In 1989, I was rehearsing in Los Angeles for a revival of Twelve Angry Men. I was thrilled to be working on it again because this time I was playing the role my idol, Lee J. Cobb, originated when we did the movie together forty years earlier.
During rehearsals, however, I noticed that at certain pitches my voice generated no sound. This frightened me because many years before I had undergone radiation treatment for throat cancer.
The first time I got cancer was when I was performing in The Odd Couple on stage and I was constantly getting laryngitis. I put off going to the doctor for a long time but when I finally did, he told me that I had leukoplakia, a dangerous pre-cancerous condition.
"If you stop smoking now," the doctor told me "it will probably disappear. If you don't, in a year I'll be taking out your vocal chords and that will be the end of your acting career."
I stopped smoking that minute and after three months, I went back for a follow-up visit. This time the doctor told me that I had "virginal" vocal cords again -- not a mark on them. So, what did I do? I left his office, went down the pharmacy that was in the building, and bought a pack of cigarettes!
Anyway, fast-forward ten years to the rehearsals for Twelve Angry Men. We only had one week left of rehearsal, so I hurried to see my doctor about the crack in my voice. After the examination, he told me he saw something on my larynx that bothered him. He decided to perform a biopsy.
Two days later, he called me and told me that I had invasive throat cancer and said that I must undergo surgery immediately. I didn't like that word: invasive. What did that mean? I felt fine! I had no discomfort, no laryngitis, and I felt no pain whatsoever!
I asked him if the operation could wait for about six weeks because I really wanted to perform this role in Twelve Angry Men.
"Jack," the doc told me plainly, "It's invasive." There was that word again. "That means it's very aggressive. If we don't cut it out right away, in three months you'll be short of breath and in four you'll be dead."
Nothing echoes like a diagnosis. It has the sound of a bell that has been rung so hard, it cracks.
So, I left the show and flew to New York to have the operation at Mount Sinai Hospital. My doctor, Dr. Max Som, who had been my main ENT (ear, nose, throat) man for years, said he was too old to operate, but that he'd found this "kid" with "golden hands."
Max explained to me that me he would still be present in the operating room, but this kid would perform the actual operation. The goal was to cut the cancer out, but leave my larynx intact. My voice, everybody understood, was my livelihood.
Dr. Hugh Biller was that kid, and he did have golden hands. He performed a sensational operation. The problem was that once they were inside, it became apparent my condition had worsened to the point where they had to cut a little deeper than planned. The result was that my right vocal cord was reduced to a stump and the cause of preserving my full voice had been lost.
After the operation, I was crushed by the news. Sure, I had beaten the cancer, but I had no voice at all, no sound! I could only whisper. I felt like John Henry, the horse, who had earned six million dollars while racing. The day he had to stop, he was not only worthless -- he was a liability. He was a gelding who couldn't reproduce. I was an actor who couldn't speak.
The first friend to visit me in the hospital was Tony Randall.
"You're going to be fine," he reassured me.
I gestured to indicate how angry I was about losing my voice! He smiled and moved a little closer.
"Hey, let's face it, Jack," he kidded me gently. "You never did sound like Richard Burton."
I couldn't actually laugh, but I smiled enough to let him know I appreciated the humor. Then he got very serious, looked me right in the eye, and said, "Jack, if you ever feel like going back to work, I will find a venue for us. And you know I mean it."
I did know he meant it and I appreciated the thought, but I felt lost! Overnight, I had gone from being at the height of my powers, rehearsing for one of my favorite plays, to this: a gelding in a world of studs. Acting had been my best friend for so many years and now, suddenly, traumatically, my best friend had been taken away.
For a while, I was angry and bitter. I remember watching television soon after the hospital stay and saw that a New York Mets pitcher had lost his right arm to cancer. His right arm! The one thing he needed most! I got so mad. "It's not fair!" I gurgled at the television set. "I don't need my right arm and you don't need your voice! Why can't we trade?"
Of course, that's not how things work in this world. But I didn't care. I continued to rage for about three weeks until I suddenly realized that I wasn't playing the hand that I'd been dealt. Sure, I could sit around and blame God or the Fates, but it still wasn't going to give me my voice back. So, I stopped. I still sulked a lot, but I stopped shrieking in whispers.
