Jack Lemon Interview with Chet Cooper

Editor's Note: This was Jack Lemmon's last interview. Keeping his fight with cancer private (1925 – 2001)
Jack Lemmon holding an Oscar45 movies

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.

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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.

Cooper: In what city?

Lemon: 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.

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

Lemon: No, I haven’t.

Cooper: 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.

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

Cooper: I wonder if any pregnant women have gone into the elevator saying, “Let’s see if this can happen again.”

Lemon: (laughs)

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

Lemon: Donut Corporation of America

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

Lemon: 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.

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Cooper: That’s a great way to live your life.

Lemon: 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.”

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

Lemon: 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.

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

Lemon: In a way, yes. And doing imitations of W.C. Fields and Mae West, Laurel and Hardy…just everybody.

Cooper: Didn’t you do a movie where just about everything was ad-libbed?

Lemon: Oh, yeah. They called it That’s Life, or something like that. Julie [Andrews] and I were the leads in it. There was no script, only an outline. We’d go into work and we would start improvising scenes in the morning, and then usually we’d start shooting just before or after lunch. By then we’d started to hone it down so the ad-libs became sort of permanent. Tough to pull off. You have to have a director that’s very savvy about what will work and what won’t work because there’s so much overlapping.

Cooper: How did you become the host of The Living Century?

Lemon: Apparently, either Barbra [Streisand] or her producer contacted my agent at CAA [Creative Artists Agency] and said, “We would love for Jack to do an opening (and closing) narration of one of our shows.” They had a lot of material on the shows that they had already shot. I thought the writing was good and the idea was very good. They seemed to have first rate people involved in the project, so I said, “Sure.”

Cooper: Did you know any centenarians—people that were over a hundred years old?

Lemon: No, not personally.

Cooper: Did you know George Burns?

Lemon: Yes.

Cooper: I guess he made it to 100.

Lemon: I’ve forgotten how old he was. I think you’re right.

Cooper: How do you see the progression of society from your early days?

Lemon: Well, it’s kind of interesting. A lot of it of course is tied up in what’s happened to me personally, in this industry—not happened to me, but happened around me. I think the most interesting thing to me, and the most obvious, is that—in the last twenty or thirty years, especially—the country in general, I think, has become more sophisticated and more mature. By the same token, in films and television and so forth, they are doing shows that they wouldn’t be able to do in the past because people would be outraged. They are not outraged today. The problem is that I think codes of decency and taste are totally violated. very often by a lot of cheap crap. I guess there’ll always be an audience for that kind of stuff. It’s crazy enough, but the thing that bothers me most of all is the violence, not sex or anything else. I think that (violence) is the most pornographic thing of all—the use of violence on people and the use of it to appeal to children and teenagers and young adults because it titillates them. I think it’s inexcusable. If it makes a buck, do it. It’s turning off an awful lot of potential viewers, I feel.

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Cooper: At the time Some Like It Hot first came out, did you get any flack about the movie, especially the ending? I thought it was one of your best lines ever.

Lemon: No… There was more controversy about The Apartment actually.

Cooper: Oh, really? And why was that?

Lemon: Because it was very critical—taking pokes at …our business society and their behavior. I don’t think there is any question that three or four years before the time we shot you wouldn’t have been able to make that film. The studios wouldn’t back it.

Cooper: You also did The China Syndrome, which was very controversial at the time.

Lemon: Yeah, that thing raised hell, especially in that Three Mile Island happened just after the film was released. People jokingly were coming up to me and saying, “How much did it cost you to blow that thing up?”

Cooper: (laughing) That’s not funny. Why am I laughing?

Lemon: I know… (laughs)

Cooper: Out of all of the films you’ve done over the course of your career, is there one in particular that you still have the most fondness for?

Lemon: No, I don’t think so, but certainly none would rank higher than Some Like It Hot.

Jack Lemmon in "Mister Roberts"
Jack Lemmon in “Mister Roberts”

Cooper: Are you still in contact with Tony Curtis?

