Dr. Nancy Cunningham (played by Joan Hotchkiss): “That's all I can see for now. Except for a little fat around the tummy.”
Oscar Madison (played by Jack Klugman): “Honey, that's ‘fun fat.’ Everybody has that.”
Felix Unger (played by Tony Randall): “I don't have it.”
Oscar: “You don't have any fun, either.”—The Odd Couple, Season 2, Episode 8, “Fat Farm,” teleplay by Albert E. Lewin, directed by Mel Ferber, air date November 12, 1971
Like Walter Matthau, who had previously played gambling, skirt-chasing, slobby sportswriter Oscar Madison on stage and screen, Jack Klugman was a character actor vaulted to marquee prominence by The Odd Couple. His death two days ago is a reminder of a classic comedy that can be enjoyed almost as much now as it was at the time, because it was based on character rather than topical references.
In one of my high-school classes, three years after it was off the air, The Odd Couple ran neck and neck with an even older show, The Honeymooners, as the most popular show. Turn it on now. Over the years, television has become a kind of Boot Hill for producers who think they can transplant successful films to the small screen. (Think—if you can remember—the short-lived TV versions of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Planet of the Apes, and even—Heaven help me!—Going My Way.) But The Odd Couple, like another Seventies sitcom, M*A*S*H, bucked the trend—in this case, in no small part to the interplay between Randall and Klugman.
Randall’s acting resume, which tilted somewhat more heavily toward comedy than his co-star's, might have made it a bit easier for him to slip into his role. But Klugman had at least some affinity with his character (he might have been given even more to playing the ponies than Oscar, as he had to flee loan sharks when his gambling debts mounted too high as a young man).
"There's nobody better to improvise with than Tony," Klugman said some time after the show went off the air. "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." Klugman might have been, in this case, just a wee bit too self-effacing about his own ability in trumpeting the skill of his off-the-air friend: He was a masterful TV doubles partner.
In the Fifties and Sixties, before his broader success, Klugman benefited from perhaps the most congenial moment in the 20th century for character actors to ply their trade. Studios were still churning out many films; network television had a virtually insatiable demand for new product, much of it even compelling; the first stirrings of Off-Broadway were being felt; and Broadway itself still hadn’t replaced the out-of-town musical tryout with endless “workshops.” Moreover, cheaply made reality shows had not driven out quality TV the way fast food crowds out fine cuisine, and stars hadn’t gotten so big that they could thwart directors who wanted to give screen time to actors who might advance the plot or make the film fun to watch.
In short, the work was there—certainly more than now—for actors who wanted it. And Klugman seized the moment, appearing—before his Odd Couple zenith—in Broadway musicals (Gypsy), TV (such vintage series as The Defenders, Ben Casey, and Playhouse 90), and film (12 Angry Men, Goodbye, Columbus, and Days of Wine and Roses, as Jack Lemmon’s tough-love AA sponsor).
Charles Durning, one year younger than Klugman, died on the same day. It’s hard not to see their departure as symnbolic of a larger trend: the dying of a breed of brilliant secondary performers from American cinema’s heyday, such as Thomas Mitchell, Walter Brennan, Thelma Ritter, Agnes Moorehead, William Demarest, Ruth Gordon, James Gleason, Margaret Hamilton, and Jack Carson. For reasons of ethnicity or physique, they might never have played leads on screen, but their staying power often exceeded those with the bigger per-picture salaries. Whatever else good has gone down in cinema these past few decades, their decline—now accentuated by the loss of Klugman and Durning—can only be a cause of sorrow for film aficionados.
(The accompanying 1972 photo comes from an Odd Couple episode when Oscar saves Felix’s life. I have no doubt that Oscar had his moments when he regretted it, but the course of true friendship often is rough!)