Onstage for life

Malibu actor Jack Klugman stars in

“The Value of Names” in Burbank.

By Ryan O’Quinn / Special to The Malibu Times

One of the advantages of being a stage and screen performer is that only the individual can decide when it’s time to retire. And veteran actor and Malibu resident Jack Klugman, who is 85, has no plans to retire any time soon; in fact, he’s about to go onstage next week.

Klugman will star in the West Coast premiere of a limited engagement run of “The Value of Names” at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank. The actor starred in the theater’s first play when it opened in 1997.

“Garry Marshall [the theater’s founder] was the producer of ‘The Odd Couple’ and he is one of my best friends,” Klugman said. “We’ve always been in touch. I did ‘Death of a Salesman’ here. It was the first play. I was here when they hadn’t started building it yet. We came out and looked at the [empty] lot.”

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Since then, Klugman has starred in “Golf With Alan Shepard” and “An Evening With Jack Klugman” at the 130-seat house.

The story in “The Value of Names” revolves around Benny Silverman, played by Klugman, a retired sit-com actor who lives on an estate near Malibu overlooking the ocean. Benny’s actress-daughter, Norma, played by Liz Larsen, comes to visit her father while performing in a play in Los Angeles. In the 1950s Benny had refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee that was conducting a witch-hunt among Hollywood artists. When the director of Norma’s play falls ill, a successful film director, Leo Gershen, played by Dan Lauria, takes his place. It turns out Leo had given Benny’s name to HUAC 30 years ago in exchange for an opportunity to direct a film. The two confront each other for the first time three decades later.

The play received rave reviews in New York, and Klugman said he is excited to bring it to Los Angeles.

“I am blessed to have the same cast,” Klugman said. “They are so wonderful. I had seen Dan before in [television] series and in this play he is marvelous. Liz is an incredible singer. She sings like Ethel Merman. She can act and sing. She is just wonderful. I can’t say enough about her.”

Klugman said the character of Benny Silverman was not written for him, but playing the role of a former television star who lives near Malibu was close to home.

“I’ve been living in Malibu for 33 years,” Klugman said. “I was living in Beverly Hills and I used to come out and rent a condominium for the summer with my wife and my two kids.”

Klugman ended up buying one of the condos.

The Emmy- and Golden Globe awards-winning actor said it’s easier now to enjoy the scenic beauty of Malibu compared to when he starred on “Quincy, M.E.” He said he would get up at 4:30 in the morning, put on a pot of coffee and leave before the sun came up, and he says he may as well have been living in a coal mine. Now the actor starts every day with a dip in the Jacuzzi by the ocean.

Klugman, who turned 85 last month, credits his lifelong friend Tony Randall with bringing him back to the theater and convincing him to perform again after his diagnosis with throat cancer in 1989.

“I thought it was over. I had no voice at all,” Klugman said. “I became a hermit. I couldn’t even talk.”

Randall told Klugman that if they revived a one-night stage performance of “The Odd Couple” he believed they could raise a million dollars for his theater. Klugman hired a coach and did extensive voice training and exercises, which he continues to do daily. The performance brought in $1.25 million.

Afterward, Klugman told Randall they should take the show on the road. Klugman went on the road with his best friend and refused to take a salary.

Klugman said Randall was more experienced at a variety of subjects than any person he had ever known.

“He would go into a French restaurant and order in French, but then he loved Kentucky Fried Chicken,” Klugman said. “He could take you in a museum and teach you more in two hours than you could learn in four days. On the way home from the museum he could tell you a dirty joke. He was so well-rounded.”

Klugman wrote the book, “Tony and Me: A Story of Friendship,” dedicated to his friend.

Klugman also credits the American Cancer Society for helping him see the love of fellow survivors and their families. He was asked to give the Tree of Life Award to survivors in Atlanta shortly after his surgery. He says everything that could have gone wrong did; it was 107 degrees, the public address system failed and he had no voice. One by one, the survivors and their families came up to him and told him they were praying for him and they loved him and that changed his attitude. He is now a spokesman for the organization.

The veteran actor plans to continue doing live theater. Following this performance in Burbank, Klugman will revise his role in Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys,” which he performed with Randall. The show will open in October in New Jersey co-starring Paul Dooley.

“I want to die on stage,” Klugman said. “I want to go on as long as I can. Movies can be so impersonal. I co-starred with Lee Remick in two movies and never met the lady. I want to die on stage saying, ‘And the murderer is…’ and then die.”

“The Value of Names” runs May 31 through June 24 at The Falcon Theatre at 4252 Riverside Drive in Burbank. Information about tickets can be obtained by calling 818.955.8101.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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