Lemon: Yes, I see Tony now and then…and I’m very close to Billy Wilder.

Cooper: In Tuesdays with Morrie, did you study up on Lou Gehrig’s Disease?

Lemon: I didn’t really do any research on it. The thing I thought about a great deal in preparation for it was not the disease as much as the character of Morrie himself… The fact that he had the disease was just a hurdle that he had to get through in order to keep talking and teaching. He was able to do it right up until the very end.

Cooper: Do you know people in your own life that have different disabilities they are dealing with in such a way?

Lemon: No, I’ve met people that have been disabled and that are fully functional. I don’t have any close friends like that, but I certainly admire anybody who can overcome whatever (their disability) may be and continue to function. They usually are brilliant in whatever they do.

Cooper: Speaking of physical condition. How do you maintain your health?

Lemon: Well, I do work out three times a week.

Cooper: Do you go to a gym, or do you have a gym at home?

Lemon: Yeah, at home.

Cooper: Do you lift weights?

Lemon: Sure.

Cooper: How much do you max on the bench press? (laughs)

Lemon: (laughs) Oh no, we won’t get into that. We have eight, ten, fifteen and twenty pound weights. We also have a treadmill. We just got a terrific machine that does just about every single exercise that you can possibly think of. It’s got everything on it.

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Cooper: What percentage do you actually use?

Lemon: We use them all.

Cooper: Very good. Most people don’t take advantage of their exercise equipment. Does your wife work out with you?

Lemon: Yeah.

Cooper: How many years have you been married?

Lemon: It will be the thirty-eight years coming up.

Cooper: Where did you meet her?

Lemon: We met at Columbia Pictures.

Cooper: Oh, I wish you would have said “in an elevator.”

Lemon: (laughs) Actually, I met her because I was working on a soundproof stage and Felicia was working on a film on the next stage… Anyway, I was doing a scene with Kim Novak, and in the middle of the scene I heard a girl laughing—hysterically—and I heard it about

three times during the take, and I said, “Be quiet! Be quiet!” The director said, “Where the hell is that laugh coming from? Is it in the next stage?” And I said, “This is a soundproof stage,” and he said, “She’s got some laugh!” So I went to the next stage and was introduced to Felicia, and that was how we met.

Cooper: That’s a great story.

Lemon: It’s a great laugh, and I’ll tell ya, she still has it, too!

Cooper: Any recollection of what she was laughing about?

Lemon: I’ve forgotten. I guess it was something somebody said on the set over there.

Cooper: It wasn’t because she was watching your performance?

Lemon: (laughs) No, thank God! [it wasn’t a comedy]

Cooper: How many children do you have?

Lemon: Let’s see, we have three children. I have a son and Felicia has a daughter by a previous marriage and we have a daughter together.

Cooper: Any grandchildren?

Lemon: Yep, three. (From) my son and his wife. They are just terrific.

Cooper: Is your son in “the business”?

Lemon: Yeah. Actually, he’s writing.

Cooper: Anything that you’ve done together?

Lemon: He had a small part in one of those Airplane, or Airport (movies)—’77 or ‘87 or whatever. One of those things.

Cooper: It wasn’t Airplane, the spoof. It was a serious Airport film?

Lemon: No this was a straight drama. I’m the pilot of a plane, and we go down in the water and sink. So we’re down under water, which is rather hard to believe, and the water is not coming into the plane.

Cooper: So the movie sunk?

Lemon: (laughs) Exactly—the movie didn’t surface.

Cooper: (laughs) Well, at least you guys worked together.

Lemon: Yeah, it was fun.

Cooper: Do you and your son have any plans to work together in the future?

Lemon: We don’t have any definite plans. I’m not looking for something deliberately…because he could be in it. If it happens, it happens.

Cooper: Any current projects you’re involved in at the moment other than The Living Century?

