Messy half of odd couple finds Judaism late in life

He was TV’s most loveable slob.

For years, Jack Klugman portrayed Oscar Madison on “The Odd Couple,” opposite the late Tony Randall’s ultra-fastidious Felix Ungar. It was a TV mismatch made in heaven.

But in spite of their onscreen arguing, Klugman and Randall were best friends. Klugman reveals just how close in his new book “Tony and Me: A Story of Friendship.” He will appear Wednesday, Oct. 19 at Borders in San Rafael.

His book is a tribute not only to an artistic partnership but also to the mysterious bonds of friendship that seemingly grow stronger through tragedy.

“I didn’t realize how important he was in my life,” says the actor in a voice left permanently raspy after throat cancer surgery 16 years ago. “He taught me so much, but a deep friendship doesn’t begin until someone needs something.”

Klugman grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household in Philadelphia. Randall, born Leonard Rosenberg, grew up in a tiny Jewish community in Tulsa, Okla. But both got their start in the New York theater scene and branched out from there.

Starting in the 1950s, Klugman became a familiar face on the big screen thanks to memorable appearances in films like “Twelve Angry Men” and “Goodbye, Columbus.” But he was just as active on the stage, and was an early replacement for Walter Matthau in the original Broadway production of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.”

That’s why he was the obvious choice to play Oscar in the sitcom version of the play, which premiered in 1970.

Klugman had been familiar with Randall’s work, as the two had teamed up once before on a live TV production in the ’50s. But the “Odd Couple” turned them into consummate collaborators.

“We loved rehearsal,” he recalls. “Our chemistry came because we loved working together. We never cared who got the laughs as long as the scene worked.”

The series lasted five years. Klugman went on to further TV stardom with the hit show “Quincy,” while Randall went on to create the National Actors Theater, a major repertory ensemble in New York.

Klugman, 83, still retains the vitality that made him a star. But he admits he was always a something of a loner, keeping others at bay, despite his success. That, he says, changed late in life thanks to Randall, who proved himself during Klugman’s battle with cancer.

“He was the first one to visit me in the hospital,” remembers Klugman of the lowest point in his life. “Acting was my life. It gave me my identity, it gave me a reason to live, but it was taken away from me.”

It took time for Klugman to get anything resembling a speaking voice, but Randall told his friend early on that when the time was right, he would put Klugman back on the stage.

He meant what he said. Randall enlisted his friend for a one-night-only performance of “The Odd Couple” at the National Actors Theater in 1991. Klugman says without hesitation it was the greatest night of his life. “I was so scared,” he says. “But he handled it with such kindness.”

Kindness was never Klugman’s strong suit growing up in Depression-era Philadelphia. Though Yiddish was the language at home, there was not a lot of Judaism. “I was never bar mitzvahed,” he says. “My grandfather in Russia was a religious fanatic and the butt of the town jokes. My father was ashamed and became an atheist.”

A trip to Israel 20 years ago brought him back in touch with his Jewish roots. “I got on the bus to Jerusalem and burst into tears,” he adds. “I thought, ‘We finally have a place of our own, a place we belong. That was the essence of my life: belonging.”

Klugman is pleased that “The Odd Couple” will have a Broadway revival this season with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane in the starring roles. He considers the play the best American comedy of the 20th century.

These days, Klugman says he enjoys life to the fullest. From his Malibu condo, he says his relationships with his children are better than ever, and he views each day as a miracle.

“Life is so wonderful, so precious,” he says. “It’s never the end. How can you give up? I want to die on stage.”

Jack Klugman will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 19 at Borders Books, 588 Francisco Blvd. West, San Rafael. Information: (415) 454-1400.

“Tony and Me: A Story of Friendship” by Jack Klugman (160 pages, Good Hill Books, $24.95).

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.