Jack Klugman's last great role:
Tuesday, January 01, 2013
It was sad to hear of Jack Klugman's passing on Christmas Eve. If you grew up watching Australian television during the '7os and into the '80s, Klugman was hard to miss. For starters, he was one of the male leads in the television adaptation of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple. He played the unkempt sportswriter Oscar Madison â the role Walter Matthau played in the film.
Opening sequence to The Odd Couple. Note Don Pardo's narration.
Klugman had portrayed this character on stage in the play, and so was perfect on the telly. And it was a successful series â the first, if I'm not mistaken, of Garry K. Marshall's adaptations of a successful film for the small screen. Marshall went on to adapt American Graffiti as Happy Days , and you did occasionally see a cross-over of actors. For example, Murray the Cop from Odd Couple was played by Al Molinaro, who'd go on to play Al Delvecchio, proprietor of hamburger joint Al's in Happy Days. (It was originally 'Arnold's', run by Pat Morita's Arnold character; how and why it changed name and hands is, like the disappearance of Richie Cunningham's brother Chuck after initial seasons, an unexplained mystery. But I digressâ¦)
Klugman's other big television success was Quincy, ME (or just 'Quincy'), in which he played a county medical examiner who solved crimes from the clues left by dead bodies. Often, Dr Quincy was voicing the unpopular opinion and the more difficult course of action; when simply signing the death certificate would have been the easy way to close a case, he went the distance - looking into microscopes longer, following up hunches, ordering more tests. Kind of like a cross between Gregory House an Sherlock Holmes. (Not the Silurian Madame Vastra 'Veiled Detective' Sherlock Holmes from the Doctor Who Christmas special, mind.)
Quincy ran for more seasons than The Odd Couple and proved to be of great import: in an age before determining just how much spunk had gushed all over a crime scene, courtesy of the blue light, forensic investigation was a novel twist to both cop shows and medical dramas, and Quincy was special because of it. Often, it delivered commentary about society in the process of solving crimes. There's an episode dedicated to hate crimes of deranged juvenile delinquents, driven mad by horribly Satanic hard rock.
There's another episode that involves a micro engineered poisoned pellet being injected into Quincy's leg via a high-tech umbrella - clearly inspired by the KGB's 1978 assassination of Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov after he defected to the West and undertook sustained ridicule of the Bulgarian regime. "Cut me. I want you to cut me!" a disoriented, dying Quincy demands of his colleague, hoping the offending pellet will be detected and removed. (Other stuff happened in that episode, but for some reason that's the line seared into my brain some 20 years down the track.)
The Quincy character seemed to be pitched younger and sexier than Klugman, and creators claim there was an element of making him what would have been a 'swinging doctor' had he been dealing with living patients, rather than corpses. He lives on a boat, he flirts with all the women, and the 'sexy swingin' saxes' motif that runs through the theme music all lean towards a sex/death element. It's one that still turns up in forensic pathology crime shows (see Britain's Silent Witness, for example; although its theme music is all classical religious choir denial, of course).
That Quincy is, to a degree, playing it for laughs is evident in that opening sequence: one of the bodies he's investigating by looking at it intently while he prods with his fingers turns out, through a classic 'reveal' gag, to be a fully living, bikini-clad babe, with whom he's sharing a drink on his boat. Note, as you watch it, the 'call and response' of the music: the first phrase is on the beat, almost (for a lush, '70s TV-theme arrangement) militaristic in its delivery, because, after all, it is a cop show at its central core. But then the 'sexy swingin' saxes' motif responds - slurred notes, languid, off the beat. And it's total jazz soloing when the bikini babe is revealed. See for yourself:
Quincy, ME opening sequence.
Klugman's voice had a distinctive guttural timbre throughout his career. Turns out he suffered from throat cancer and as a result of either this, or treatment of it, he lost his voice and had to 're-learn' to talk. Interestingly, this happened in 1980 - some three years before Quincy came to an end. Did he learn quickly? Was there a sabbatical between seasons during which he could be treated?
In addition to Quincy and Oscar Madison, E!Online goes on to list other essential roles, such as Juror #5 in 12 Angry Men:
Klugman as Juror #5 in 12 Angry Men
And of course, his clutch of appearances in the original incarnation of The Twilight Zone:
'In Praise of Pip', Season 5, Episode 1, The Twilight Zone
It's disappointing that none of the obituaries I've read have acknowledged that other great role Jack Klugman nailed, and I must admit, I'd all but forgotten it. Yet somehow I found myself re-watching episodes of The Sopranos shortly after Klugman died, only to discover his brilliant portrayal of Tony Soprano's narcissistic and unfeeling mother, the ever-scheming matriarch Livia.
Before I finish, I'm going to recommend you locate episodes of Quincy. Whole seasons of them. So then you can play the Quincy Drinking Game I stumbled onto on the Internet Movie Database:
- Take a sip every time Quincy cries about "bureaucracy".
- Take a sip whenever Quincy asks Sam to get results back to him right away.
- Take a sip every time Quincy is flirting with a chick way too young and attractive to be interested in a guy like Quincy.
- Take a shot whenever Quincy gets outraged and starts yelling. Make it a double if Quincy pounds his fist against a desk.
- Take a shot at the point in every episode when Asten is disbelieving of Quincy's theory about the death, and urges him to just sign the death certificate.
- Take a shot whenever Sam gives Quincy some crucial information, and Quincy hurriedly runs out of the room and grabs his jacket.
- Take another shot at the point in every episode where Asten finally realizes that Quincy was right all along and comes around to his side.
- Take a shot every time Monahan yells something to the effect of "Dammit Quincy, stay outta this!"
- Take a shot every time they do a camera shot of Quincy's giant black coroner's station wagon.
- Take a shot whenever Danny makes a bad joke.
- Take a shot when Quincy criticizes another coroner for not doing a thorough investigation.
- Chug your drink when Quincy suggests digging up a body.
- Chug your drink if Quincy is testifying in front of a committee.
- Chug your drink when Quincy finally declares "It was murrrrrder, Sam!"