When I heard that Jack Klugman died, I felt a loss that seemed almost personal. Mr. Klugman was an accomplished actor appearing on stage, TV, and in movies. Whatever he may have done before or after, Jack will always be Oscar Madison for so many fans of The Odd Couple, the TV series adapted from the Neil Simon play and film with the same title.
For me, I identified with Oscar because not only did he love sports, but he also was a NY Mets fan. As a sportswriter he got to cover all sorts of games and meet athletes, and as a kid that seemed like an ideal job, but the fact that he proudly wore his Mets cap in many episodes made him a kindred spirit. How could we not like Oscar (and even side with him) knowing he was an underdog just like our team?
The set-up in The Odd Couple was always comedy gold. A neat freak photographer named Felix Unger (played impeccably by Tony Randall) moves into the apartment of his childhood friend (Madison) after his wife throws him out. The reason for the breakup becomes quickly apparent to the viewer: Unger would drive anyone crazy with his idiosyncrasies, but for Madison (at times uncouth, vulgar, and a confirmed slob) Felix becomes not only a butler but a chef, setting up a quid pro quo that forces Madison to keep him around despite Felix’s many annoying habits.
Klugman seemed born for the role. Following in the footsteps of Walter Matthau (who portrayed Madison in the film and on stage), Klugman gave Oscar a softer touch than Matthau, and Klugman’s Oscar did at times appear to like Felix. Despite many confrontations, Klugman’s Oscar seemed to know he was better off with Felix than without him.
When I think of Klugman now, I see him wearing that Mets hat, cigar firmly clenched between his teeth, banging out a story on an old manual typewriter. This Oscar was the typical blue collar New York guy, like most Mets fans, and we could identify with him as he tried to get the story done, many times while suffering the slings and arrows of the annoying Unger.
Jack Klugman’s gone now, but I will always remember his portrayal of one of TV’s most indelible characters who just happened to be a Mets fan. Rest in peace, Jack Klugman.
Photo credits: klugman- newsday.com;odd couple- cnn.com