He was one of “Twelve Angry Men,” a visitor to “The Twilight Zone,” a slob in “The Odd Couple,” and a doctor in “Quincy, M.E.” And before that, a Broadway star in “Gypsy.” But to me, he’ll always be the guy who couldn’t pronounce “Ak-Sar-Ben” to save his life. I’m talking about Jack Klugman. He died the other day, and when I saw the notice, a shock ran through me, because I knew Jack.
Let me backtrack a little. As a horseman, Jack was a perfect spokesman for Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack, a client of the advertising agency where I worked as a writer/producer at the time. Amazingly, he agreed to do a set of TV spots for us for a reasonable fee. It must have been the horse connection that sealed the deal.
Before Jack arrived, we were instructed that he must have an excellent toupee stylist available on the set at all times. Wow, I thought. Was this guy going to be a handful? I was a little scared to meet him. He was a big star, and I was an Omaha writer/producer charged with keeping him content and doing his best job for what was probably a fraction of his normal fee.
The first day of shooting, I brought bagels to the set. Poor Jack, who had arisen at 6 a.m. (4 a.m. California time), was greeted on Day One by fruit-flavored bagels (the only kind I could find the night before at Albertson’s). “Blueberry! Strawberry! These aren’t bagels!” First the demand for the toupee stylist, now the dissatisfaction with our Midwestern bagels. How difficult was our Hollywood star going to be?
But my fears were quickly dispelled once we started shooting. Jack took direction without a fuss, and he was open and easy to talk to, particularly when a couple of attractive young women from the agency came to visit him on the set. He enjoyed joking and chatting with his star-struck fans until we called him for the next scene.
During the shoot, the one thing that bugged him was something rather important: the name of the client. Take after take, he struggled unsuccessfully to pronounce it. “ARK-si-bin!” “Come on out to As-KIB-In!” “Awk-SER-ban!” Frustrated after a series of blown takes, he turned to me and pleaded, “Aw, honey, we don’t have to keep saying the name, do we?” Unhelpfully, I told him it was “Nebraska” spelled backward. Eventually, he got the name right, and in the finished spots, Jack’s personality and enthusiasm shone through every scene.
One day, while the crew set up for the next scene, Jack decided to bet on a race or two. I thought, “Wow, Jack knows the horses. I’ll bet with him.” So I bet the same horses he did (with one-tenth the money). We both lost, but what the hey. I got to bet with Jack Klugman.
When I read accounts of his death, I learned he had agreed to do “Quincy, M.E.” because he hoped to do stories that focused on issues like preventing child abuse and rape. His social conscience put him at odds with his producer, who didn’t think viewers wanted to see shows about those subjects. But Jack was right. “Quincy, M.E.” was the first of a new genre of popular crime-detection shows focusing on those and other social issues, among them “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”
In the 1980s, Jack pushed hard to get the Orphan Drug Act passed. In fact, he had his brother, Maurice, write two episodes of “Quincy, M.E.” about the problem that pharmaceutical companies weren’t inclined to spend money developing drugs for rare diseases like ALS and cystic fibrosis. The first episode acquainted the audience with the problem. The second dramatized the real-life battle Jack was having with Washington. A senator was holding up the bill, and after the episode, the bill finally passed. Jack used the power of his own convictions and the power of the media to help people with rare diseases. For more about his crusade, read this.
Most people don’t know about Jack’s dedication to social issues. In fact, many people think Jack was Oscar Madison of “The Odd Couple,” a shambling, sloppy loudmouth with green meat and brown cheese rotting in his fridge. That’s a tribute to his ability to make a bizarre character seem real. Jack was not Oscar. He was smart, talented, dedicated and socially conscious. But okay, he was a little disheveled-looking. Rreferring to Tony Randall, his “Odd Couple” co-star, he told me, “Tony has suits that are 30 years old. He brushes them, hangs them up, and they look like new. Me, I wear a new suit for two minutes, and it looks like it’s 30 years old.” He was funny, self-deprecating, and someone you wished you could keep on being friends with after the shoot was over.
I’ve worked with other well-known actors. But the one I remember most fondly is Jack Klugman. The natural everyman. The socially conscious actor. And the guy who couldn’t pronounce “Ak-Sar-Ben” to save his life.