LOS ANGELES — Jack Klugman, the prolific, craggy-faced character actor and regular guy who was loved by millions as the messy one in TV’s The Odd Couple and the crime-fighting coroner in Quincy, M.E., died Monday, a son said. He was 90.
Klugman, who lost his voice to throat cancer in the 1980s and trained himself to speak again, died with his wife at his side.
“He had a great life, and he enjoyed every moment of it and he would encourage others to do the same,” son Adam Klugman said.
Adam Klugman said he was spending Christmas with his brother, David, and their families. Their father had been convalescing for some time but had apparently died unexpectedly and they were not sure of the exact cause.
Never anyone’s idea of a matinee idol, Klugman remained a popular star for decades simply by playing the type of man you could imagine running into at a bar or riding on a subway with – gruff, but down to Earth, his tie stained and a little loose, a racing form under his arm, a cigar in hand during the days when smoking was permitted.
He was ideal for The Odd Couple, which ran from 1970-75 and was based on Neil Simon’s play about mismatched roommates, divorced New Yorkers who end up living together. The show teamed Klugman as sloppy sports writer Oscar Madison and Tony Randall as fussy photographer Felix Unger.
“There’s nobody better to improvise with than Tony,” Klugman said. “A script might say, ‘Oscar teaches Felix football.’ There would be four blank pages. He would provoke me into reacting to what he did. Mine was the easy part.”
They were battlers on screen and the best of friends in real life. When Randall died in 2004 at age 84, Klugman told CNN: “A world without Tony Randall is a world that I cannot recognize.”
In Quincy, M.E., which ran from 1976-83, Klugman played an idealistic, tough-minded medical examiner who tussled with his boss by uncovering evidence of murder in cases where others saw natural causes.
“Quincy was a muckraker, like Upton Sinclair, who wrote about injustices,” Klugman said in a 1987 interview. “He was my ideal as a youngster, my author, my hero.”
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he was born in Philadelphia and began his acting career in college drama at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. After serving in the Army during World War II, he went on to summer stock and off-Broadway, rooming with fellow actor Charles Bronson as both looked for paying jobs. He made his Broadway debut in 1952 in a revival of Golden Boy. His film credits included Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men and Blake Edwards’ Days of Wine and Roses, and an early television highlight was appearing with Humphrey Bogart and Henry Fonda in a production of The Petrified Forest. His performance in the classic 1959 musical Gypsy brought him a Tony nomination for best featured (supporting) actor in a musical.
He also appeared in several episodes of The Twilight Zone.
Throat cancer took away his raspy voice for years in the 1980s.
“The only really stupid thing I ever did in my life was to start smoking,” he said in 1996. Seeing people smoking in television and films, he added, “disgusts me, it makes me so angry – kids are watching.”
In his later years, he guest-starred on TV series including Third Watch and Crossing Jordan and appeared in a 2010 theatrical film, Camera Obscura.
Klugman’s hobby was horse racing and he eventually took up raising them, too.
“I always loved to gamble,” he said. “I never got close to a horse. Fate dealt me a terrible blow when it gave me a good horse the first time out. I thought how easy this is. Now I love being around them.”
Klugman’s wife, actress-comedian Brett Somers, played his ex-wife, Blanche, in The Odd Couple. The couple, who married in 1953 and had two sons, Adam and David, had been separated for years at the time of her death in 2007.
In February 2008, at age 85, Klugman married longtime girlfriend Peggy Crosby.