It hit a lot of us pretty hard Monday when we found out Jack Klugman had passed away. He was revered most of all by New Yorkers for his portrayal of Oscar Madison on the Odd Couple series in the early 70’s.
When the discussion of great TV sitcoms comes up you hear ‘I Love Lucy’, ‘The Honeymooners’, ‘MASH’, ‘All In The Family’, ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’, ‘Cheers’, ‘Seinfeld’, ‘Friends’, ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’, mentioned. All wildly popular and long running shows. But the Odd Couple is the sleeper of classic sitcoms. It never was a ratings juggernaut, it lasted a mere five seasons, and is thought by some as inferior to the movie. But it had great chemistry, great writing, and looking back has delivered us a library full of classic episodes, scenes, and lines that stack up against any of the others.
It was based on the movie and play by Neil Simon, but the show had a lighter, more upbeat nature. The film had to demonstrate how Felix could drive Oscar crazy, and Walter Mathau does a great job in showing us how he can be driven to madness by the neurotically neat Felix.
But in order for their relationship to work in a multi-episode show, the two were going to have to at least somewhat manageably live together. Deep down we didn’t want Felix to return to his wife because that would effectively end the show for us. That is where Klugman’s great acting comes in. His anger is more refined, yes he is driven crazy by Felix, but no he doesn’t want to kill him (at least not as much). It’s a subtle but significant difference, one that makes Klugman’s Oscar the most lovable of all the Oscars.
Reruns is where the show thrived and where I first watched it. It was on what I consider to be the all time classic rerun lineup for any channel at any time, WPIX in New York in the 1980’s. The Odd Couple at 11PM, then The Honeymooners, then Star Trek, and The Twilight Zone at 1AM. The lineup ran for much of the decade. It was while watching the 1AM Twilight Zone that I first saw a younger Klugman’s appearances on that show.
The Odd Couple was a New York show. Felix and Oscar lived on Park Avenue, they went to Giant Games, they rode cabs, they rode the subway. In one episode they won a car but couldn’t handle the stress and strain of owning one in Manhattan. It’s the only show I know of that ever dealt with the issue of alternate side of the street parking.
I watched Quincy not so much because it was a great show, but because it had Klugman in the lead role. He was always worth watching. We even got to see Odd Couple Speed actor Garry Walberg, who also just recently died, play Quincy’s Boss Lt Monahan. The thought of a medical examiner solving crimes on a prime time show seemed a little far fetched at the time, what did we know? Klugman remained a familiar face on TV for many years, with his own shows and guest appearances, but it was his role as Oscar on The Odd Couple show that made him a New Yorker, and made him most endearing to us, and he will definitely be missed.