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February 9, 2021

20 Black and White Portraits of a Very Young Jack Lemmon in the 1950s and 1960s

For more than four decades, whether working in comedy or tragedy, actor Jack Lemmon (1925-2001) epitomized the joys and travails of Americans in the latter half of the 20th century. Noted as one of the most versatile U.S. film actors of his generation, Lemmon gave numerous memorable performances in theater, film, and television, greatly influencing a later generation of actors.

Jack Lemmon was born in the Boston suburb of Newton, Massachusetts, on February 8, 1925— legend has it that he was actually born in the hospital elevator. The son of a successful businessman, Lemmon grew up under the expectation that he would follow his father into the bakery business. He was educated at Andover Academy and by the time he graduated from Harvard University he was thoroughly bitten by the acting bug, having acted in summer stock and in some of Harvard’s Hasty Pudding productions. Lemmon’s initial show business job in New York involved playing piano in the Old Knickerbocker Music Hall on Second Avenue as an accompanist to the silent films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. He also performed in skits there and tended bar, among other tasks. During his early years in the business he continued doing summer stock.

In late 1949 Lemmon appeared in a television series, That Wonderful Guy, along with Cynthia Stone, whom he later married. The series was canceled after 17 weeks, but Lemmon soon landed a job as master of ceremonies on a talent show named Toni Twin Time, where he received mixed reviews as an MC. When the show was canceled he and Stone found work on an improvisation show called The Ad Libbers. After that show was canceled Lemmon and Stone were paired once again, this time in a continuing 15-minute segment in which they played a young married couple. For the two, art mirrored life, as they had married on May 7, 1952. In 1952 Lemmon and Stone were cast in yet another situation comedy, Heaven for Betsy, which was panned by the critics.

Lemmon’s real breakthrough in movies came when legendary director John Ford literally handed him the role of Ensign Pulver in the film Mister Roberts. Based on the successful play, the film starred veteran actors Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, and Ward Bond, but it was Lemmon’s performance as the laundry and morale officer Pulver that truly shone. This performance earned Lemmon an Academy Award for best supporting actor in 1955 and proved to the film world that he was a talent to be reckoned with. Unfortunately his increasing work schedule and his growing fame as a result of Mister Roberts took their toll on Lemmon’s marriage. Soon after receiving the best supporting actor award, he received a divorce summons from his wife.

During the late 1950s Lemmon continued working in television as well as film and became friends with comedian Ernie Kovacs, a comic genius until his 1962 death in an automobile accident. The two worked together on two films, Operation Mad Ball and It Happened to Jane, the latter co-starring Doris Day. Lemmon’s friendship with Kovacs was so close that in his Lemmon, biographer Don Widener quoted director Richard Quine as noting: “If Ernie had lived, the Lemmon-Matthau team might well have been Lemmon-Kovacs. They reminded me of a sophisticated Laurel and Hardy.”

In 1959 Lemmon was paired with Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot. Under the brilliant direction of Billy Wilder Lemmon gave one of the greatest performances of his career opposite Marilyn Monroe by playing Jerry/Daphne, a Depression-era musician on the run from Chicago gangsters who hides out in an all-female band touring Florida. The next year Lemmon starred in The Apartment, also directed by Wilder. Lemmon’s performance as C. C. Baxter, an up-and-coming corporate man who allows his superiors to use his apartment for liaisons, is perhaps his truest personification of the “everyman” for which he was best known.

Three things happened in 1962 that altered Lemmon’s life and career. Kovacs died in an automobile accident, thus ending a flourishing professional partnership and close friendship; in August Lemmon married actress Felicia Farr, with whom he would have a daughter, Courtney, in 1966; and he starred with Lee Remick in the independent film, Days of Wine and Roses. As good as Lemmon’s film work had been up to that time—he had won an additional two Academy Award nominations for his performances in Some Like It Hot and The Apartment—Lemmon stunned critics and audiences alike with his performance as the alcoholic Joe Clay in Days of Wine and Roses. The breakout performance earned him his fourth Academy Award nomination.

Over the next few years Lemmon returned to light comedy, with many of the roles shoring up his Everyman persona. He also acted in such high-farce films as The Great Race, until the mid-1960s when his career took another fateful turn. In 1966 he was teamed up for the first time with Walter Matthau in The Fortune Cookie, a Wilder-directed comedy about a photographer who, at the instigation of an unscrupulous lawyer, fakes the seriousness of an injury in order to defraud an insurance company. Two years later Lemmon and Matthau were cast as Felix and Oscar in The Odd Couple, their best-known film together. The two enjoyed a 34-year friendship until Matthau’s death in 2000, working together on 11 films, most of which were produced in the 1990s.

As he aged into character roles, Lemmon remained no less prolific. His acclaimed performances of later years included his portrayal of James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night in both a stage revival (1986) and a television adaptation (1987); a down-and-out real estate salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992); a smooth-talking con man in The Grass Harp (1995); and two TV renderings of classic American dramas, 12 Angry Men (1997) and Inherit the Wind (1999), both of which costarred George C. Scott. Lemmon also won an Emmy Award for his touching portrayal of a dying college professor in the television film Tuesdays with Morrie (1999).

On June 27, 2001, Lemmon died of bladder cancer at the age of 76.


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