When it comes to silver screen legends, Jack Lemmon wasn’t cool like Humphrey Bogart or James Dean – the guys everyone wanted to be. No, Lemmon wasn’t cool. He was, however, the guy everyone already was – the relatable one. He brought humanity to all of his roles in the La-La Land that was (is) Hollywood.
While Lemmon was “the relatable one,” he did actually have a kind of talent that only a few embody. He did things, went places. He mastered the piano, served in the military, went to Harvard, and that’s not mentioning his knack for acting. He entered the Golden Age of Hollywood when it was in full flow when audiences were falling in love with the detectives, cowboys and princes – not the insurance salesman. Lemmon, like a breath of fresh air, was a representation of working-class America – the most prominent community in the country, yet the least spoken about community in cinema (at least back then).
This is an ode to Jack Lemmon and the legacy he became…
Jack Lemmon played characters who were stepped over yet didn’t play the victim. He was the down on his luck guy who had the ability to just get on with things. He weaved seamlessly between the genres of comedy and drama – even when the film style changed, he didn’t. In comedies, he had a sadness about him, a vulnerability. And in dramas, he had a wit about him—the one constant: authenticity.
Unlike his name, there was nothing bitter about him. Even the characters he played that we weren’t supposed to like, we kind of liked anyway. Lemmon was a special performer that we all loved and identified with, which is why it’s high time to devote an entire piece to the actor who did everything, including draining his spaghetti in a tennis racket.
Lemmon lived from February 8, 1925, to June 27, 2001. He lived to the age of 76, and boy, did he live his life to the fullest. The way he came into this world is one for the books. Believe it or not, Lemmon was born in an elevator at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Newton, outside of Boston, Massachusetts.
When he was 63, he said that his birth might have been more convenient if his parents weren’t such “fanatical bridge players.” As Lemmon’s story goes, his parents were involved in the highly competitive card game, and his mother continued playing despite her husband’s warnings that birth was imminent. When the contractions grew too painful to ignore, they rushed to the hospital, and whaddayaknow – they got trapped in an elevator. “And so, I arrived under great duress in the elevator,” Lemmon stated.
His parents, Mildred and John, who was the president of the Doughnut Corporation of America, had a difficult marriage. When Lemmon was 18, they separated but never officially divorced. Lemmon was often sick as a child and had to undergo three significant operations on his ears before he even made it to 10. By the time he was 12, he had spent two years in a hospital.
When Lemmon accepted his lifetime achievement award, he claimed that he knew he wanted to be an actor when he was eight years old. During his school years, he acted in school productions, pursued track sports with success, and was president of the Hasty Pudding Club and vice president of Dramatic and Delphic Clubs.
When he attended Harvard University in the early 1940s, he was forbidden to act onstage. “I was on probation at Harvard,” he explained. “Too much drama club and not enough studies.” Despite being on academic probation and being banned from participating in drama club events as well as acting in on-campus plays, he did it anyways. He broke the rules and appeared in roles using pseudonyms like Timothy Orange (gotta love the name choice).
Lemmon became a member of the V-12 Navy College Training Program and was commissioned by the United States Navy. He briefly served as an ensign on the aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain in World War II. After completing his service, he returned to Harvard and graduated with a degree in War Service Sciences in 1947.
The recent grad then headed on to New York City, where he studied acting under coach Uta Hagen at HB Studio. While in New York, Lemmon revisited an old passion of his: the piano. He became devoted to the instrument when he was 14 and learned to play by ear.
For about a year in NYC, he played piano at the Old Knick bar on Second Avenue, where he also worked for free as a waiter and master of ceremonies. Eventually, he made his way into the industry, starting out in radio and on Broadway. His first-ever acting gig was in 1949 when he landed a bit part as a plasterer in the film The Lady Takes a Sailor.
By 1949, Lemmon already appeared in TV shows, but it was Broadway that was calling his name. He appeared on Broadway for the first time in a 1953 revival of Room Service, but the production ended up closing after two weeks. Nonetheless, he was spotted by talent scout Max Arnow, who worked for Columbia.
That was the moment where Lemmon shifted from the New York stage to film sets in Hollywood. The head of Columbia, Harry Cohn, wanted to change Lemmon’s name. His reasoning was that he was worried the name Lemmon would be used to describe the quality of the actor’s films. But Lemmon resisted and proved Cohn wrong.
Lemmon’s first role as a leading man was in 1954 in the comedy. It Should Happen to You, alongside Judy Holliday. It was noticeable then, in his first-ever leading role, that he was something special. Bosley Crowther, of The New York Times, described Lemmon as having “a warm and appealing personality. The screen should see more of him.”
