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Jack Lemmon Issue

Interview with Jack Lemmon
Julie Foudy: Soccer Star
Interview with Roberto Wirth


He is recognized as one of the greatest comedy actors in motion picture history, yet Jack Lemmon has been awarded a Best Actor Oscar and an Emmy for his dramatic work. As the scheming Ensign Pulver in Mr. Roberts, his first major film role, Lemmon stole scene after scene from Hollywood legends Henry Fonda, James Cagney and William Powell, and he has continued to delight moviegoers ever since. His performance in Mr. Roberts earned the Harvard graduate the 1955 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and launched what has become an extraordinary career. Some Like It Hot, the Billy Wilder-directed classic he starred in along with Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe, was recently selected as the greatest comedy of all time by the American Film Institute (AFI). And, who can forget his teaming with the late Walter Matthau in such hilarious romps as The Odd Couple, The Fortune Cookie and, more recently, Grumpy Old Men and Grumpier Old Men?

Lemmon grew up as an only child in a well-to-do Boston family, and attended exclusive prep schools, where he frequently acted in school productions. At Harvard, he served in the Navy ROTC, did more stage work and graduated with a degree in War Service Sciences. A hitch in the Navy--where he served as an ensign--followed. Later, he would draw on that experience when bringing life to the character of Pulver. When Lemmon completed his patriotic obligation he moved to New York City to begin his professional acting career. He managed to find work on radio, television and Broadway, and also performed as a beer hall pianist between roles. A part in a 1954 movie with Judy Holiday led to the career-making opportunity in Mr. Roberts.

With the overwhelming critical and box office success of Mr. Roberts, Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960) Lemmon established himself as a highly bankable comedy actor. Many in Hollywood therefore questioned his judgment to star in The Days of Wine And Roses, a decidedly unfunny 1962 drama about the disintegrating life of an alcoholic. The actor quieted all his detractors, however, with a riveting performance that earned him an Academy Award nomination. He would win the Oscar for another heavy dramatic role in Save The Tiger (1973), and receive nominations for The China Syndrome, Tribute and Missing, none of which can be classified as comedies.

AFI presented Lemmon with its Life Achievement Award in 1988, but his career has continued to roll along in high gear with acclaimed roles in the movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) and the made-for-television movies Twelve Angry Men (1997), Inherit The Wind (1998) and Oprah Winfrey Presents Tuesdays with Morrie (1999). All three TV performances earned Emmy nominations, with the latter--where he played a beloved professor battling Lou Gehrig's Disease--winning the prestigious Best Actor in a Made for Television Movie or Miniseries Award.

Lemmon has been married to actress Felicia Farr since 1962. The couple have a daughter, Courtney. He also has a son, Christopher, from a previous marriage. A talented pianist who still loves to "tickle the ivories," the actor composed the theme music for Tribute and wrote a song for his 1957 movie, Fire Down Below. He also enjoys golf, and has played in numerous celebrity pro-am tournaments.

ABILITY's Chet Cooper had an opportunity to talk with Lemmon shortly after PBS Television announced it would be airing The Living Century, a TV series about active Americans who are over 100 years of age. Lemmon serves as on-air host for the program, introducing and wrapping up each episode.

Chet Cooper: Let's start with the beginning. Is it true that you were actually born in an elevator? (laughs)

Jack Lemmon: (laughs) Yeah, I was born in an elevator, and--as my mother said--naturally it was going down. She said, "All I remember is telling your father, 'That's it! Never again!'" That's why I'm an only child.

CC: In what city?

JL: The city was Newton Wellesley, a suburb of Boston. The last I heard, the hospital put a plaque over the elevator. There's three elevators side by side, and they put a plaque over the one we were in saying that I was born there on February 8, 1925, in the elevator.

CC: Have you ever been back there as an adult?

JL: No, I haven't.

CC: Wouldn't it be interesting to take a ride in that elevator. It would be funny to see the reaction of the people as you exit the elevator with your plaque on it.

JL: Yeah. I think next time I go to Boston I will probably drop by just for the heck of it.

CC: I wonder if any pregnant women have gone into the elevator saying, "Let's see if this can happen again."

JL: (laughs)

CC: Is it true your father was an executive in a bakery company?

JL: Donut Corporation of America

CC: Would he have preferred you to go into the family business?

JL: He would have loved it. But, one of the greatest lines he ever said to me was when I borrowed a few hundred dollars from him so I could go down to New York...to see if I could get an agent or get into the theater somehow or another... I had no desire to be in the movies. All my training had been in the theater, thank God. So, he gave me the money and he said to me, "You really want to give this a shot, huh? And I said, "Yeah, I've got to find out. Otherwise, I'll never really know whether I could have done it or not." And he said, "You've done similar stuff, and you've done enough to know that you love it?" And I said, "I love it," and he said, "Great. Because the day I don't find romance in a loaf of bread, I'm going to quit." It's a marvelous line.

CC: That's a great way to live your life.

JL: Yeah, I thought back on that ...in the earlier days (of my career)--when months would go by and there's no film and there are no offers--and I'd stop and think, "Well, you know enough that you love it and you've got to ride with it, right down through the peaks and the valleys."

CC: Why do some people just know that they need to be on stage?

JL: I'm not sure. I guess part of it may be the desire to be accepted on a huge scale--the milk and honey, etc. I think I was just attracted to it by the time I was eight years old when I did a school play and the kids liked what I did. It had nothing to do with talent but everything to do with being accepted, because the kids kept saying, "that was terrific, tell us more funny stuff." I had to start making things up between classes and they'd all come over and gather around my desk and I'd tell them a lot of b.s. I guess it was when I was into my teens that it suddenly stopped, and that was when I realized that I really loved acting.

CC: So, you actually got started, in a sense, by creating your own material and ad-libbing.