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Jack Lemmon

John Uhler “Jack” Lemmon III (born in Boston, on February 8, 1925, died in Los Angeles on June 27, 2001) is an unusual movie star, because he did not play typical masculine heroes, but a great variety of everyman characters.

He worked in the theatre and on television, before signing a 7-year contract with Columbia Pictures and being cast in his first film, It Should Happen to You (1954) by George Cukor, as a shy documentary filmmaker who falls in love with a girl (Judy Holliday) obsessed with seeing her name on billboards. He played the clumsy guy smitten with beautiful girls in other films like Phffft (1954) with Judy Holliday and Kim Novak, Bell, Book and Candle (1958) and The Notorious Landlady (1962) both opposite Kim Novak. He acted with Henry Fonda, James Cagney and William Powell in Mister Rogers (1955).

He gave an unforgettable performance in Some Like It Hot (1959) by Billy Wilder, where he and Tony Curtis dress up as women to get close to a beautiful blonde (Marilyn Monroe). He played sweet fellows opposite Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment (1969) and Irma La Douce (1963) both directed by Billy Wilder. MacLaine recalls how every time they started a take, he would say, “Magic Time”, and wrote these two words on Grauman’s Chinese sidewalk in 1963.

Not wanting to become typecast as solely a comedy actor, Lemmon proved his dramatic skills by playing an alcoholic businessman in Days of Wine and Roses (1962) directed by Blake Edwards. He continued to give delicious comedic performances as a playboy in Under the Yum Yum Tree (1963), as a cartoonist in How to Murder Your Wife (1965) with Virna Lisi, as a villain in The Great Race (1965) by Blake Edwards with Tony Curtis and
Natalie Wood.

He formed a hilarious comedy team with Walter Matthau, whom he called his “second favorite leading lady” after Anne Bancroft, his costar in Prisoner of Second Avenue (1974). The two would become serial collaborators in a number of Billy Wilder films like The Fortune Cookie (1966), The Front Page (1974) and Buddy Buddy (1981), as well as The Odd Couple (1968) from the Neil Simon play Grumpy Old Men (1993) with Ann-Margret and Grumpier Old Men (1995) with Sophia Loren.

He explained to journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press in 1974: “All I want to do is be the best actor that I can be, not the best actor in the world but the best that I'm capable of; so whether a role is comedic or dramatic, I am just as serious in my approach.” The characters he created were often possessed of an innate sense of justice and morality; he himself embodied the profoundly ethical liberal conscience, starring in socially conscious films like Save the Tiger (1973) by John Avildsen about a corrupt company executive, The China Syndrome (1979) with Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas about the dangers of a nuclear power plant and Missing (1982) by Costa-Gavras about the 1973 military coup in Chile that deposed Salvador Allende.

This is how he described his values: “I'm terribly aware of the ills and the problems that we have, I'm very conscious of ethics and morals or the absence of them; so I've conducted my life with that in mind. I don't believe that it's necessary to hurt somebody else or to behave in a non-ethical way to attain a goal. I disagree with that Watergate-type thinking that the end justifies the means. If money becomes our god, then we're all in trouble; I can only hope that we return to simpler ideals and a democracy in which the people have more power.” And on his commitment to environmental causes he added: “That is the number one priority, for the simple reason that all other issues are academic if we don't have a planet that's livable. A number of scientists truly believe that we don't have 100 years left, so we have to do more than we're doing at a faster pace.”

The father of a son, Chris (born in 1954), with his first wife Cynthia, and a daughter, Courtney (born in 1966), with his second wife Felicia, he acted in family dramas like That’s Life (1986) by Blake Edwards, Tribute (1980) and Dad (1989). He said about his children in 1974: “Probably all doting parents think their child is unique, but what strikes me most of all is that children in each succeeding generation seem to be so much less naive, so much more worldly and sophisticated. I don’t remember what I was like as an 8-year-old, but I was not as concerned and knowledgeable as Courtney is now at that same age. When I was a kid all I was thinking about was getting out of piano lesson to go play baseball.”

Later in his career he continued to act in theatre plays, as well as film adaptations of stage dramas, like David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross which earned him the top acting prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1992. And he continued to inspire younger actors like Kevin Spacey with his generosity: “If you become successful, it’s your obligation to send the elevator back down.” He was known as the nicest guy in Hollywood, and no one had anything bad to say about him; he was a consummate professional and truly loved his job. “My greatest good fortune is not monetary success, or the good parts that I’ve played, but that I am able to have a career in a business that I love, which is not true of the majority of people, who work to make a living or to support a family, but often don't enjoy what
they’re doing.”

He was also an avid golfer. “In recreation I'm an absolute maniac about golf, probably because I am not very good and I'm determined to get it right.”

Jack Lemmon was honored by the Hollywood Foreign Press with the Cecil B De Mille Life Achievement Award in 1991. With a record of 22 Golden Globe nominations and 5 wins, for Some Like It Hot in 1960, The Apartment in 1961, Avanti! in 1973, Inherit the Wind (TV) in 2000 as well as a shared special award for the cast of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts in 1993, he richly deserved it.

Elisa Leonelli

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