Prior to his hit sitcom The Odd Couple (1970-1975), Jack Klugman had always been known as a dramatic actor, appearing in films like Twelve Angry Men (1957) and episodic tv dramas by the likes of Rod Serling and others.
Not shockingly, when The Odd Couple went off the air, Klugman moved away from his Oscar Madison image for his next television character. Quincy, M.E.’s frankly ludicrous premise was that the hero was an L.A. County coroner who, unsatisfied with police inaction, went around solving murders on his own. Somehow, his workload cutting up cadavers in that busy murder capital wasn’t prohibitively voluminous, and somehow there were hundreds of cases offering such vacuums for him to fill, and somehow he was also fit to battle dangerous criminals out in the field, and somehow the authorities permitted him to keep doing this repeatedly. But no matter. Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple were roughly as preposterous and we love them.
The show was launched in 1976 as part of the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie, filling that volatile fourth slot alongside Columbo, McCloud and McMillan and Wife. (Other shows in that fourth slot had included Banacek and Hec Ramsey). The following season, Quincy, M.E. was launched as its own stand alone show.
Amazingly, it was a hit. In fact, it ran longer than The Odd Couple had. Klugman was a beloved actor, but the other added appeal was the fascinating world of forensic pathology, the stuff the public would later embrace in such shows as CSI and Bones, and countless true crime shows. Quincy pioneered putting a lot of the techniques and science of this aspect of murder investigation on television.
Already far-fetched, in the later seasons the show became famous for overtly opening up Quincy’s investigations into exploding contemporary social issues, like dangerous illegal drugs, gun violence, environmental pollution, and anorexia. The most notorious one (and I watched this one when it premiered, for it was much hyped) warned of the dangers of punk rock music! (A young teenager, inspired by bleak music, commits suicide.)
As we wrote here, the show’s tacking in this direction was part of a broader movement within the television industry in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Among all these programs, Klugman’s Quincy was a conspicuous nudge, his eyes bugging, his veins throbbing, self-righteously shouting things like, “Something is killing these kids, and I’m going to get to the bottom of it, even if you won’t!” Quincy yelling and pointing his finger was a definite thing.
Apparently people liked seeing Klugman in surgical scrubs. He later played Quincy-like characters in guest shots on Diagnosis Murder (1997) and Crossing Jordan (2002).