Lemmon and Holliday reunited that same year again in Phffft. “If it wasn’t for Judy, I’m not sure I would have concentrated on films,” Lemmon admitted later on in 1986. He revealed that early in his career, he had a snobbish attitude towards films in comparison to the stage. But Lemmon wasn’t going to turn his back on the stage.
He managed to negotiate a contract with Columbia, which allowed him leeway to pursue other projects. According to Lemmon, he received some contract terms that “nobody had gotten before.” He signed a seven-year contract with Columbia but stayed with them for 10 years. In 1955, his place in Hollywood was cemented when he earned his first Oscar for his role as Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts.
The film’s director, John Ford, chose to cast Lemmon after seeing his Columbia screen test. During an impromptu meeting on the studio lot, Ford convinced Lemmon to appear in his film, but Lemmon didn’t even realize he was in conversation with Ford.
Lemmon starred in the military farce Operation Mad Ball (1957) Bell, Book and Candle (1958) – a film he apparently disliked, and It Happened to Jane (1959). All three were directed by Richard Quine. Lemmon starred in six films of Quine’s. The others were My Sister Eileen (1955), The Notorious Landlady (1962), and How to Murder Your Wife (1965).
Lemmon also worked with famed director Billy Wilder on seven movies. Their collaboration started off swell with the gender-bending comedy Some Like It Hot (1959), alongside Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe. For 80% of his role, he was in drag. People who knew his mother said he mimicked her personality and even her hairstyle. The studio also hired female impersonator Barbette to coach both Lemmon and Curtis on gender illusion.
Wilder then directed Lemmon in The Apartment (1960), alongside Shirley MacLaine. At the time, the film got mixed reviews from the critics, but these days it’s considered a classic. It received 11 nominations, winning five Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. Lemmon earned Oscar nominations for both Some Like it Hot and The Apartment.
Shirley MacLaine described Wilder’s and Lemmon’s relationship as “professional infatuation.” But Wilder didn’t direct all of his films in that era. Lemmon also acted in films by Blake Edwards, such as Days of Wine and Roses (1962), where Lemmon played Joe Clay, a young alcoholic businessman. The role earned him yet another Oscar nomination for the Best Actor, and it happened to be one of Lemmon’s favorite roles.
It was the early 60s, and Lemmon had already appeared in 15 comedies, a Western, and an adventure. “The movie people put a label attached to your big toe — ‘light comedy’ — and that’s the only way they think of you,” Lemmon stated in 1984. “I knew damn well I could play drama. Things changed following Days of Wine and Roses. That was as important a film as I’ve ever done.”
Akin to what he said, Days of Wine and Roses was Lemmon’s first film, where he was involved with the production through his own production company Jalam. He continued to collaborate with Edwards in The Great Race (1965), reuniting him with Tony Curtis. He made a nice $1 million for that role.
Lemmon was married twice; the first time to actress Cynthia Stone, which lasted from 1950 to 1956. The two young lovers met at the Actors Studio in New York and co-starred in four different TV series. The couple had a son Chris, who was born in 1954 (more on Chris and the last conversation he ever had with his father later on in the article). The two divorced over what can be referred to as “incompatibility.”
In 1962, Lemmon married his second wife, another actress by the name of Felicia Farr. The two married in Paris while shooting the film Irma La Douce. They had a daughter, Courtney, who was born in 1966. Farr also had a daughter from her previous marriage to Lee Farr, named Denise.
In 1966, in Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie, Lemmon embarked on a relationship that would become a lasting legacy. It was the first of his many collaborations with actor Walter Matthau. They went on to co-star in films like The Odd Couple (1968), The Front Page (1974), and Buddy Buddy (1981). The Odd Couple is the best-known Lemmon-Matthau film, and it was based on the Neil Simon play.
They played the mismatched duo of the neurotic Felix Ungar (Lemmon) and the cynical Oscar Madison (Matthau). Then there was the much-admired comedy Kotch (1971), which Lemmon directed, and Matthau starred as the lead, who was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar.
In 1967, Jalem productions produced the famous film Cool Hand Luke, which starred the one and only Paul Newman in the lead role. The film was such a box-office as well as the critical success that Newman, in gratitude, offered Lemmon the role of the Sundance Kid in his upcoming film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Lemmon, however, turned it down.
Lemmon starred in Avanti! (1972) with Juliet Mills and appeared in The Front Page (1974) with Matthau – both directed by Wilder, who felt once said that Lemmon had a natural tendency toward overacting that “had to be tempered.” In Wilder’s biography, Nobody’s Perfect, a quote by Wilder could sum it up…
The director was quoted as saying, “Lemmon, I would describe him as a ham, a fine ham, and with ham, you have to trim a little fat.” This is coming from a man who also once said, “Happiness is working with Jack Lemmon.” Before he started working with Wilder, Lemmon was known as mainly a clean-cut, comedic supporting player.
