They say celebrity deaths come in threes, but when it comes to the passing of Jack Klugman and Charles Durning on Dec. 24, two is way more than enough for me. Both character actors were invaluable to Hollywood, and I loved the work each of them did.
Klugman’s was probably the more recognizable name, and he had more success on the small screen, as sloppy Oscar Madison on THE ODD COUPLE and as the dogged medical examiner on QUINCY, M.E. Durning’s most enduring movie moment was playing the scoundrel governor in film adaptation of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Durning’s show-stopping song-and-dance was so impressive it must be seen to be appreciated:
Durning completely stole that movie from Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds — no small feat in 1982! Durning never became a real leading man, and I always had a private theory that he wasn’t allowed to work as much as he deserved because he always stole the limelight, no matter what he did. And he did a lot; his film resume is as long as it is impressive, including parts in such classic films as The Sting and Tootsie. He was nominated for Oscars for Tootsie and Whorehouse. The last time I saw him, he was on FX’s RESCUE ME, playing Tommy’s irascible father, Michael. His run there ended with a quiet and sentimental death scene.
Reruns of THE ODD COUPLE on WPIX in New York were an indelible part of my childhood, with my brother and I watching the shows over and over, learning the lines by heart. There are so many great episodes of that old series that it’s impossible to choose even 10 favorites, but I do always recall loving the episode “On Retreat,” in which Oscar and Felix — played the by equally great, late Tony Randall — joined a monastery and took vows of silence (which took less than 10 minutes to break). There was also the one in which the boys went on LET’S MAKE A DEAL in a horse costume in a bid to win new bedroom furniture and ended up with “a waffle iron.”
Klugman’s Oscar (he also played the role on Broadway) was a sloppy grouch, but also a lovable one; he never came across as unlikeable, even when he was deliberately pulling Felix’s chain. Klugman made his character’s deliberate and defiance sloppiness a sign that he was just an overgrown child, and piling all his clothes on his bed was endearing, not maddening. But Oscar could be a petulant child, as when Murray the Cop (Al Molinaro) moved in and disrupted Oscar’s sleep pattern: “I never know what time of the day it is,” Oscar groaned. “I went out to cover a hockey game at 9 o’clock in the morning. Even the puck was asleep!”
That was probably my favorite Oscar line — aside from the monks episode, in which Oscar organizes a craps game using sugar cubes: “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh; we’re just gonna find out how mucheth.” Klugman won two Emmys for playing Oscar, but he could have taken the trophy all five seasons the show lasted.
Klugman’s Quincy character helped pave the way for the popularity of the modern forensic procedural — and, depending on whether you like ‘em, could be a good or bad thing, He also starred in a couple of memorable episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. The highlight of Klugman’s film career was probably his appearance as Juror No. 5 in the classic courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men (1957).
But Klugman never left a viewer feeling angry; just entertained. And the same with Durning, who never delivered a bum performance. The only anger I feel is over the loss of such amazingly talented and creative men on the same day, Christmas Eve 2012. At least both actors had great runs: Klugman was 90, and Durning 89 (he would have turned 90 on Feb. 28).
Rest in peace, gentlemen.