Lemon: Yeah, I’m (working on something) with Larry Gelbart, who is a marvelous writer. I’m going to do his next film which is called Power Failure—a satire on government and big business—and several other scripts, but there’s nothing really to talk about because they haven’t happened yet.

Cooper: Hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more. What would be considered your dream role as you look back?

Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey in Glengarry Glen Ross
Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey in “Glengarry Glen Ross”

Lemon: Oh golly, that’s hard to say. Dramatically, I think Days of Wine and Roses was a giant step for me, and Save the Tiger…and Glengarry Glen Ross, which is one of my very favorite films that I’ve been in.

Cooper: Why’s that?

Lemon: Because of Mamet’s writing for one thing, and the characters in it. And, the relationship with the characters I thought was just terrific. Language offended some people but it’s the way those guys would talk. A writer like David Mamet is hardly going to use four-letter words just to get an audience excited. The language that real estate salesmen use when there’s nothing but males in the office can get pretty raw.

Cooper: You directed Kotch. How was your debut directing?

Lemon: Well, I enjoyed it immensely, and my good fortune was that Matthau played the part. He didn’t need direction. I kept my mouth shut most of the time and I’d just say “Let’s do one more,” or “a little less” or “a little more,” but there were very few times when I felt that Walter was off on the wrong track. He is such a fine actor that his instincts were almost infallible.

Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in "The Odd Couple" and "Grump Old Men"
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in “The Odd Couple” and “Grump Old Men”

Cooper: So, it’s cheating then—you didn’t get to really direct. (laughs)

Lemon: (laughs) Yeah, that’s the only thing I got mad at him about. I said, “I wish you’d let me do a little directing, for Christ’s sake!”

Cooper: Have you directed any other movies?

Lemon: Nope. I directed a few things in summer stock a million years ago but that’s all. I would like to direct another one but so far nothing has happened. You know, one that I really want to direct hasn’t come down the pike as of yet.

Cooper: When you look back, does your career seem surreal?

Lemon: I think I’ve been damn lucky. Frankly, in my opinion—naturally, it’s the only one I’ve got—I don’t know any actor that’s had more wonderful opportunities. I’m not saying that I was good, or great, or lousy or anything. That’s someone else’s opinion. But the opportunities that I’ve had are fantastic—just one marvelous part after another.

Cooper: Why do you think that might be?

Lemon: Part of it I do give myself credit for, and that is because I finally had to make the decision, “Do I want to play this part or not?” And, there were times I would take a chance and go out on a limb, and it’s worked out. China Syndrome is a good example of that. The part originally was written for a hot shot engineer in his thirties. I guess I was 50 or 60 something then. Michael Douglas was the producer… So, we went to Michael and said “Listen, (suppose) the guy was a little older and had spent his whole life completely wrapped up in nuclear energy, and then he has to cut the umbilical cord. It’s not very easy, you know… The older he is, the more sympathetic the character becomes and the more we understand his problems and his horror about the whole thing.” And, Michael bought it and said, “OK, you’ve got it.”

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Cooper: So, you were attracted to the project.

Lemon: Yeah, I was with it from the very beginning and I kept turning everything down waiting for this to go and waiting for this to go…and waiting and waiting, and Michael was wonderful. He’d call me up every month or so and say, “this is what’s going on, etc…” We did the picture at Columbia, where I’d been under contract when I first came up. And Jane Fonda had a commitment to do a film there, but they abandoned the project when it was halfway through development. So Jane was just sitting there without a project and Michael or somebody suddenly said, “Wait a minute. This part of the newsman”—which was written for a man—”How about Jane play it and we make it a woman?” And Michael called me up and said, “What do you think about that?” and I said, “I think it’s terrific. You’ve got a leading lady now.” I just think that…making one of your lead characters be a woman who is trying to get along in a man’s world—because at that time there were very few ladies that were news (reporters)—finally got us off the ground. Once we had Jane and me, we were all set.

Cooper: Isn’t music your other great passion?

Lemon: I love it.

Cooper: Tell me about your musical background.

