My literary hero isn't Hemingway or Salinger or Twain: It's Madison--Oscar Madison--the finest sportswriter who never lived. When I told him so, just the other day, Jack Klugman said in a voice like a whispered shout, "That gives me goose bumps."
More than any other actor, Klugman inhabited Oscar, the beau ideal of American sportswriters. But Oscar inhabits Klugman too. "I'm a gambler, I love women, I'm sloppy," says the 83-year-old, resplendently rumpled in white sneakers and a brown windbreaker. "I'm not dirty--I bathe--but I don't care how I dress."
His character reveled in that lifestyle every week on TV's original OC--The Odd Couple, based on Neil Simon's 1965 play about a slob sportswriter and his neat-freak roommate, Felix Unger, who futilely nagged Oscar to tidy up in notes he signed "F.U."
When the series premiered in 1970, Paramount's wardrobe people couldn't find clothes sufficiently slovenly for Oscar, so they bought Klugman's own collection of checkered sport coats and stained sweatshirts. "They paid me $360 for everything in my closet," he says. "And I still made a profit on the deal."
So convincing was Klugman as an ink-and-mustard-stained scribe that genuine scribes (SI's Dan Jenkins), fighters (Jake LaMotta), trainers (Angelo Dundee), skippers (Tommy Lasorda) and broadcasters (Howard Cosell) all befriended him, as if he really did write a sports column for the New York Herald. When Sugar Ray Leonard beat Thomas Hearns in their epic 1981 fight, Klugman was ringside at Caesars as Leonard's guest. It's not always clear where Oscar ends and Klugman begins. Both are hard-luck railbirds who love the track. "I follow horses who follow horses," says the actor, quoting the comedian Joe E. Lewis. In 1980 Jaklin Klugman--owned by her namesake--finished third in the Kentucky Derby. "Jaklin won $180,000," says Klugman. "And cost me $5 million." Klugman was playing poker long before Oscar was born and decades before Texas hold 'em took hold. Among the regulars in his game was Walter Matthau, the original Oscar on Broadway (and in the 1968 movie). "He'd bet on anything," Klugman says fondly. "He'd bet you, in the middle of a hand, that the next card turned over would be a spade. I can still see him climbing on the refrigerator with a radio, trying to tune in a baseball game from Baltimore that he'd bet on."
Unlike Oscar, Klugman no longer smokes cigars. He lost a vocal cord to throat cancer 16 years ago and now sounds as though he gargles thumbtacks. Klugman just published a memoir, Tony and Me, about his long friendship with Tony Randall, who played Felix to perfection on TV.
The inspiration for Oscar was a rumpled Hollywood agent named Roy Gerber, who roomed with Neil Simon's neatnik brother, Danny, when both were newly divorced. The latest Oscar is Nathan Lane, whose six-month Broadway run, starting this week with Matthew Broderick, was sold out in advance.
While it's tempting, then, to say that Oscar is back, he never really went away. Oscar Madison's pub in Kinsale, Ireland, is a County Cork shrine to all things Madisonian, its walls festooned with photos of Matthau and Klugman. Oscar's appeal cuts across all cultures and transcends sports. When John Lennon met Klugman on the set of The Odd Couple, the Beatle asked for Klugman's autograph. Imagine.
Klugman was once on a tour bus in Italy when a man pointed to him and said, "You! You! You are one of the strange ones!" It took a moment for Klugman to realize that The Odd Couple was known as The Strange Ones in Italy. "I've also been told," says Klugman, "'You speak Swahili beautifully.'"
And what exactly is Oscar's appeal? "It's about carefree living," says Klugman. What's more, his affectionate insults and withering one-liners put a pin in pomposity. Felix, rhapsodizing about the boneless chicken he's cooked, is asked by Oscar, "Boneless chicken? How did it walk?"
Oscar's unfettered existence--an endless whirl of football games and dizzy dames--made me want to be a sportswriter. To a 12-year-old, it seemed the ideal life: a cockeyed Mets cap on my head, a meatball hero in my bed.
And so Oscar became my meatball hero and the meatball hero of all my friends. "When you're doing the show, the audience doesn't have a face," says Klugman. "So it's almost a surprise now to hear people say, 'I grew up with you. I watched you with my father, and we laughed together.' That contact is so moving. It elevates me."
I thanked him for leaving those muddy footprints for me and other sportswriters to follow. "That makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck," he said.
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To a 12-year-old, it seemed the ideal life: a cockeyed Mets cap on my head, a meatball hero in my bed. And so Oscar Madison became my meatball hero.