Six months later, the American Cancer Society called me to be a spokesperson for a function they were having in Atlanta, Georgia. They wanted me to present the Tree of Life to hundreds of cancer survivors and their spouses. They also wanted me to make a speech.
"Are you nuts?" I asked.
"We know you have no voice and have difficulty speaking," they replied.
"Difficulty speaking?" I gasped. "Gimme a break!"
"Actually, it's your celebrity status that we're interested in," they confessed. "Your presence would mean a great deal to those survivors." I wondered why. Why would my speech make any difference to them? Who the hell was I to them, or them to me for that matter?
Up to that point in my life, I hadn't let anybody see me vulnerable, not even my children. Why should I start now? In fact, I'd always made it a point, throughout my entire life, to never ask anybody for anything. As far back as age six, I shined shoes for spending money so I wouldn't be obligated to anyone. I sold pretzels for a penny a piece for lunch money.
When I wanted a bicycle, I sold subscriptions to Colliers, the Saturday Evening Post, and the Ladies Home Journal. All through my life, it was this way. It was how I protected myself. As a result, I was a gracious giver, but a lousy receiver of love.
Well, in spite of myself, I let them talk me into going. I agreed to be the guest of honor at the Cancer Society event as long as they didn't want to give me anything. If my celebrity status could offer people a little inspiration, great. It sure as hell wasn't doing me any good.
So, I flew to Atlanta, Georgia, but with trepidation in my heart. I couldn't shake an uneasy feeling about the American Cancer Society event. As soon as I landed in Atlanta, I knew why: it was over one hundred degrees with ninety percent humidity.
I knew the event was to take place outside and when I actually got there, my worst fears were confirmed: there was no shade anywhere and it was topping out at one hundred and three degrees. Man, this event was off to a bad start -- and so was my attitude.
What I didn't know was that the heat was going to be the least of my problems because just as I approached the podium to speak, the PA system broke down!
I couldn't believe it! No microphone, no voice, just me standing in front of a large, expectant crowd of people with no way to communicate. I was talking but no one could hear me. It was like a bad dream. What made it worse was that with all of the ambient noise, I couldn't even hear myself.
I was so mad. I hated myself for agreeing to come. I hated the American Cancer Society for asking me to come. I hated the survivors and their spouses; and now, to top it all off, I had to present the Tree of Life to these people!
There must have been five hundred people there and every one of them wanted to meet me. They came toward me two at a time; the survivor and their spouse, and I was supposed to congratulate them and give them a Tree of Life placard.
When I saw the people lining up, it took all of my strength not to run. The only thing that kept me there was my word. I had made a promise to stay for the entire evening and I couldn't, wouldn't ever break it.
Then, something completely unexpected started to happen. It was a small thing, but it would change my life. I realized that after I had given out about five placards that I was starting to feel better. In fact, as more and more people came toward me the good feeling I had increased.
I suddenly started listening to what people were saying as I gave them the Tree of Life: "We love you, Jack," they said, or "You look wonderful, Jack," or "We prayed for you," or "You're gonna make it through this, Jack."
Maybe it was because I was needy, I didn't know; but these people I had hated a minute ago were suddenly helping me. What was it? What had happened so suddenly that I felt hope again and connection?
Before I had even finished asking the question, I got the answer. Not one of the people who approached me that day, not one in five hundred, had used the pronoun "I." Not one came up to me with self-pity or complained about the way they felt or looked for me to save them.
On the contrary, every single one of those people, except me, was thinking about someone else! In that instant, I knew what it meant to be a cancer survivor.
I was so overcome with feeling that I had to excuse myself. I ran to the nearest men's room where I had the second happiest cry of my life. Then I left my pity pot right there in that bathroom -- where it belonged -- and went back out to the event.
They took two hundred and fifty pictures of me that day and my smile was genuine in every one of them.
I decided to become a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society, and I traveled all over the world -- to Guam, to Europe, to Asia -- telling total strangers my story and listening to theirs. It was a great experience as we all became brothers and sisters in a battle for our lives.
Jack Klugman lives in Malibu, California. His closest family are his two sons, David and Adam, their lovely wives Carol and Nancy, and his two beloved granddaughters, Olivia and Katharine.
Burton Rocks is also the co-author of the New York Times bestseller Me and My Dad with New York Yankees outfielder, Paul O'Neill. He has published five books.
More information on Tony and Me.