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Filling big shoes

Jack Klugman honors friend and actor Henry Fonda by taking on the lead role in On Golden Pond.

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 10, 2003

Jack Klugman says of On Golden Pond, “It just delights the hell out of me.”

When Jack Klugman was offered his current job, his mind immediately flashed back to a dear old friend.

"I got a call asking me to be in the play," said Klugman, starring in the touring production of On Golden Pond, which comes to the Mahaffey Theater this weekend.

"The first thing I thought about, of course, was Henry Fonda, who was a very good friend of mine," Klugman said of the legendary actor who won an Oscar for his starring role in the 1981 film version.

"We toured the Piedmonts together in the 1950s. He got me that job and he got me Petrified Forest with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (a television version). It was his legacy in this show. I thought it would be a good way to keep his memory alive. And I really like the play. It's worked out very well," said Klugman, 80, his voice strong but raspy. Several years ago, Klugman's right vocal chord was removed because of cancer, but through rehabilitation, he was able to recover his voice and act again.

On Golden Pond is a warm and sentimental comedy, full of acerbic wit and feisty drama in its bittersweet look at old age. Klugman, best known for his Emmy-winning role as sports writer Oscar Madison in the '70s sitcom The Odd Couple, plays opposite Patricia Fraser as Ethel Thayer.

The Thayers have been married for 40 years and are spending time together at their summerhouse at Golden Pond in Maine. She's active, picking berries and singing old camp songs. He can't remember his way to the Old Town Road, a route they've walked together many times. His thoughts turn to death, a topic his wife stubbornly avoids.

"The play is so identifiable," Klugman said. "It's really about life, mortality and appreciating what you have instead of dwelling on what you don't have. We get a lot of laughs. It's a funny play. It just delights the hell out of me."

The Thayers' grown daughter, Chelsea, returns, hoping to patch up her strained relationship with her father, whom she thought never could accept her failure to become a champion diver. She brings along her new boyfriend, Bill Ray, a handsome dentist, and his precocious teenage son, Billy Ray.

To everyone's surprise, particularly their own, Norman and Billy Ray establish a bond of affection and understanding that Norman never enjoyed with his daughter.

"I like to be alone at my place there at night and this kid comes unexpectedly to see me," said Klugman. "My relationship with my daughter is not very good, so I don't like this kid right away. But we begin to be very open and very honest. He lets me know his feelings and we develop a wonderful relationship."

There's hope for Norman and Chelsea, too. They talk and grow to know one another better. Reconciliation seems not so far away.

Of all the characters, Norman poses the biggest challenge -- both to the other figures in the play and to the actor who portrays him.

"He likes solitude. He's afraid of people," said Klugman. "He likes to be alone and the other characters are a challenge to him. Actually, he overcomes that, too. He's a crusty old guy who is really soft underneath. That's the way I see him."

Klugman has spent a lifetime looking into the inner strengths and weaknesses of his characters. After finishing On Golden Pond, he plans to turn the focus inward for a one-man show about his 60-year career. The show is slated for September in Los Angeles.

* * *

PREVIEW: On Golden Pond, starring Jack Klugman, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Mahaffey Theater, 400 First St. S, St. Petersburg. $19-$44. (727) 892-5767 or (727) 892-5700.

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