Jack Lemmon at piano

Lemon: Well, when I was about 10 or 11, my dad and mom got a baby grand. They (hired) a Miss Lavino—I think her name was—but anyway, a piano teacher. The only problem was, at that point in my life—although I adored music—I was more anxious to get out and play ball with the kids than to practice or take lessons, so they gave up on it and didn’t try to force it. Then, about a year later, I found myself sitting down (at the piano) and doodling and picking things out by ear… Actually, what I’d been doing during the piano lessons was the same thing. As (the teacher) was playing what I was supposed to learn between now and the next lesson I’d hear it and instead of making myself try to learn the notes, I would be trying to get away with doing it by ear. She knew the difference of course, and she’d say, “You’re doing it again. That’s not the way it was written.” She would (reprimand me) every week for not working, and we quit that. When I was 13, and they had a piano in the dorm in the hall I was living in, a friend of mine who is still a friend of mine—Charlie Arnold—could play up a storm by ear. Every day when we’d come back from classes for lunch we would have about 20 minutes…and Charlie would be at the piano. The kids were flocking over there and I was watching him and I said, “I can do that.” So, I started sneaking off to the piano building instead of studying… The dorm was unlocked night and day, so I would just go in there whenever I could and just start playing things by ear, and I’ve been playing by ear ever since.

Cooper: Does it hurt your head?

Lemon: Yeah. (laughs)

Cooper: Do you think there is an intuitive or genetic disposition to people that can play by ear?

Lemon: Yeah, it’s funny. It’s like having a feel for comedy. I think you’re born with it. It’s not something that you can really learn to any great extent unless you have that ability and that inclination. Paul Garner, a marvelous player, plays totally by ear. He can’t read a note.

Cooper: Do you have any albums or CDs out?

Lemon: I’ve got a couple of albums and I don’t know where the hell they are now, but I haven’t done an album for a long time. I’ll probably do another one.

Cooper: Are you on the internet at all?

Lemon: No, not yet anyway.

Cooper: There’s another world out there that is quite interesting and you can reach out to people in a lot of different ways, including music. Have you heard about some of the issues going on with MP3?

Lemon: Yeah

Cooper: There’s an audience that’s never heard your music who can hear it over the internet, if you program it properly.

Lemon: Yeah, I think we’ll probably end up doing that.

Cooper: Do you have any particular non-profit organizations that you work with?

Lemon: My wife and I set up a foundation a couple of years ago. It’s not a large one but I hope someday it can be. But, at any rate, through the foundation we support a lot of things. Basically, my interest for decades has been ecological. One of the things that we want to do, and I’m trying to get a number of wealthy people interested in doing through the Diane Fossey group, is save the gorillas. For about five million dollars, every gorilla on Earth can be saved.

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Cooper: Really? How can that be accomplished?

Lemon: We could increase the number of natives that police the areas where they are, and protect them and move them, if necessary—everything that is necessary to enhance their living and the quality of their lives.

Cooper: Seems like a reasonable amount to ensure that some of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom live a quality life in their own environment. Have you done any fund raising yet for this?

Lemon: No, not directly, but we will. I’ve been sort of behind the scenes and I have spoken to some people on my own—individuals that are very wealthy—to drum their interest up.

 Cooper: Is there anything you might want to add? Any thoughts in any area? Any math questions you want answered?

Lemon: (laughs) No, except I was thinking this morning when a kid came up to me and said he wanted some advice. I think it’s really tough to start giving advice on how to be an actor. You can’t really do it. But anyway, I told him, “Whatever you do—I don’t care if it’s sweeping the streets, driving a cab or you’re the head of an insurance company, or you’re an actor or whatever—if you wish to be successful, it should be your own evaluation, not somebody else’s. There is always somebody else’s opinion in America instead of your own. I think the one ingredient you must have, no matter what you do, is passion. You have to love it with a great passion in order to really fulfill yourself.

Cooper: Find your loaf of bread…

Lemon: Yeah, exactly. (laughs)

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