Jack Klugman (AP Photo)
As a Los Angeles County medical examiner, Jack Klugman's Dr. Quincy investigated suspicious deaths, often coming into conflict with police and colleagues in his quest for justice.
Perhaps less well-known was the social commentary that often wove through Quincy, M.E. The show took on eating disorders, weak drunk driving laws, and airline safety issues.
Most notably, the show and its star addressed rare, so-called "orphan" diseases. Onscreen and in real life, Klugman rallied support for a law to encourage and facilitate the creation of drugs to treat these diseases. The result? The Orphan Drug Act of 1983.
So put aside the Klugman you think you know –– the award-winning actor who brought slovenly Oscar Madison to life in television's The Odd Couple and whose stage and screen appearances included Juror No. 5 in 12 Angry Men and the lead role in the revival of The Sunshine Boys.
Klugman "didn't just save lives on TV, he saved lives," journalist and blogger Ezra Klein said on The Rachel Maddow Show in December 2012, shortly after Klugman's death at age 90.
Here's how it happened:
Quincy, M.E. often featured story lines taken from current events. In 1981 Klugman's brother, Maurice, a writer and producer, learned that a House of Representatives committee was hearing testimony on orphan diseases –– rare disorders such as Tourette's syndrome, cystic fibrosis and spina bifida. Commercial drug companies were reluctant to finance research into these diseases or produce drugs to treat them, arguing there wasn't enough profit.
Maurice Klugman crafted a Quincy episode around a boy with Tourette's syndrome and his struggle to get treatment. Before it aired in 1981, Jack Klugman railed against the pharmaceutical industry and Congress in an interview with United Press International.
''I asked why drug companies couldn't find a cure," he said. "They told me there are only 100,000 victims of the disease so it wouldn't be profitable to invest $7 million to $50 million in research. … I blew my stack. What are they doing, waiting for a popular disease? Something in the top 40? That's what the episode is about. … Congress was considering a bill to underwrite drug research on Tourette's disease but it died in committee. The bill comes up again soon after our show airs. I hope to hell the congressmen see it."
After the episode aired, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., invited Klugman to Washington to testify. "Nowadays on Capitol Hill, you're as likely to run into Bono or Ben Affleck as your own representative," Boston Globe columnist Joshua Green wrote following Klugman's death. "But at the time, a bona fide celebrity speaking to Congress was a huge deal."
Klugman's appearance before Congress made front-page news across the country. The Orphan Drug Act easily passed in the House, providing tax credits and easing regulations for drug companies. But when the bill reached the Senate, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, removed the tax credits –– the bill's biggest selling point –– from the Senate version.
Klugman's response is legendary. Quincy, M.E. aired another episode, "this one revolving around an orphan drug bill that was being held up by a heartless (fictitious) senator," Green wrote. "In the pivotal scene, Quincy confronts the senator in his office and demands that he look out the window. Peering down, the senator sees a huge crowd gathered with signs that read 'We Want the Orphan Drug Act' and relents."
Accordingly, in real life, Hatch relented. Or, as Klein put it on MSNBC, "In terms that were not used in 1982, Jack Klugman pretty much rolled Orrin Hatch, not an easy thing to do."
"There just wouldn't be an Orphan Drug Act without Jack Klugman," Abbey Meyers, president of the National Organization for Rare Disorders, told the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1999. "The issue simply wouldn't be known to the public without him."
Since the law passed, more than 300 orphan drugs have been developed, including AZT as an early treatment for AIDS. More than 1,000 more are pending.
As Green noted, "Klugman's distant influence continues to live on in the current Congress. It didn't get any attention, of course, but earlier this year, in a rare feat of bipartisan decency, Congress passed the Creating HOPE Act for pediatric cancer research. The law relies on the same model as the Orphan Drug Act."
Klugman "wasn’t a subtle performer," his obituary in the New York Times noted. "His features were large and mobile; his voice was a deep, earnest, rough-hewed bleat. He was a no-baloney actor who conveyed straightforward, simply defined emotion, whether it was anger, heartbreak, lust or sympathy."
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."