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2005 Sportsman of the Year

My Sportsman Choice: Oscar Madison

Posted: Monday November 21, 2005 2:19PM; Updated: Monday November 21, 2005 2:27PM
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Real athletes may create lasting records but few will last in fans' memories like Jack Klugman's Oscar Madison character.
Real athletes may create lasting records but few will last in fans' memories like Jack Klugman's Oscar Madison character.
ABC/Photofest
SI's writers offer their 2005 choices:

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By Steve Rushin

Nobody in sports had a better year than Oscar Madison, the greatest sportswriter who never lived. Nathan Lane reportedly earned $100,000 a week in 2005 to play slovenly Oscar in The Odd Couple, whose six-month run on Broadway was sold out in advance.

Oscar Madison's pub in Kinsale, Ireland -- its walls papered over with Oscarbilia, continued to serve Smithwick's and good music to the people of County Cork.

And in October, Jack Klugman published a memoir, Tony and Me, about his friendship with Tony Randall, who played neatnik Felix Unger on ABC's version of The Odd Couple. Klugman, of course, was Oscar, the ballgame-going, alimony-owing roommate of Unger and sports columnist extraordinaire for the New York Herald.

During five seasons, in which he won two Emmys, Klugman became the quintessence of Oscar, so believable that New York cabbies still yell, 30 years after the show went off the air: "Hey Oscar!" Even now, says Klugman, "People are disappointed when I can't talk sports with them."

Oh, but he can. Klugman, 83, has talked sports with everyone from Willie Shoemaker (who rode for Klugman when he owned thoroughbreds) to Willie Mosconi (growing up in South Philadelphia, Klugman racked balls at Greenleaf's pool hall) to Humphrey Bogart (the captain of the African Queen really was a sailing nut).

More than half a century ago, after losing a regatta on the Riviera, Bogart told Klugman: "When you stop in every port to replenish your booze supply, you finish last. But it's a happy last."

And that sangfroid is the essence of Oscar. "It's about carefree living," Klugman says of the character. Indeed, while other Sportsman of the Year candidates are called immortals, Oscar really is immortal. His appeal is enduring, ensuring that Oscar will endure, too.

Forty years after Neil Simon created him -- inspired by a rumpled Hollywood agent named Roy Gerber -- Oscar is in the prime of his career and Klugman couldn't be happier. "The kids on Friends made more money in two days than I made in five years on the The Odd Couple," he says. "But they didn't have as much fun. And they don't have the memories."

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