Jack Klugman
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
Jack Klugman
(© Joseph Marzullo/Retna)
Jack Klugman is best known as Oscar Madison from the TV series The Odd Couple, but this 55-year stage veteran is back on the boards. Starting on November 14, he will be appearing at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse as Benny Silverman, a blacklisted actor, in Jeffrey Sweet's play The Value of Names. After battling throat cancer and undergoing a partial larynx removal in 1989, Klugman doubted that he'd ever work again; but here he is, tackling another role. I recently spoke with him about the show, his remarkable career, and his former co-stars Ethel Merman, Henry Fonda, and Tony Randall.

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THEATERMANIA: How did this show come about?

JACK KLUGMAN: I do a one-man show about my life. After [playwright] Frank Gilroy saw it, he came back and said he wanted to send me a play of his, Contact with the Enemy, about these two guys who meet at a Holocaust museum and realize they were in the same platoon. I wanted to do it with Eli Wallach at George Street, but then he got another job -- one that I was up for, too. They said I was too young! Well, Eli's 90, and I'm "only" 84. Anyway, I said to David Saint [artistic director of George Street], 'Y'know, there's another play I've already done, and I'd rather do that one here." David said yes. I'm sure Frank Gilroy will never speak to me again.

TM: You've even done the play before in Nebraska, right?

JK: I'll go anywhere if the play's good. On the other hand, a couple of years ago, Arthur Penn was doing Sly Fox on Broadway. He offered me a lot of money, but I didn't want to do it because I knew I wasn't going to grow in it. I want the opportunity to eat some scenery. I did Death of a Salesman for $85 a performance, but I loved it. That's the one thing I don't understand about people who were blacklisted. Sure, Hollywood turned its back on them, but they still could have done Broadway.

TM: Did you know anyone who was blacklisted?

JK: Yeah, my first professional job in New York was in a revival of Golden Boy with John Garfield and Lee J. Cobb, who were both blacklisted. I wanted to work with Cobb so bad. I saw him do Death of a Salesman five times; he was my idol. Clifford Odets was directing Golden Boy. I'd never asked for a job or pleaded, but I did for that one. I told him that, while he was making up his mind, I was going down to the waterfront, and if I didn't get the part, I'd jump in. He called me later and said, 'Don't jump in.' He was a really great director.

TM: So was the man you worked for seven years later in Gypsy: Jerome Robbins. How was that experience?

JK: He was a bully who always picked on one person, but it wasn't me or Ethel Merman. It was Paul Wallace, the guy who sang "All I Need is the Girl" Oh, did he go after that kid -- and the kid was good. He even did the movie.

TM: Were you considered for the film?

JK: Yeah, but I wouldn't do it without Ethel. Mervyn LeRoy, the movie's director, kept telling Ethel, "I won't do it without you. It's your legacy." And then he hired Rosalind Russell. He was a terrible human being.

TM: You had a great relationship with Merman, didn't you?

JK: I loved that lady. We had a very good relationship once we got over the sex thing. When we were in Philadelphia, she asked me what I was doing after the show. "Playing poker," I said, and she said, "It'd be more fun in my hotel room." I said, "Ethel, you've had affairs with every one of your leading men, and then you didn't talk to them. We've got such a good thing going, why spoil it?" She said "Okay," and that was that. We formed a very good friendship, but I didn't like doing a long run. At one point, I told Ethel, "I want to get out of this play," and she said, "You can't; you've got a two-year contract, and I'm not going to let you out, you're too good a supporter." I said, "Right, that's all I am. I'm a jockstrap."

TM: Is it true that Jule Styne didn't orginally want you for the show because you were thought of as someone who couldn't sing.

JK: Yes, but when we were in Philadelphia, he came up to me after a performance and said he'd written a solo for me. He played me "Nice, She Ain't," and I said, "I'll let you know tomorrow if I want to do it." He was stunned. I went back to the hotel and, that night, I had a nightmare that I was at the theater in front of 1,800 people, looking for the right note. So, the next day, I said I didn't want to do the song. He said, "Do you know what people would do for a song by Jule Styne?" I said, "Yeah, but they'd make it sing, and I can't." And that's when I had my good voice.

TM: Tell me about your struggles with your voice.

JK: They operated on me, and I had no voice. I felt like John Henry [a celebrated racehorse] when he couldn't race anymore. He wasn't just worthless; he was a liability, because now you had to pay for his food and a place for him to stay, and he couldn't do anything. Tony Randall brought me back, though. He told me he wanted to do a benefit of The Odd Couple in six months, and that gave me something to shoot for.

TM: I imagine that you miss Tony terribly.

JK: Sure! Last year, I even wrote a book about him and me [Tony and Me: A Story of Friendship]. I didn't know how much I was gonna miss him. We'd go to a museum, and he'd teach me more in two hours than I could learn in four days. Then, on the way home, he'd tell me the best dirty jokes. We'd go to a French restaurant and he'd order in French, yet he loved Kentucky Fried Chicken and would pig out on that.

TM: Who was the best actor you ever worked with?

JK: Henry Fonda in Mister Roberts, which was my first professional job. We closed in Hollywood, and Henry asked me what I was going to do next. I said, "Well, I have a few irons in the fire here in movies," and he said, "No, you gotta go back to New York." I said, "Yeah, easy for you to say. You made your bundle here." But he insisted, "No, you gotta get back to New York and act on stage. That's how you become an actor. If you don't go back, and you see me on the street here in Hollywood, don't say hello. I won't know you." So I went back to New York -- not because he threatened me, but because I knew he was right. What's funny is that when Henry got the film of 12 Angry Men, Sidney [Lumet, the director] thought I was much too old for the part of Juror #5, but Henry insisted. Now, here I am all these years later, the last one of the 12 Angry Men who's still alive. I'd say that's pretty good and pretty lucky.