But by the mid-1950s, Wilder and Lemmon together showcased their unique skills to moviegoers. It was Some Like it Hot that people tend to remember as Wilder/Lemmon’s most remembered collaborative effort. There are many, however, that consider The Apartment as the duo’s finest achievement.
In Save the Tiger (1973), Lemmon played Harry Stoner, a garment businessman who finds someone to burn down his warehouse to avoid bankruptcy. The project was actually rejected by multiple studios, except for Paramount, who was prepared to make the film on a $1 million budget. Lemmon was so keen on playing the part that he worked for the union scale, which was then just $165 a week.
His role in Save the Tiger proved to be really demanding, so much so that similar to his onscreen character, Lemmon came close to breaking point. “I started to crack as the character did,” he recalled. “I just kept getting deeper and deeper into the character’s despair.” His hard work paid off in the end, though, as he won the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Lemmon has been nominated for 17 awards throughout his career, winning four of them. One of his nominations for an Oscar for Best Actor was for his role in The China Syndrome (1979). Lemmon then returned to the stage in Tribute, a Broadway drama first performed in 1979, where he played a press agent with cancer who is trying to mend his relationship with his son.
The production ran for 212 shows but gained mixed reviews. Still, Lemmon was nominated for the Tony Award. Then, for his role in the 1980 film version of the play, Lemmon was nominated again for another Oscar. His final Oscar nomination was for the film Missing (1982), where he played a conservative father whose son vanished in Chile.
Lemmon’s last film with Wilder was 1981’s Buddy Buddy, which proved to be a contemporary failure. Another flop at the box office was his last film with Blake Edwards, another of his director/friends, in That’s Life! (1986), as the director’s self-autobiographical part with Julie Andrews.
A seductress role was played by Lemmon’s wife, Felicia Farr. More of Lemmon’s later career choices have been less than appealing, such as Mass Appeal (1984), a film about a conservative Catholic priest, Macaroni (1985), a story about old Army pals, and That’s Life. Despite the later flops, Lemmon received the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1988. A year later, he went to London to play in the antiwar play Veterans’ Day, but it was poorly received by critics and audiences.
Academy, Golden Globe, Emmy, and Tony Awards weren’t the only ones Lemmon was nominated for. In 1996, he earned a nomination for a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word or Non-musical Album for his narration on the film Harry S Truman: A Journey To Independence.
Lemmon also lent his voice to a Simpsons episode titled “The Twisted World of Marge Simpson” (which aired in 1997). He was the voice of the owner of the pretzel business. He earned a Primetime Emmy Award for his role as Morrie Schwartz in his final TV role, which was Tuesdays with Morrie (1999), where he won for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie. His last film role, by the way, was uncredited: he was the narrator in Robert Redford’s The Legend of Bagger Vance.
On June 27, 2001, Jack Lemmon died of bladder cancer when he was 76 years old. He had suffered from the disease in private for two years before finally succumbing to it. He was buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California. In the same cemetery lie the graves of Walter Matthau, George C. Scott, and Billy Wilder.
Lemmon’s gravestone reads “JACK LEMMON in,” as though it were a title screen from a film. Among those who attended the private ceremony were famous faces like Wilder, Sidney Poitier, Shirley MacLaine, Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kevin Spacey, Frank Sinatra’s widow Barbara and Walter Matthau’s son Charlie.
Hollywood tends to be a place of interfamilial conflict, divorce, lawsuits, and alienation, but that wasn’t the case for Chris Lemmon. He actually had a healthy relationship with his father (go figure!). “He was my best friend,” Chris told The Hollywood Reporter. “Losing your father really stinks.”
Chris, who made a name for himself in the industry as an actor and author, starred in a play about his father. His show, Jack Lemmon Returns, is based on his 2006 book, A Twist of Lemmon. The play, written and directed by Hershey Felder, features Chris as his own father, talking about his life with his son. “I’ve worked extremely hard to find his voice and bring that out as opposed to just impersonating him,” Chris said about the role.
Chris spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about growing up with the screen icon and the night his father gave up drinking. He explained that the day he finally realized who exactly his father was, he was a student in Santa Monica. “I was on the playground, and this other kid comes running up to me he goes, ‘Hey, my father’s more famous than your father.’”
So, Chris asks the kid, “What do you mean?” and he “My father is Jim West of The Wild, Wild West, he’s more famous than your dad.” Chris said that he thought about it for a second, then turned to him and said, “Well, sure he is. He’s Jim West of The Wild, Wild West.” At that point, he didn’t his dad was famous. “I thought he was just an actor.”
