The greatest sign of achievement always seemed to me to be finding one’s name as the answer to a clue in the New York Times crossword puzzle. I’ve just changed my mind. As I was driving home from Manhattan on the New Jersey Turnpike, what should I see around exit 14 but a huge billboard with photos of Jack Klugman and Paul Dooley. Now that’s a literal and mind-boggling sign of achievement. The prompt for this extravagant display? Klugman and Dooley are starring together in a revival of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys at George Street Playhouse, which goes into previews on Tuesday, October 16, opens on Friday, October 19, and runs through Sunday, November 11.

In an interview backstage at the theater before rehearsal, both of them are enthusiastic when asked about the billboard. Klugman quizzes me about its whereabouts so he can go see it.

Both Klugman and Dooley are theater pros who have been in the business since the 1950s and need almost no introduction. They first met when Klugman replaced Walter Matthau in the role of Oscar in the original (1965) Broadway production of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.” Dooley was one of the poker players and understudy for Felix, the fastidious one of the “Couple.” He did play opposite Klugman for a time. As Dooley tells it, “Art Carney went into rehab (called a sanatorium in those days) and since I was the understudy, I took over. Carney never came back.”

“The Sunshine Boys” tells the story of two old timers who, after 43 years performing together, part ways when one of them wants to retire. Klugman says, “My character, Willie, is mad about this because it also retires him as well.” As the play begins they are brought together in hope of their performing in a “cavalcade of humor.” Simon based the two on the famous vaudeville team Smith and Dale. But Klugman compares them also to the perhaps better known Abbott and Costello.

Neither Dooley or Klugman will admit to finding anyone in their long careers that they wouldn’t want to work with again. Klugman even got along with the notoriously difficult Ethel Merman with whom he starred in “Gypsy.” He remembers, “I was warned about Merman — ‘She’s a barracuda; she’ll eat you alive.’ She was a sweetheart.” Dooley also has a rather positive outlook on his co-workers. He says: “There’s a lot of talk about people in show business who are pains in the ass, but most are pretty good. Of course once in a while you find an egotist. But especially in the theater we are all working toward the same end, a good show. It’s more of an ensemble thing. Where in the movies there are big stars. Well, that’s different.”

And certainly, Klugman and Dooley have proven that they are happy to be working together again. In addition to their stint in “The Odd Couple,” the two of them appeared about three years ago at Garry Marshall’s Falcon Theater in Burbank, California, in the play “Golf” with Alan Shepard.

The role of Willie in “The Sunshine Boys” is not new to Klugman. From near the end of 1997 through June, 1998, he appeared in this role in a Broadway revival with his long-time buddy Tony Randall, following that with four weeks in Fort Worth, Texas. Also a graduate of that production, Peggy Joyce Crosby, the first wife of Bing’s son Philip, again plays (as Klugman describes the part) “the sexy blond” at George Street. Crosby has been Klugman’s long-time companion for the last 20 years.

With that, Klugman adds, “I’m going to marry that lady.” It seems that Klugman never was divorced from his first wife, Brett Sommers, from whom he separated 30 years ago. He tells me that he always told Crosby that they would marry when Sommers died. The evening after our talk, he was going to her memorial service. True to his word, he and Crosby plan to be married, “no big wedding, just a dinner.” In February they plan to go on a cruise.

Both Dooley and Klugman began as theater actors and that is where their hearts still reside. And they both have Neil Simon stories to tell. As certainly one of America’s leading playwrights with a record 36 productions on Broadway, Dooley attributes Simon’s success to his ability as a “jokesmith.” “He’s like a genius with words,” says Dooley. Klugman adds: “When you think the joke is over, he gives you one more line. If I do a set up, it might be a straight line, then a joke. But that joke is a set up for another joke. And it’s also deeper than people think.”

