Last week the acting world lost not one but two of its legendary figures when Charles Durning passed away at 89 and Jack Klugman at 90, both on Christmas Eve. While Broadway dimmed its lights on consecutive holiday evenings for the pair, the sports world also gave pause as it lost the legendary sportswriting character “Oscar Madison,” whom Klugman brought to life on both stage and TV and helped inspire many young men into pondering a world of sportswriting that Madison personified through Klugman.
“Jack was an actor’s actor, so its not surprising that so many guys related to what he did with Oscar Madison,” recalled Dan Lauria, the actor who brought Vince Lombardi back to life on Broadway and recently completed a ruin in “A Christmas Story the Musical” on December 30. “He and Tony Randall had such a great chemistry they really helped make casual fans love the idea of the sportswriter at a time when many didn’t really understand what sportswriters really did.” Lauria had great insight into the work of both of the stars that passed away within hours of each other, as he considered both not only some of his closest friends but also his mentors. The pair even attended the opening of “Lombardi” as his guests.
While capturing the rough and tumble deadline filled life of a sports writer, Klugman’s character brought in more than its share of athletes and broadcasters of the time for cameos. From Deacon Jones to Howard Cosell, Oscar Madison brought fans closer to the stars on the field than anyone, all through the eyes of the sportswriter. Ironically Lauria pointed out, in real life Klugman was not a huge sports fan, especially when you got away for gambling. “Jack loved the races, and he had a horse (Jaclyn Klugman) that actually ran third at the Kentucky Derby,” he added. “Other than the races and poker, he wasn’t a huge fan, but we would watch football because he knew that interested me. That’s what makes actors great, he embraced that character (Oscar Madison) and made you believe he was a sports writer, with every ounce of his being. he did that in every role he ever had, and he would inspire anyone that would listen to do the same with whatever roles they had.” Lauria mentioned ironically it was actually Tony Randall. who played the neat-freak photographer Felix Unger, who was much more of the sports fan of the two. “Tony was a great New Yorker and a very successful athlete in his own rite, that’s why they worked so well together,” he added.
Regardless of their real life interests, thousands of thirty and fourtysomething men took pause last week when they heard of Klugman’s passing. Eventhough the world today is more about .com’s and tweets, the image of Madison covering games, downing fast food and travelling about as a columnist for the New York Herald served as an inspiration for a generation, one which probably also helped inspire other characters turned sportswriters, including Ray Romano’s character ray Barone in “Everyone Loves Raymond.”
“Odd Couple” reruns and clips will live on, as will Oscar Madison’s countless recreations by other actors in the future, but for a TV generation hooked on sports (and with deference to another “Oscar” Walter Matthau in the film and stage version), there will be only one hero for would-be sports writers of a generation, and that was the late Jack Klugman and the grumpy, gruff and legandry scribe he brought to life.