The actor Jack Lemmon has appeared in some of my favourite films over the years, always putting in superb performances. Rarely does a year go by, when I don’t play the DVDs of films like ‘Mister Roberts’ ‘Some Like it Hot’ ‘The Apartment’ and ‘The Odd Couple.’
He was born John Uhler Lemmon III in February 1925, son of Mildred and John II. Mildred actually gave birth in the hospital elevator as Jack arrived in a hurry, two months premature. Despite being a sickly child, he acted in amateur productions from the age of 4 and decided he wanted to be an actor from the age of eight. As he became older he concentrated on drama, track sports and music, and he was very keen on the piano from the age of 14 and loved playing all his life. Later, whilst studying at Harvard he was elected president of The Hasty Pudding club, the oldest collegiate social club/theatrical troupe in America.
Jack served in the US Navy at the end of World War II before resuming at Harvard to graduate. He then went on to study acting in New York. He found work in radio, on TV and appeared in his first film in 1949. It is said he turned up in over 400 television appearances up until 1953.
He took to the stage on Broadway in the same year, before being spotted by scouts at Columbia Studios in the same year and he then concentrated on films. His first major success was as ‘Ensign Pulver’ in the 1955 film ‘Mister Roberts’ alongside James Cagney and Henry Fonda, which won Jack the best supporting actor Oscar.
1959 saw him drag up as ‘Daphne’ (based it is said on his mother) alongside Tony Curtis as ‘Josephine’ in Billy Wilder’s ‘Some Like It Hot.’ In it, they try and escape the ‘mob’ who are after them, by joining an all female band featuring ‘Sugar’ played by Marilyn Monroe, with whom they soon both became captivated by.
The film began Lemmon’s long association with Wilder and they worked together on seven films in total.
Wilder once said: ‘Happiness is working with Jack Lemmon.’
Jack and Billy then continued with their association with the Oscar nominated ‘The Apartment’ alongside Shirley McLaine. The film is a joy from start to finish and no surprise it won the Best Film Oscar in 1961. By the way, in it Jack plays C.C. ‘Bud’ Baxter – great surname that…
Another long-time associate was Walter Matthau, with whom Jack would go to work with on nine films in total. First up was ‘The Fortune Cookie’ in 1966 again directed by Wilder, which earned Matthau an Oscar.
One of my personal all-time favourites came next in 1968 with the big screen adaption of the Neil Simon play ‘The Odd Couple. ‘ Jack played ‘Felix Unger’ again alongside his old mate Walter as ‘Oscar Madison.’ Beautiful line after beautiful line of this masterpiece hits the spot and it is simply a majestic two-hander played by the leads
As well as acting, Lemmon had his own production company -‘Jalem’ – which produced the film ‘Cool Hand Luke’ starring Paul Newman in 1967. As a thank you for the help in getting the film made, Newman offered Jack the role of ‘The Sundance Kid’ in the 1969 film ‘Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid’ but Lemmon turned it down.
Instead in 1973, he went on to play Harry Stoner in ‘Save The Tiger’ a film that was turned down by most of the studios, before getting the green light by Paramount but only on a very tight budget. It was worth the struggle however; as Lemmon went on to win the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of a man on the verge of breaking down.
Jack himself, had real battles of his own in real life with alcohol and admitted to being a recovering alcoholic in the late 1980s.
His later work included ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ and a small part in ‘JFK” by Oliver Stone in 1991. All in all he appeared in over 60 films.
“Ever since I got into live TV in my late twenties, there has never been a serious drop when I’d have to make a comeback. We all make bad films. The producers misjudge, and you misjudge. That happens more often than the hits.
But I have been able to get films that have worked, not only at the box office, but critically and with the public, often enough so that I’m still around. I can still get wonderful parts, thank God.’
Jack Lemmon died from the effects of bladder cancer in 2001, aged 76.
His gravestone simply reads ‘Jack Lemmon in…’
A class act to the end.
The Mumper of SE5
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