His fascination dates back to the original 1949 New York staging, with Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman. "Paid $1.20 or $1.80 to stand and see it," Klugman recalls. "I was a big smoker in those days. There were two intermissions. I never went for a cigarette. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I went back and saw it five times; I second-acted it seven times."
Klugman was in awe of both Miller's writing and Cobb's performance ("Best actor I've ever seen," he says. "He was my idol."). Then, three years later, he found himself serving as Cobb's understudy in a 1952 production of Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy," directed by the playwright.
But being Cobb's understudy proved somewhat overwhelming for the young actor. "One day Odets said, 'What's goin' on, Jack?' " he recalls. "I said, 'Give me a little time, I'll get over it.'
"The next day, Lee came over to me and said, 'You play gin, kid? Come into the room, we'll play gin,' " Klugman continues. "He beat me for $11, and he took it. And in those three hours, he told me about his blacklisting, how his wife was in a sanitarium. He told me all his problems. So when I left, there was nothing to be in awe of anymore. He took three hours to do that for me, and I never forgot that."
To this day, in fact, there are few things that Klugman appreciates more than his fellow cast members' commitment. "There's more dedication in this show now than in anything I've done in I don't know how long," Klugman says. "I've been in Broadway plays with people complaining. Here, they're not getting any money. And these are not newcomers. This is not a showcase for them. But they're dedicated. They're solid. They're good people."
* "Death of a Salesman," Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Oct. 25. $25. (818) 955-8101.