Film and TV actor gained fame as Oscar in 'The Odd Couple'

  • Updated: December 24, 2012 - 9:25 PM

Jack Klugman, the rubber-mugged character actor who gained TV stardom in the 1970s as the slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison on "The Odd Couple" and as the crusading forensic pathologist of "Quincy, M.E.," died Monday at his Los Angeles home. He was 90.

At one time a heavy smoker, Klugman had survived throat cancer, diagnosed in 1974. After a vocal cord was removed in 1989, his voice was reduced to a gravelly whisper.

Klugman wasn't a subtle performer. His features were large and mobile. He was a no-baloney actor who conveyed straightforward, simply defined emotion, whether it was anger, heartbreak, lust or sympathy.

He was already a decorated actor in 1970 when he began co-starring in "The Odd Couple," a sitcom adaptation of Neil Simon's hit play about two divorced men sharing a New York apartment. (A film version was released in 1968 with Walter Matthau reprising his Broadway performance as Oscar.)

Opposite Klugman's Oscar, an outgoing slob with a fondness for poker, cigars and sexy women, was Tony Randall as the pretentious fussbudget Felix Unger. Randall died in 2004. Klugman had played the part before; he had replaced Matthau for a few months on Broadway and had originated the role in London.

He also had more than 100 TV credits behind him, including four episodes of "The Twilight Zone" and a 1964 episode of the legal drama "The Defenders," in which he delivered an Emmy Award-winning performance as a blacklisted actor.

In the movies he had been the nouveau-riche father of a Jewish American princess (Ali MacGraw) in "Goodbye, Columbus" (1969); a police colleague of Frank Sinatra's in "The Detective" (1968); Jack Lemmon's Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor in "Days of Wine and Roses" (1962); and a murder-trial juror, alongside Henry Fonda, in "12 Angry Men" (1957).

The "Odd Couple" series made Klugman a celebrity, but not immediately. During its five-year run, it never cracked the Top 20 in the Nielsen prime-time ratings. But after it went into seemingly perpetual reruns, it earned a huge new following. Klugman won two Emmys for the show and Randall one.

"Quincy, M.E." was as sincere a drama as the "The Odd Couple" was a comedy, and although it is not remembered as fondly, its initial run, from 1976 to 1983, was far more successful. The title character, the medical examiner for Los Angeles County (Quincy's first name was never revealed), was inspired by the real medical examiner at the time, Thomas Noguchi, known familiarly as "the coroner to the stars."

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