seen so much love in the theatre.' Later that night we went to a party where Tony introduced me as the gutsiest son of a bitch. I said no, I'm the luckiest son of a bitch. To have friends like Tony and an audience who understood where I was and that it was the beginning. He was so wonderful. He was what a friend should be. I miss him so much."

Klugman revealed the extent of his long friendship with Tony Randall in the book, "Tony and Me" which was published in 2005. The two actors really were as close as Felix Unger and Oscar Madison - something that seems to please fans of the show. Both were at each other's side in the hospital when they were needed most - during Klugman's cancer and vocal operations and at the end when Randall's body was simply giving up.

"The book a tribute to Tony," he explained. "I wrote it because of Tony. I never knew how much I was going to miss him until he went away. He was an all-around person. You could go into a museum with him and he could teach you more in two hours than you could learn at the Louvre in four days. He knew everything. And then on the way home with the cabbie he'd tell you the best dirty joke you ever heard. Or we'd go to a French restaurant and he'd order fine food in French but two times a year he would pig out on Kentucky Fried Chicken and cold beer! Nobody knew... It appeared that I was gregarious and he was the loner, but it was the other way around.

"The papers were so bad to him. His theatre did a great production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible; they did George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, Sunshine Boys, Three Men On A Horse... So many plays and every time they came out they called him 'The TV Entrepreneur Trying To Be On Broadway'. He put $8 million of his own money into it and he didn't care. He should have started smaller, but he started big. Every week he brought in kids from the high schools, cost him $35,000 a week but he didn't care. He said I want to introduce them to good theatre. The night he died, they dimmed the lights on Broadway so I thought they recognized it. He had value. He had great value."

Klugman's book sheds a light on their close personal relationship for the first time. It was well known that they had a great professional relationship, but the book shows a friendship that endured nearly five decades. It follows them from their early days on stage and television through Klugman's fight with throat cancer and Randall's struggle to open a National Actors Theatre. The book is available online and at George Street Playhouse during this play's run.

"We never cared about billing, we never cared about money, we just cared that the scene had to be right," he said. Thanks to Randall's friendship, Jack's still getting the scene right night after night.

For more by this author, click here

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Event calendar
Thursday, Jan 17, 2019


Open Mic Night! @ Black Box PAC, Teaneck - 7:30pm


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