As it turns out, as Chris was growing up, the Lemmons were living in Santa Monica, just a few doors down from Marilyn Monroe. They lived in the home that once belonged to Harold Lloyd’s. Chris actually has a funny story about it, too. He recalled how one day, he was walking by Marilyn’s house, and sure enough, there was “this helicopter in a low, lazy circle and these guys in funny suits and funny glasses.”
Chris described seeing these men standing around watching Marilyn Monroe and JFK “having a frolic in the pool.” He was only six or seven at the time, and the men in the suits and glasses saw Chris staring. So they went up to him, told him, “I think it’s time for you to leave,” and yanked him out of there.
Chris recalled the time when his father took him to his “bachelor pad” after he and his mother, Cynthia Stone, divorced. He remembers his father tucking him into bed, giving him a kiss goodnight, and singing him a lullaby. He then went out of the room and invited some friends over. Those friends? Gregory Peck, Shirley MacLaine, Jimmy Cagney, and Jimmy Stewart, among others.
Lemmon’s son the snuck his little head out his bedroom door and Cagney saw him. He ran over to Chris and grabbed him, saying, “Oh, look who we have here!” and took him to the room where all the famous adults were hanging out. “Suddenly, here I am in the middle of this incredible party with these gods of the silver screen, and they’re all giving a concert for me, singing songs for me,” Chris recalled.
Lemmon has spoken publicly about his issues with alcohol. In fact, he revealed he was an alcoholic on Inside the Actor’s Studio in 1998. Chris actually remembers the night his father kissed booze goodbye. He recalls his father having a final night where it “got out of control” where there was broken glass all over the floor. “He’d fallen down, hit his head, cut it open,” and had this “bloody dishtowel hanging off the side of his head.”
Apparently, the family’s maid couldn’t take it anymore. She called Chris and said to him, “You need to come over and talk to your father.” When he got to his father’s home, he didn’t need to say a word. Lemmon, clearly aware of the problem, simply said to his son, “I know.” And that was it; he never had a drink after that.
Chris was asked what’s one thing that people would find surprising about Jack Lemmon. Chris’ answer: he was “the worst friggin’ driver.” According to Chris, his father wrecked “a sports car for pretty much every film he ever did.” For How to Murder Your Wife, for instance, Lemmon totaled an Aston Martin. And during Tribute, he wrecked a vintage MG that he bought off of Bill Bixby.
Another fun fact: when Lemmon was filming Buddy Buddy with Walter Matthau, the latter took a fall and was knocked out. Lemmon then ran over to him, folded up his coat, and gently lifted Matthau’s head to place it underneath. Walter’s eyes opened. Lemmon asked him, “Walt, are you comfortable?” to which he replied, “I make a living.”
Chris was 47 years old when his old man passed away, and he remembers the last thing his father said to him. Among his last words to his son were, “Spread a little sunshine.” He was lucky enough to be able to give his son some last words of wisdom. He also told Chris, “You’re an actor. Don’t do anything halfway. Give them the laughter and give them the heartache.”
He said, “But most of all you’re a father. Be there for your children because they need you. And for those times I wasn’t there for you, I’m sorry, but I did the best I could.” (You can wipe that mini tear now).
During Chris’ book tour for his 2006 book A Twist of Lemmon, he discovered just how much people were still fascinated with his father and how much they wanted to know about his life. According to Chris, “People saw him as kind of a happy leprechaun going through life. But I saw another side of him off-screen. It was a lot deeper.”
Chris was young when his parents divorced. He loved performing and earned degrees in theater and classical piano. He appeared in the shows Duet and Open House and in the Thunder in Paradise films. He was even in three films with his father: Airport ’77, That’s Life and Dad.
Chris, who looks and sounds a lot like his father, knew that people would compare him to his father. “It’s not easy to be a star’s kid, but I was determined to have a normal life.” In a way that maybe his father didn’t exactly do, Chris Lemmon put his family before his career. He took years off of full-time acting as the kids were growing up.
“I didn’t want them to see an empty chair at the end of the dinner table,” he said. Only after he wrote the book about his father did he get back to the stage. “Everything kind of came together telling his story.” He wanted to show the good and bad side of his father, “and alcoholism was a part of it.”
Throughout Lemmon’s career, from The Apartment to Save the Tiger to Glengarry Glen Ross, the twinkly-eyed actor always seemed to be craving more out of life. But that “something more” was never really satisfied. In Days of Wine and Roses, Lemmon begins the movie as a drunk (although he doesn’t know it).
There are many reasons why people drink, let alone become alcoholics. One possible reason could be the fact that Lemmon’s own mother was an alcoholic herself. In his later years, when Lemmon performed in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, he spoke candidly about his mother’s alcoholism and addiction to sleeping pills. The silver lining, though, if it means anything, is Lemmon proved to be a great father.