The award-winning actor Jack Klugman, who won everyone’s heart playing the curmudgeonly slob Oscar Madison in the television series “The Odd Couple,” and pioneered the genre of television medical investigators in “Quincy, M.E.,” will appear at the George Street Playhouse in Jeffrey Sweet’s play “The Value of Names,” now in previews and opening Friday, November 17.
Klugman stars as a retired comic whose career was derailed by the infamous blacklist concocted by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. This is the third production of this play that Klugman has done. The first was in Lincoln, Nebraska, followed by another staging that played two-week engagements in Queens, White Plains, and Nyack. The message of the play is close to Klugman’s heart, and he says he feels “it’s more apropos now than it has been for a while as Americans are again losing our liberties.”
Back in the spring of 1952, Klugman made his Broadway debut in a revival of Clifford Odets’ play “Golden Boy,” directed by Odets himself. Two of his idols were in the play: Lee J. Cobb and John Garfield. What should have been a time of elation for him turned into something quite different. “This was an awful time in our country’s history,” says Klugman, referring to artists’ being barred from work because of a taint — real, implied, or imagined — that they were members of the Communist Party. Naming names became a disease that spread throughout the theatrical community.
“I saw naked fear,” says Klugman. Odets himself named half of the cast of the play. First he would call up his associates and friends to tell them that he was going to “name” them the next day. “I don’t know how I escaped being named as well,” says Klugman, “because I signed every petition that was put in front of me if it seemed like a good cause.”
He tells me how one of the blacklisted actors in 1952 was crying on a subway platform with tears streaming down his face, saying “I just want to do my work.” Klugman’s character in “The Value of Names” has experienced just that. “There’s a place in the play where my character says ‘because he interfered with me making contact with an audience, I’ll never know how good I could have been.’” He describes this as an actor’s purgatory. “Who knows what actors like Garfield and Cobb could have done if their careers hadn’t been derailed as well.”
Before “Golden Boy” Cobb had performed in a number of important Broadway plays including the Odets drama “Waiting for Lefty” and the ground-breaking debut production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” After the blacklisting Cobb made only two more stage appearances, one the following year in a very short-lived staging of a play called “The Emperor’s Clothes” by George Tabori and a production of “King Lear” in Great Britain. Klugman thinks that this most assuredly was the perfect role for Cobb and should have been seen in the United States.
Klugman also had his career derailed after years of work in films (most notably in “Twelve Angry Men”) and a massive amount of television work. In addition to “The Odd Couple” (1970-1975) and Quincy (1976-1983), he made a record number of episodes of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.” “I was a pioneer in TV,” he says. “I did about 450 live shows.” He tells me that the composer Johnny Mercer was at a rehearsal and jokingly told him, “I haven’t seen you on television for half an hour.” Klugman received two Golden Globe Awards for “The Odd Couple.”
However, his career was interrupted by cancer. Like his character in “The Odd Couple,” Klugman was a heavy smoker. He was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx in 1974. Hardly missing a beat, he was treated and kept on working — and smoking. When the cancer returned in 1989, this time one of his vocal cords had to be removed. His buddy and co-star in “The Odd Couple,” Tony Randall was the first person to visit him in the hospital. “I said, ‘Oh, Tony I’ve lost my voice.’ He said, ‘Well let’s face it, you never sounded like Richard Burton.’” Randall’s steadfast friendship and encouragement led to Klugman’s return to the stage, even with an impaired voice. The two of them did one performance of the play “The Odd Couple” as a benefit for Randall’s theater company. “That brought me back. It was the most wonderful night,” says Klugman. He continued to work, touring with Randall in “The Odd Couple” and appearing in television and film. This October, he received the third annual TV-DVD Lifetime Achievement Award.
