The one time I met Jack Klugman was at the Friars Club 15 years ago. He was having lunch and he was wearing a cap. He said his mother Rose, a milliner, said if you wear a cap you’ll never catch cold.
He ordered clams and a chef’s salad. “There’s ham in it, something you shouldn’t have,” he said in his low raspy voice. He had a vocal cord removed nine years before due to cancer of the larynx. He used to be a heavy smoker.
His father Max, a poor immigrant who made a living as a house painter in Philadelphia, was totally secular, a socialist. “He was ashamed of his father who was a religious extremist in Russia,” Jack said. “He was always praying, even while walking in the street. People made fun of him. As a result my father went the other way and became an atheist.”
Max died when Jack was 12. “We were five boys and one girl. All five of us went to the synagogue on the corner to say Kaddish.”
In 1945, after army service, Jack took his $3,000 in war bonds and went out gambling in the neighborhood, an Italian stronghold of South Philadelphia. He lost it all in one day. “What will you do now?” mom asked. “I’ll go to college,” he said.
He went to Pittsburgh to study drama and in 1948 graduated from Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University). “That’s the best money you lost,” Ma said. “It made you get an education.”
Jack wanted to be an actor. The neighbors thought he was a bum. But Ma encouraged him. “She had faith in me — I wasn’t a gangster.”
In 1952 Jack made his Broadway debut in “Golden Boy.” Thirteen years later he replaced Walter Matthau in “The Odd Couple” in the role that would earn him fame as the sloppy sportswriter Oscar Madison. “Did you like it, Ma?” Jack asked. “Yeah,” said, “but you can’t clean up your apartment?”
Actually Jack never stopped gambling. For 15 years he owned a ranch near San Diego with 90 horses. “Ninety horses! Can you imagine cleaning up?”
Like all gamblers he kept dreaming he’d win the Kentucky Derby. His best shot came when his horse finished third in the 1980 Run for the Roses. He sold the ranch.
Jack went to Israel once on a caravan of stars for the Hebrew University. The group included Zubin Mehta and Vidal Sassoon. Jack was invited because he was starring as a forensic pathologist in the highly popular TV series “Quincy, M.E.” (1976-83).
On the way to Tel Aviv he saw his first signs in Hebrew. “I felt I found a place where I belong,” he said. “It was a wonderful feeling. I burst into tears.”
His room at the Tel Aviv Hilton was furnished like a coroner’s examining room. “They wanted to make me feel at home.”
He died on Dec. 24, 2012, of prostate cancer at age 90.