New Jersey Jewish News
Jack Klugman will be calling on real-life experiences when he takes the stage at the George Street Playhouse in The Value of Names. As Benny Silverman, he portrays a comic whose career was derailed by his best friend during the McCarthy-era communist witch hunt.
It will be a prime example of art imitating life.
“I lived through it,” Klugman told NJJN, remembering the fear that permeated the entertainment industry.
In the play by Jeffrey Sweet, which opens in previews Nov. 14 in New Brunswick, the friend, Leo Greshen (The Wonder Years’ Dan Lauria), takes over as director of a play in which Benny’s actress daughter, Norma (Liz Larsen), is appearing.
The former friends at last confront each other face-to-face with Benny dealing with a dilemma: as Klugman explained, “Should I forgive him?”
The role raised memories for Klugman of his turn in the revival of Golden Boy on Broadway in 1952. The production’s star, John Garfield (born Julius Garfinkle), had been caught up in the witch hunt and refused to name names when he was forced to testify before HUAC. The effects of being blacklisted were said to have worsened his health problems and perhaps even brought about his early death at 39.
Klugman remembered the fear that gripped Garfield.
“I saw the fear,” Klugman recalled. “Garfield was a sweet guy. Somebody inadvertently left documents pertaining to the Rosenberg spy case in his dressing room. When he came out, he was white. ‘Get it out of here,’ Garfield shouted. I never saw such naked fear in my life.
“It was a bad time in our industry.”
There is a second art-imitating-life subplot for Klugman in The Value of Names.
It happens when Benny’s daughter tells him she will no longer be using their last name as her stage name.
The character “just wanted to change her name so it would be neutral; it sounded too Jewish,” Klugman said.
The episode reminded the actor of how, early in his career, “they asked me to change my name to Jack Sage.”
It never happened, said Klugman.
Born in Philadelphia, Klugman was raised in a Jewish family of five sons in White Plains, NY. “None of us was bar-mitzva’d,” he said. “My father said he liked bacon too much. My grandfather was a religious fanatic, and my father was ashamed of him.”
But, Klugman said, “I prayed a lot. I prayed that I should never hurt anybody; I tried to help as many people as I could and live a life of love. If there is a God, I have nothing against him.”
“I love the theater,” said Klugman. “It gives me a chance to say things I really lived. When I’m in the theater, it’s the only time I really feel at home in the world.”
It was a feeling that was jeopardized in 1989 when, at the peak of his career, Klugman was diagnosed with throat cancer and lost half his larynx and his speaking voice.
Klugman said he learned two main things during that down period: “That one can do anything one wants and that Tony Randall” the late actor who was his costar in the hit TV series The Odd Couple “was the best friend I ever had.” Specifically, he credits Randall with coaxing him back to the Broadway stage in a benefit performance for Randall’s National Actors Theatre.
“I never would have gotten my career back without Tony,” Klugman said. “I owe him the world.” He shared those sentiments in a 2005 book, Tony and Me: A Story of Friendship.
Three-time Emmy Award winner Klugman is perhaps best known as The Odd Couple’s Oscar Madison and as the star of Quincy, M.E. But over the course of his 50-year career, he has made countless stage, film, and TV appearances.
Following his World War II Army service, He used the GI bill to attend Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh. He got small roles and summer stock parts until his first big break on the New York stage in 1959’s Gypsy opposite Ethel Merman (for which he received a Best Actor in a Musical Tony nomination). His numerous film appearances include Twelve Angry Men, Days of Wine and Roses, Goodbye Columbus, and Dear God. He also appeared several times on Rod Serling’s classic TV anthology The Twilight Zone.
Klugman’s work has earned him many awards, including three Emmies and a Golden Globe for The Odd Couple, and even a Chloe award for his role in a snack commercial (with Randall).
He continues to do voice exercises and although his voice is still raspy, he said, “the more I talk, the stronger it gets” evidenced by the one-man show about his life he has been touring with and which he will take to Florida after his New Brunswick appearance.
Dan Lauria (Leo) appeared at the GSP in last season’s Inspecting Carol, The Winning Streak, and an earlier production of Inspecting Carol. He has performed, written, or directed over 50 off-Broadway and regional theater productions. He and Jack Klugman were previously on stage together in a production of Arthur Miller’s The Price (“Dan is just sensational,” Klugman said). Lauria most recently performed The Guys a tribute to the firemen who lost their lives at the World Trade Center on 9/11 in New York City and on the road.
Liz Larsen (Norma) is a veteran of numerous Broadway shows, most notably Fiddler on the Roof, Damn Yankees, The Rocky Horror Show, and Hairspray. She received Tony Award and Drama Desk nominations for outstanding actress in a supporting role in the revival of Most Happy Fella. She has appeared in, among other TV shows, Law & Order, Third Watch, and The Sopranos, in many TV movies, and in the independent feature The Saint of Fort Washington.
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