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Jack Klugman Enjoying This Stage of His Career

Theater: After recovering from throat cancer, TV's 'Quincy' takes on Willy Loman in 'Death of a Salesman,' the first in-house production at the Falcon Theatre.

September 18, 1998|JAN BRESLAUER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jack Klugman has been acting for about 50 years now, and where has it gotten him? Onto stages and screens big and small, from Broadway to the box that dwells in America's living room--including, most memorably, in the classic 1970-75 sitcom "The Odd Couple" and the 1976-83 series "Quincy."

As recently as June he was back on Broadway in a hit run of "The Sunshine Boys." And now, for the next act of his distinguished career, he's landed in . . . well, Burbank.

Yes, that's "beautiful downtown Burbank," as another vintage TV show once dubbed the Valley entertainment enclave. But this time out, Klugman's not here for the big bucks and high visibility that come with broadcasting fame.

Instead, he's getting almost no money, playing to fewer than 100 people a night and, not incidentally, savoring the experience. Klugman is playing Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," in the first in-house production at his longtime friend sitcom producer and film director Garry Marshall's new Falcon Theatre. The play, directed by Andrew J. Robinson, opens tonight.

Where the boards are actually makes little difference to Klugman. "I don't care where I do it," says the charismatic actor over a cheeseburger dinner during a break from rehearsal one recent evening. "I was meant for the theater.

"The only thing that's never let me down is acting," he continues. "That's because I've never let it down. Out of everything I do--whether it's here in a 99-seater or in a 3,000-seater--it's the best that I can do."

What's more, Klugman's turn serves notice: Attention must be paid to what's going on at the Falcon. "We're trying to do some classic American pieces--Williams, O'Neill, Miller--known works with stars in them, and then new works on the other nights," Falcon President Marshall says. "And comedy. Comedy got the theater built. I'd like to direct some comedies myself.

"We don't have a schedule laid out yet," he continues. "We have to find our way. But we hope this is the first of many."

Klugman is a gentleman like they don't make 'em anymore: A rakish yet unpretentious charmer who drinks a very dry vodka martini on the rocks, drives a sporty car, plays the ponies (in fact, Klugman has owned and raced thoroughbreds for many years) and is given to the occasional bit of rehearsal-room shtick, presumably to help put his colleagues at ease.

Seated in a pub near the Falcon, the actor (who claims to be 76 but doesn't look it) tugs his houndstooth roadster cap down over his azure blues, stares earnestly into an inquisitor's eyes and holds forth with passion about his life in the theater.

"Acting is my life, my best friend," he says. "I'm a better actor in the theater. Theater's where it's at."

His voice is raspy now, but perfectly intelligible. Less than a decade ago, however, he could barely speak at all.

In 1989, Klugman was found to have throat cancer, and a subsequent operation left him with only one vocal cord. "I couldn't even talk on the phone," he recalls. "I went to the racetrack and the teller didn't understand my bet, couldn't hear me. That was the most frustrating thing in the world."

A couple of years went by, during which Klugman all but gave up on ever acting again. "It was going to break in the papers that I'd had cancer, and I didn't want everyone to think that I was dying," he says. "So I did an 'Entertainment Tonight' show to say, 'Look, I'm all right, I'll just never act anymore.' "

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Fortunately, a voice specialist named Gary Catona happened to catch the program. He contacted Klugman and put the actor on a rigorous rehabilitation regimen. "Without him, I would have no voice," Klugman says. "When everybody gave up on me, he said, 'I can give you a voice.' "

Eventually, Klugman did regain his vocal abilities. "The fact that I'm able to do a play--for three hours, I never shut my mouth--is a miracle," he says.

In 1993, Klugman's erstwhile acting partner Tony Randall persuaded him to return to the stage for a benefit performance of "The Odd Couple." More recently, Klugman and Randall teamed up for the National Actors Theater production of "The Sunshine Boys," from December 1997 to June.

Meanwhile, Klugman had promised Marshall--his pal since Marshall executive produced "The Odd Couple"--to do a play that Marshall himself had written many years ago, with Marshall directing, at the Falcon. "When he was building this theater, he said, 'Would you do my play?' " Klugman says. "So I said, 'Yeah, for you I'd do anything.' "

Alas, those plans were postponed, due to Marshall's film commitments. So Marshall asked Klugman if there was anything else that the actor might like to do instead.

"I was kidding, but I said 'Death of a Salesman,' " Klugman says. "He called me back three days later: 'OK, we're going to do it.' "

It was an opportunity Klugman had long awaited. "You don't know how amazing that is," he says. "I couldn't believe it. I've wanted to do this for many years."

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