As to the fun in store for George Street audiences Dooley says, “Number one, it’s very funny. But also Jack and I know how to get laughs. We find the truth under the line. It has to be played like it’s not a joke. When we did ‘The Odd Couple,’ director Mike Nichols said, “Don’t anybody try to be funny. Neil Simon will take care of that. Just play the scene. The jokes are there.”

In addition to his stint in “The Odd Couple” on Broadway, Klugman appeared in eight other Broadway shows and starred in a number of movies, including “12 Angry Men,” “Goodbye Columbus,” and “Days of Wine and Roses.” For local audiences, he is of course remembered for his appearance last season at George Street in “The Value of Names,” but remembered by almost everyone for his starring television roles in “The Odd Couple” (for which he received two Emmy Awards in 1970 and ‘75) and “Quincy” (1976 to 1983).

Dooley’s early New York credits include work with the improvisational group from Chicago, “Second City.” Over a number of years, he has appeared in eight or more Off Broadway productions and also did stand up comedy. After “The Odd Couple” on Broadway, he went to California to make a television pilot. Though that particular one wasn’t picked up, he has continued to work extensively in California. His list of film credits is ridiculously long. He modestly says, “Only two out of each ten of the movies has anyone ever heard of, movies that didn’t go anywhere — less than three days in the theater.” The more memorable probably are the coming of age film “Breaking Away,” in which he played the father and the infamous Robert Altman “Popeye” with Robin Williams in the title role and Dooley as hamburger-loving Wimpy. Currently in movie theaters, he can be seen as Mr. Spritzer in “Hairspray.”

Married to writer Winnie Holzman, who won accolades for the book of the Broadway musical “Wicked,” Dooley has also done some writing and is around if his wife asks for an assist. His experience with improvisation makes him the perfect person for her to ask. By way of example he says that she wanted something funny for the scene “witch school” in “Wicked.” Thinking like the improviser, he grabbed a butter knife, flicked it around as Glenda’s training wand, looked at it quizzically and said, “Is this thing on?” “I know it’s anachronistic, but it’s funny.” In all, he thinks he contributed three jokes to her musical book. Holzman is here on the East Coast with Dooley during the run at George Street, teaching a writing workshop at New York University.

What’s up next for both of them? They will go back to their home bases in California where Dooley plans to finish the editing on a short film that he wrote and directed and “get it ready for the festivals.” And Klugman? His marriage is next on his agenda. He reports that she sees to it that he eats the right foods, and he certainly looks very trim and healthy. And he’s unable to resist a funny line: “I had a friend. His girlfriend would do everything for him. Then they got married. And he asked her for a glass of water and she said, ‘You know where the spigot is.’”

Dooley admits that he too was afraid to marry for the second time. “When I hooked up with Winnie it was just one of those things we knew. I was in my 50s and she was 29 or something. Wasn’t sure about getting married again; it hadn’t been a success before. But Winnie said something to me that would make any man change his mind: ‘You know you’re going to go to the great green room in the sky before I do but I really would like to have some piece of you left behind.’ A child. Hell, that appeals to anybody; it’s like a legacy.”

And what a legacy both men leave on record on film, as well as in memories of stage performances. After all, it’s the stage they both love the most. Dooley explains that on film, it can be tedious. “In film it’s easily 85 or 90% waiting. When you’re 25, you can think this is fun, ‘I’m in show business.’ But a little older I think, ‘Why can’t I be home tending my flowers?’”

Klugman still has theater goals. He would like to play Willie Loman again in “Death of a Salesman” (he appeared in a production at The Falcon Theater in California) and wants to do a new play, something that he can create for the first time. He says, “I’m never going to retire. I want to die on stage. I’ll say, ‘the name of the murderer is…’ then drop dead right there.”

“The Sunshine Boys,” through Sunday, November 11, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Comedy by Neil Simon stars Jack Klugman and Paul Dooley as the comedy team reuniting for one last performance. Directed by David Saint. $28 to $64. 732-246-7717.

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