Jack Klugman, 1922-2012, Creator of Iconic TV Types

Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 25 2012 1:13 AM

Jack Klugman, 1922-2012, Creator of Iconic TV Types

Jack Klugman attends the opening night of Lombardi on October 21, 2010
Jack Klugman attends the opening night of Lombardi on Oct. 21, 2010

Photograph by Michael N. Todaro/Getty Images.

In his long acting career, Jack Klugman, who died on Christmas Eve aged 90, created two iconic TV types that have now become stock characters.

In the 1970-75 small-screen adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, he played a jerk who was also the show’s most lovable character. As Oscar Madison, Klugman channeled a bear trapped in a tiny Manhattan apartment with Tony Randall’s mosquito of a neatnik, Felix Unger. No matter how slobbish and inconsiderate Oscar might be, Klugman’s winning smile—and Oscar’s extraordinary patience with Felix’s uptight ways—made it impossible to dislike him.

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As the titular Quincy, M.E., in the show that aired between 1976 and 1983, Klugman created another TV template: the brilliant medical examiner who uses science to identify murderers who would have gotten away with their crimes if it weren’t for his dogged persistence. Battles against time-serving bureaucrats and a focus on forensics are now standard elements of police and medical procedurals, but Quincy was one of the pioneers of these plot devices.

Quincy, M.E., was also responsible for another TV trope: the quirky coroner. Quincy wasn’t exactly a freak, but he lived on a sailboat and he had a goofy, challenging personality. Thirty years later, Quincy’s heirs are often painted as eccentrics or unworldly types: On the short-lived Detroit 1-8-7, Medical Examiner Abbey Ward spent her free time on a roller derby team; on Hawaii Five-0 Max Bergman is a sci-fi nerd (he even has an ethnically unlikely name; although Masi Oka is Japanese-American, the name is an hommage to the coroner of the same moniker on the original 1968-79 version of the show). On CSI: NY Sid Hammerback invented a pillow that he sold to a Japanese company for $20 million; NCIS’s Donald “Ducky” Mallard and Rizzoli & Isles’ Maura Isles spout all manner of irrelevant facts, to the frustration of their co-workers; and pretty much every TV ME has been known to talk to the dead.

As a pioneer of the forensic procedural, Quincy, M.E., caused its own opening credits to be inaccurate. In the original opener, Quincy stood over a sheet-covered body and told a group of young police officers, “Gentlemen, you are about to enter the most fascinating sphere of police work: the world of forensic medicine.” As he pulled off the sheet and prepared syringes and saws, the rookies fainted one by one. Thanks to Quincy—and Jack Klugman—television has made the work that once caused policemen to swoon seem commonplace.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section.