You Don't Know Jack!
Jack Klugman talks about his new show The Value of Names and former co-stars Ethel Merman, Henry Fonda, and Tony Randall.
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?