Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Jack Klugman and Charles Durning Tribute

Jack Klugman with Tony Randall on Password,
with Allen Luden hosting
Of course as as soon as I post my end-of-the-year list of notable passings in the entertainment world (posted Dec. 24), two more great performers pass way before Dec. 31. Jack Klugman, 90, best known as Oscar Madison on the long-running TV sitcom "The Odd Couple," died on Christmas Eve and Charles Durning, 89, Tony winner and multiple Oscar and Emmy nominee, passed away on the same day. Both were around the same age and rose to prominence in the 1970s. Klugman had been a reliable character actor since the 1950s, appearing in such films as "Twelve Angry Men" as the lower-class juror, as Judy Garland's agent in "I Could Go On Singing," and as Jack Lemmon's A.A. sponsor in "Days of Wine and Roses." His highest pre-Oscar fame came from starring opposite Ethel Merman as Herbie in the original Broadway production of "Gypsy." He won an Emmy for a guest-starring role on The Defenders as a blacklisted actor. Then he was cast as the sloppy Oscar Madison, winning two Emmys when everyone thought Carroll O'Connor would be honored for his iconic Archie Bunker on "All in the Family." Playing off Tony Randall's super-prissy Felix Ungar, Klugman was natural and unforced in his put-upon reactions to Felix's neurotic neatness. They later appeared on Broadway for Randall's National Actors Theatre in "Three Men on a Horse" and "The Sunshine Boys." Even though Klugman's voice was nothing but a harsh whisper because of throat cancer, he put across his characters' crotchety energy.

I had just seen Durning in a cable broadcast of David Mamet's "State and Main" as the obsequious mayor of tiny Vermont town putting up with a crazy film crew. He could basically play anything. He first came to prominence as part of a stunning ensemble cast in Jason Miller's "That Championship Season" which transferred from the Public Theater to Broadway. Whenever you needed a father, a villain, or a best friend, he filled the bill. A rare instance of his playing a leading role was "The Dancing Bear," a 1977 TV drama for PBS's Visions series (a short-lived attempt at producing original American dramas). He played a version himself, a hard-working, average-looking actor trying to make a living, standing in line at unemployment, humiliating himself at an audition. Tyne Daly co-starred.

I saw him onstage in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (he won a Tony for his Big Daddy), opposite George C. Scott in "Inherit the Wind," and as Dianne Wiest's father in Wendy Wasserstein's "Third."

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