Oscar Madison is dead and every ink-stained wretch should raise a glass to the great man’s memory, or change a typewriter ribbon, or recite a few lines from “The Odd Couple.” We never saw Oscar hammer out a game story on deadline for his newspaper, the New York Herald. But he was a sportswriter’s sportswriter. You could tell. He was messy, crude, and grumpy. He cracked wise. He wore a Mets cap and mustard stains.
He came in one day wearing golf shoes. Felix Ungar, the fastidious roommate, was horrified. “Oscar! Take your golf shoes off in the house!”
Hearing Felix’s plea, Oscar did a tap dance in the hallway.
Oscar was our patron saint, our role model, our excuse. I once made a perfect full swing with a 54-degree wedge, only to hear, at the top of my powerful follow through, the sound of a living room light fixture cracking into teeny-tiny pieces that floated to the carpet like a glittering snowfall. Sportswriters do these things.
Like all of us, Oscar could go on about his significant other.
“Blanche used to say to me, ‘What time do you want dinner?’ I'd say, ‘I dunno, I'm not hungry.’ Then, 3 o'clock in the morning, I'd wake her up and say ‘now.’ I've been one of the highest paid sportswriters in the east for the past 14 years, we saved eight and a half dollars in pennies. I'm never home, I gamble, burn cigar holes in the furniture, drink like a fish, lie to her every chance I get. Then on our 10th wedding anniversary, I took her to the New York Rangers-Detroit Red Wings hockey game where she got hit by a puck!”
I have been married forever despite taking my wife to a Kentucky Derby where she didn’t get hit by a puck but got kissed by Johnny Unitas, which, she reported, was kinda the same thing.
With four or five scribblers in New York for a World Series, I played poker on a hotel room bed. I lost $11 in five minutes and dropped out to study the infield fly rule. Oscar, on the other hand, was a happy loser. There was a game in the apartment on a summer day, 105 degrees, windows open, curtains hanging still. This was in the movie, 1968, Walter Matthau as Oscar.
Walking to the poker table, Oscar said, “I'm in for a quarter.”
A player said, “Aren't you going to look at your cards first?”
“What for? I'm gonna bluff anyway. Who gets a Pepsi?”
Murray said, “I get a Pepsi.”
“My friend Murray the policeman gets a warm Pepsi.”
A third player, Roy, said, “You still didn't fix the refrigerator. It's been two weeks now - no wonder it stinks in here.”
“Temper, temper,” Oscar said. “If I wanted nagging, I'd go back with my wife. I'm out. Who wants food?”
Murray: “What do you got?”
Checking the sandwiches, which he held pressed in his armpits, the better to keep his hands free to carry the drinks, Oscar said, “I got, uh, brown sandwiches and, uh, green sandwiches. Which one do you want?”
“What's the green?”
“It's either very new cheese or very old meat.”
Murray: “I'll take the brown.”
Murray started wolfing down the sandwich and Roy said, “Are you crazy? You're not going to eat that, are you?”
Murray: “I'm hungry!”
Roy: “His refrigerator has been out of order for two weeks now. I saw milk standing in there that wasn't even in the bottle!”
Causing Oscar to say: “What are you, some kind of health nut? Eat, Murray, eat!”
I once asked a nutritional scientist from Cornell University, “What would you say about a man whose lifestyle forced him to eat a thousand hot dogs at ballparks? Also, pizza and White Castles, usually after midnight, with beer.”
“This man,” the scientist asked, “is he still alive?”
Oscar Madison was Neil Simon’s idea of a sportswriter, the slovenly half of the odd coupling. The television show starred Jack Klugman as Oscar, and you don’t need to be a sportswriter to be a touch sad this week. Klugman died on Christmas Eve, 90 years old. He was a wonderful character actor who for a lifetime did good and important work on Broadway, in movies, and on television. Matthau was OK. But Jack Klugman was Oscar, always Oscar, the one and only Oscar.
Oscar irritated Howard Cosell by calling him “Howie.” Oscar’s favorite meal was lasagna with French fries followed by Boston cream pie. He courted the Pigeon sisters who lived upstairs, either Cecily or Gwendolyn, sometimes both. He did it on television from 1970 through 1975 and did it with such roguish charm that one acolyte, Thom Loverro, writing this week in the Washington (D.C.) Examiner, called Oscar “the sportswriter some of us ... wanted to be: a single, cigar-chomping, drinking, gambling New York wise guy who hung out with some of the greats of the game.”
Anybody can be hard on Lance Armstrong. Oscar was hard on Christmas: "Don't talk to me about Christmas, will ya? All that sticky, phony goodwill. I'd like to get a giant candy cane and beat the wings off a sugar plum fairy."
When Felix complained that Oscar poured ketchup on salad, Oscar said, "So? I like ketchup. It's like tomato wine."
Wait, what’s Oscar doing to his arm? “Sterilizing the wound.” Felix was aghast: “With beer?” Oscar: “It’s got alcohol in it.”
The pair went to the horse races at Belmont Park, Oscar at the $100 window, Felix fretting about his own bet. “If he doesn’t win,” Felix said, “I lose everything.” Oscar harrumphed: “Yeah, the whole two dollars.”
In 1980, Jack Klugman traveled to the Kentucky Derby – not as an actor but as the real owner of a real contender in the real race, a colt named Jaklin Klugman. So the Louisville sportswriter Billy Reed became Oscar’s guide to the magic of America’s greatest horse race.
“Oh, yeah, he was Oscar, that was him, fully in character with who Klugman was,” Reed said. “He was a race-track guy and he was having the greatest time of his life.”
Klugman had an idea. “He asked, ‘Can you take me to see Secretariat?’” Reed said. “So we drove to Claiborne Farm and he rubbed Secretariat on the nose. He wanted to see Seattle Slew. We did that, too, and he rubbed Seattle Slew’s nose, too. ‘Affirmed? Can we find Affirmed?’ So off we went to find Affirmed. He rubbed Affirmed’s nose, too, and then we went back to Churchill Downs. We went to Jaklin Klugman’s stall. And there Klugman patted his horse’s nose saying, ‘Here’s a little Secretariat, and here’s a little Seattle Slew, and a little Affirmed.’”
To watch the race on Derby Day, Reed stood with Klugman in the owners’ section. As the horses rounded the fourth turn into the stretch, Jaklin Klugman, off at odds of 6 to 1, was in front. “I would have sworn he’d win,” Reed said. “Jack was jumping up and down, about to hyperventilate.”
Jaklin Klugman faded to third. “But that didn’t bother Jack,” Reed said. In the next week’s People magazine, Reed quoted Klugman saying, “I’m as happy as a pig in you-know-what. Third in the Derby! It's in the record books forever! If this is a dream, I hope it never ends."
Klugman returned to Louisville for a dozen more Kentucky Derbys. He never came with his own horse again. But he always found his way to the $100 window. Forever Oscar.