By Lois Armstrong
November 25, 1991 12:00 PM

Jack Klugman leans back in the living room of his Malibu condo, closes his eyes, opens his mouth in the shape of a perfect O and emits a bloodcurdling bellow that drowns out the waves crashing outside his windows. “If I did that before the operation, I would have had laryngitis within 10 minutes,” he says in a clear but burbly speaking voice that seems to rise from the bottom of a tropical fish tank. “Now I can do it, and it makes my voice stronger.”

In 1973 Klugman was found to have cancer of the larynx—which strikes 12,500 Americans each year, more than a quarter of whom will die. He underwent surgery to remove his right vocal cord 2½ years ago and could not speak above a whisper. Since then Klugman, 69, has been cancer-free and, despite the long odds, has successfully fought to regain his speaking voice. “I feel great!” he says, pounding his chest with his fists. His close friend of 20 years, Barbara Neugass, 49, a sometime actress, agrees. “I can’t even keep up with this one,” she says.

Klugman, star of TVs The Odd Couple (1970—75) and Quincy (1976-83), was divorced in 1978 from his wife of 22 years, Brett Somers, but the two remain friends. Also, he says, his near-fatal brush with cancer has brought him closer to his two sons, David, 32, a graduate student in social studies at Columbia University, and Adam, 28, who works for PBS in Trinidad, Calif. Klugman spends most of his time in Malibu or at his 40-acre horse farm in Temecula, Calif., where he keeps 75 horses (including Jaklin Klugman, who finished third in the 1980 Kentucky Derby), 10 dogs, 22 cats and three goats.

Although he has not yet resumed working steadily, Klugman publicly celebrated his recovery in June, returning to the stage in his Emmy-winning role of Oscar Madison to Tony Randall’s Felix linger in a one-night Broadway revival of The Odd Couple. Testifying in September before a congressional hearing to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the National Cancer Act, he reiterated the need for early detection of cancer and pleaded for more research funds. He spoke with national correspondent Lois Armstrong about his second chance.

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO I REPLACED Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple on Broadway. Toward the end of my four-month run, I found I was getting laryngitis. I was a heavy smoker at the time, two to five packs a day—five if I was gambling. So I went to see an ear, nose and throat man, who told me he thought it was an allergy. He never told me to stop smoking. He gave me what seemed like massive doses of cortisone—pills and shots—while he was testing me for allergies. After six weeks there was no improvement in my voice. But even though it’s not addictive, I felt like I was hooked on cortisone. I had withdrawal symptoms—anxiety and nervousness.

Then I went to a doctor, Dr. Max Som, who saved my life. [Som, who also treated Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, died at age 84 last year.] He told me I had something called leukoplakia [a possibly precancerous condition], and if I would stop smoking, it might reverse itself. So I stopped smoking—for three months. It was impossible. I don’t know how I did it. But it worked. When I went to see him, he said, “You have virginal vocal cords. There’s not a mark on them.” So I went out and bought a pack of cigarettes. That was my undoing. In 1973 they found cancer, but it was localized. So I quit smoking, and for a while nothing happened. Then in 1984 they found that the cancer was starting to spread.

I took extensive radiation treatments, five days a week for seven weeks, and for 4½ years I was okay. I was able to work. Then 2½ years ago I got a job doing a movie of the week about that kid who was down in the well [baby Jessica McClure], and we were going on location for a month. I felt wonderful. My voice sounded the same. But I thought, “Let me go see the doctor, Just in case.” The doctor, here in California, took a look and said he wanted to do a biopsy. I told him, “But I gotta go to work tomorrow.” He said no, he wanted to do the biopsy.

The result showed that I had cancer of the larynx, and it was spreading. [The larynx is the structure in the throat that houses the vocal cords.] The guy wanted to remove everything—both vocal cords—and put a hole in my throat. I said, “No, let me try Dr. Som in New York.” So I went to New York and heard the same thing: The cancer was spreading fast and heading toward the lymph nodes. So I said, “Look, can it wait a month while I do this show?” There was a lot of money involved. And he said, “Jack, I want to tell you something. If you wait three weeks, first you’ll be short of breath. And in four months you’ll be dead.” But he added, “Trust me. I’ve got a doctor with golden hands, Dr. Hugh Biller. He might be able to do just a partial—take out one cord and try to retain the voice.”

It was a terrible operation, a painful mother. It’s like your body’s on fire. Unbearable. I came out of it, and everyone was fairly sure that I was going to talk, get most of my voice back. But I had done so much to my cords—with all the radiation—that I could hardly control the tone of my voice at all. I tried everything, everywhere. I went to many doctors, specialists, speech therapists. They all said, “”Forget it. You’re lucky the way you are. You’re lucky to have survived it.”

I gave up. I thought, “Well, I won’t act anymore, that’s all. I’ll start trying to direct or write.” Then a guy named Gary Catona, who is a voice builder who’s worked with Paula Abdul and Shirley MacLaine, among others, calls me and says he thinks he can help me. I say, “You’re not a doctor. I’ve been all over. Nobody can help me.” He said, “Come in and give it a try. So I did.” That guy Catona is a miracle worker. And simple. No drugs. Just exercises.

We’re born with two vocal cords, and when we talk, the cords meet in the middle, and that makes the sound. After the operation, the cord they cut didn’t move. Vocal cords are just muscles, and Gary’s theory was to get the good cord to move twice the normal distance to compensate for the stationary stump of a cord left on the other side. And it worked.

After I had been working with Gary, my great friend Tony Randall called me. He’d started this repertory theater in New York City. He asked me if I would do a benefit performance of The Odd Couple, one night. And I said, “Tony, Jesus! I can hardly talk.” Tony’s a great believer that everything’s going to be all right. “Trust me, Jack,” he told me. “You can do it. I know you can do it. Don’t worry about it.”

When I did The Odd Couple, I wore a little mike right behind my ear, where nobody could see it, and that was all. Tony was miked, but the other four guys weren’t miked, and you couldn’t tell the difference. When I came on and did the first line, the first minute, you could hear the audience having to adjust a little bit. But I swear, after the first minute, it was as though I sounded like this all the time. There was a seven-minute standing ovation at the curtain. I’m looking out there, and they’re applauding and standing—and crying. And, of course, I started to cry then. It was wonderful. It was the most exciting experience in the world.

I have plans to do more stage work and also more TV. And they keep talking about a two-hour Quincy TV movie, which I would love to do. I’m hungry to work. I’m ready. It’s miracle time.