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The Jack Lemmon Law

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The Actor, Who Was A Hollywood Heavyweight For More Than Four Decades In Dramatic And Comedic Roles Alike, Would Have Been 90-Years-Old This Week, So We Celebrate With Our Choices Of His Best Films


By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Feb. 8, 2015 — Tom and I have a bit of a confession to make: we always admired Jack Lemmon, but from afar. Despite several attempts to interview him, his schedule never meshed with our availability and that opportunity eluded us. So, like millions of others, we had to content ourselves with admiring his work on the big screen.

Whether cutting up while dressed in drag as he did in 1959’s Some Like it Hot or playing it straight and winning his second Academy Award in 1973’s Save the Tiger, Lemmon always managed to “live” his characters, give many of them an “everyman” quality and make each performance believable.

Born Feb. 8, 1925 in a Boston suburb, Lemmon said he was destined for an acting career at an early age. The prophesy was fulfilled when he participated in several drama clubs while attending Harvard and become president of the university’s prestigious Hasty Pudding Club.

His film debut occurred in 1949, but it was a slow build until he was noticed starring opposite Judy Holliday in the 1954 comedy, It Should Happen to You. From that point on, Lemmon never looked back.

In 1968, Lemmon was teamed for the first time with character actor Walter Matthau in the screen adaptation of Neil Simon’s Broadway hit, The Odd Couple. The team of Lemmon and Matthau would appear in several comedies culminating in the two successful Grumpy Old Men films. It was noted in a New Yorker interview with Matthau, that the duo was often compared to Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

Matthau’s response: “I am Hepburn and Lemmon is Tracy. Although when I asked Jack, he told me he always thought I was Tracy and he was Hepburn. Oddly enough, I'm told that Tracy had the same problem.”

In 1999, just two years before he passed away from cancer, Lemmon delivered a performance knock-out punch as the title character dying of ALS in the made-for-television tear-jerker, Tuesday’s With Morrie, based on Mitch Albom’s best-selling book. This career swan-song won Lemmon an Emmy and capped off an extraordinary career.

So how do you condense a career into just five films? Not easy, but we narrowed down the field by selecting what we believe are his top five comedic performances. Of course the list is subjective, so let the debate begin!

Mister Roberts (1955): Lemmon brought a faux bravado to the character of the sheepish “Ensign Pulver” and took home a Best-Supporting Actor Oscar. The scene where he first encounters his tyrannical captain, played by James Cagney (after being onboard the “bucket” and hiding below deck as the laundry and morale officer for 14 months) is understated movie magic.

Some Like it Hot (1959): Consistently cited as one of the greatest screen comedies in film history, Lemmon teams with Tony Curtis with both dressed in drag and on the lam from a group of hoodlums after witnessing the Chicago St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. This Billy Wilder classic, also starring Marilyn Monroe, sees Lemmon (in drag) fending off the romantic advances of elderly millionaire “Osgood Fielding III,” played by big-mouthed Joe E. Brown. Comic gold in anyone’s estimation.

The Apartment (1960): Billy Wilder’s next film after Some Like It Hot took home the Best Picture Academy Award. Lemmon was nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of an ordinary working stiff toiling at a large Manhattan insurance company. In an attempt to climb the corporate ladder, he makes his apartment available to company executives (including Fred MacMurray) for impromptu romantic liaisons. Along the way, Lemmon falls for the company elevator operator played by a feisty Shirley MacLaine.

The Odd Couple (1968): Jack Lemmon took over the role of fastidious neat freak “Felix Unger” from the Broadway originator Art Carney, and Walter Matthau reprised his role as the slobbish “Oscar Madison” in the film adaptation of the hit Neil Simon Broadway play. The chemistry between Lemmon and Matthau was magical launching a new screen team. The movie also spawned a much-loved TV series, starring Tony Randall as “Felix” and Jack Klugman as “Oscar.”

Grumpy Old Men (1993) Another Lemmon-Matthau teaming, shot on location in Wabasha, Minnesota. This time the two retirees compete for the affection of Ann-Margret and who can catch the biggest “muskie” from their ice fishing shanty. The film became a surprise hit largely due to the chemistry of the two stars and their octogenarian co-star played by Burgess Meredith. Two years later came the sequel, Grumpier Old Men, again with Ann-Margret and Meredith, with the addition of Sophia Loren. Although the shtick had become a bit predictable, the sequel was also a box-office hit.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at
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