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April 28, 2022

Jack Klugman, 'The Odd Couple' star and South Philly native, would have turned 100 this week

The actor was raised in a poor Jewish family before his career in theater, TV and movies

The late Jack Klugman, a Philadelphia-born actor best known for his performance as Oscar Madison in the 1970s sitcom "The Odd Couple," would have turned 100 on Wednesday.

TV, movie and theater lovers used his birthday as an occasion to highlight Klugman's contributions to the American canon on social media.

The actor came from humble beginnings. He was born into a poor Jewish family in South Philly where he was the youngest of six children.

"​​We never had any money, but we always had enough food to eat," Klugman told Hadassah Magazine in 2006.

His father, a house painter, died during the Great Depression when Klugman was 12. To support the family, Klugman's mother made hats at night in her kitchen. He helped make ends meet with small-time hustles in their impoverished neighborhood.

This was also around the time he picked up his gambling habit. Klugman said the consequences of this hobby are what led him to acting.

After he was discharged from the U.S. Army during World War II due to a kidney problem, he came back to Philly where he accrued more gambling debt than he could afford to pay back.

Although the show was only moderately popular at the time it aired, Klugman won two Primetime Emmy Awards for his work on the series.

"I owed a loan shark, who was also a friend, some money. I couldn't pay him, so he turned the debt over to a couple of guys who were going to hurt me a little bit," Klugman said.

"I had to get out of town," he said. "Since I had the GI bill, I remembered my brother knew a guy in the Army who had been to Carnegie Mellon University, so I went there."

Once in Pittsburgh, Klugman enrolled in the school's drama department. There, one of his first professors was so unimpressed that he encouraged the actor-to-be to find another career path.

But Klugman persisted, and he moved to New York City where he made his Broadway debut in 1949. While there, he shared an apartment with Charles Bronson, another actor with Eastern European immigrant roots who grew up poor in Pennsylvania.

Klugman got his big break in 1965 when he was cast in the original Broadway production of "The Odd Couple," a comedy about two divorced men who become roommates in New York City. He replaced Walter Matthau.

Although Matthau returned to the role when the play was adapted into a 1968 movie, Klugman was recast alongside Tony Randall in 1970 when the concept was repurposed as an ABC sitcom.

"Matthau is terrific, but Klugman will ALWAYS be my idea of Oscar Madison," said one Twitter user who remembered the actor's birthday.

But Klugman wasn't just known for comedies. In fact, he had more of a penchant for dramas.

One of his first prominent roles was as juror No. 5 in "12 Angry Men," a film about a jury in the homicide trial of an 18-year-old. The American Film Institute included it on one of its lists ranking the best movies of all time.

Klugman was nominated for his first Emmy in 1964 for his guest-star role in an episode of a courtroom drama called "the Defenders."

After "The Odd Couple" was canceled, he spent seven years as the star of "Quincy, M.E.," a drama about a Los Angeles County medical examiner who's often involved in police investigations. He received four more Emmy nominations for this show.

Klugman was forced to step back from his career in 1989 when he was diagnosed with throat cancer after a lifetime of smoking. A surgery ridded his body of the disease, but left the actor with just one vocal cord and no voice.

It was Randall, his former co-star, who got Klugman back into acting three years later with a performance of "The Odd Couple" in New York to benefit the National Actors Theatre.

In 2004, Klugman was featured in the Oral Cancer Foundation's first ever nationally-televised public service announcement.

He had a few more roles in movies and theatrical productions at the end of his life. His final on-screen appearance was in the 2010 horror film "Camera Obscura." Klugman died in Los Angeles at age 90 on Dec. 24, 2012.