Though he still doesn’t sound like Richard Burton, he is certainly vocally expressive and understandable. We talked at a table in the cabaret space at the George Street Theater before the day’s rehearsal. For a man with only one vocal chord, he certainly can talk. Having worked with so many notables in theater, film, and television, he has no end of anecdotes about his wide circle of friends. Since Ethel Merman is a favorite of mine, he happily regaled me with more Merman stories than there is space for here. But I will share his take on their friendship’s beginnings as they started rehearsals for “Gypsy,” where he played Mama Rose’s love interest, Herbie.
“Ethel. I love her. We had some rough spots at the beginning. But once we got sex out of the way,” he waits to see my reaction then goes on to elaborate on the scenario during out-of-town tryouts in Philadelphia. He says it was a well-known fact that she had had affairs with all of her leading men and each one had ended badly with the two not speaking. “She called me one night in Philadelphia about 12 o’clock and asked, ‘What are you doing?’ I was playing poker. She told me, ‘It’s a lot more fun up here.’ I said, ‘I’ll talk to you tomorrow.’ The next day, I said ‘Ethel, you’ve had affairs with all your leading men. We have such a good thing going, let’s keep it that way.’ We became the best of friends.”
All through his career, he has made wonderful friends who have been instrumental in furthering his career. “I worked with some of the best: Humphrey Bogart, James Mason, Henry Fonda.” His first professional job was in the touring company of “Mr. Roberts” with Fonda. Klugman had been called in as a replacement for an actor who was, as he tells me, “a drunk.” That was in Kansas City.
As the other actor didn’t return, the director, Josh Logan, considered replacing Klugman. Fonda came to his defense, “No the kid’s all right. I’ll work with him.” He played the role for six weeks. And he tells me that at each performance Fonda gave 150 percent of himself. Fonda was also responsible for Klugman’s getting the role for a television mounting of “Petrified Forest” with Bogart. At first he thought, “Wow, I’m so good. They found me.” Later he learned, “Hank had asked for me. He never told me.”
Getting into the theater to begin with had been almost an accident. Klugman grew up in a poor family in a rough and tumble Philadelphia. His widowed mother needed help, and Klugman made his way as a peddler, numbers runner, and anything that would bring in a buck. He also developed a real penchant for gambling. It was this “hobby” that led him to the theater. To get away from a loan shark, he took refuge at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, compliments of the GI Bill.
After a very discouraging start when a teacher told him he was more suited to be a truck driver than an actor, he was allowed to stay to be the only guy available to play scenes with 27 female students. He tells me that they told him, “When the men come back in February, we’ll have to let you go.” When he went on stage for the first time, he says, “A calm went over me” and he knew he was in the right place for him.
The teacher who had trounced him said, “I was wrong, Mr. Klugman, you belong here.” The emotion still resonates. “That word — belong. Meant so much. I was 23, had been in the army, taken bets, been a bookie, numbers runner, everything. Now I belonged. And these kids were so sophisticated and talked so well. I was like something out of the Sopranos. I was welcomed into that world. And I loved it, and I learned that I could learn.” After this awakening, he proceeded to educate himself by reading vociferously. His motto: “Get a library card, and the world is yours.”
Klugman, who boasts that he will be 85 this April, is a man of remarkable stamina. When he isn’t performing, he likes to travel. “Before I die, I want to see all the places I’ve never been.” He and his “sweetheart” of 20 years, Peggy Crosby, have recently returned from a trip to Moscow. The year before, they traveled to South Africa. And this March, they are off to China and Tibet. He admits to some trouble with his legs and back, and selected memory problems. “I won’t remember your name, but I remember all of my lines,” he says. Live theater is his passion, and he loves working. “When I work, I have no pain.” What he would really like next is to work on a new play. “Just not a Jewish grandfather. I’m tired of playing that.”
The Value of Names, through Sunday, December 17, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Drama by Jeffrey Sweet stars Jack Klugman as a retired comic whose career was derailed by the blacklist; Dan Lauria, the man who betrayed him to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee; and Liz Larsen, the comic’s daugther. $28 to $56. Audio described performances, Thursday and Friday, November 30 and December 1, 8 p.m. 732-246-7717.