John Uhler Lemmon III in Boston, 8 February 1925.
Attended Rivers Country Day School, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts;
Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, graduated 1943; Harvard
University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, B.A. and B.S., 1947; studied acting
in New York with Uta Hagen.
Served as communications officer in Naval Reserve, 1945.
Married 1) the actress Cynthia Stone, 1950 (divorced 1956), son: actor
Christopher (Chris) Lemmon; 2) the actress Felicia Farr, 1962, daughter:
After graduating from Harvard, worked as a piano player at the Old Nick
saloon in New York, 1948; worked as an actor in radio soap opera; was
producer and actor in several TV series:
That Wonderful Guy
The Couple Next Door
, 1951, and
Heaven for Betsy
, 1952, all with Cynthia Stone; made Broadway debut in
, 1953; signed a contract with Columbia Pictures, 1953; made film debut in
It Should Happen to You,
1954; was a regular on TV series
1957–58; appeared on Broadway in
Face of a Hero,
1958; directed the film
1971; narrated the
The Wild West
TV mini-series, 1993.
Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, for
, 1955; Best Foreign Actor British Academy Award, Best Motion Picture
Actor-Musical/Comedy Golden Globe, for
Some Like It Hot
, 1959, Best Foreign Actor British Academy Award, Best Motion Picture
Actor-Musical/Comedy Golden Globe, for
, 1960; Best Actor San Sebastian International Film Festival, for
Days of Wine and Roses,
1962; Best Motion Picture Actor-Musical/Comedy Golden Globe, for
1972; Best Actor Academy Award, for
Save the Tiger
, 1973; Best Actor British Academy Award, Cannes Film Festival Best Actor,
The China Syndrome
, 1979; Berlin Film Festival Best Actor, Best Foreign Actor Genie Award,
, 1981; Cannes Film Festival Best Actor, for
, 1982; National Board of Review Career Achievement Award, 1986; American
Film Institute Life Achievement Award, 1988; Screen Actors Guild Lifetime
Achievement Award, 1990; American Comedy Awards Lifetime Achievement
Award, 1991; Cecil B. DeMille Golden Globe, 1991; National Board of Review
Best Actor, Venice Film Festival Volpi Cup for Best Actor, for
Glengarry Glen Ross
, 1992; Venice Film Festival Violpi Cup for Best Ensemble Cast, for
1993; Berlin Film Festival Honorary Golden Bear, 1996; Outstanding
Performance by a Male Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries Screen
Actors Guild Award, for
Tuesdays with Morrie,
1999; Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or Motion Picture
Made for TV Golden Globe, for
Inherit the Wind,
1999; Hollywood Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award, 1999.
Jalem Productions, 141 El Camino, Suite 201, Beverly Hills, CA 90212,
It Should Happen to You (Cukor) (as Pete Sheppard); Phffft! (Robson) (as Robert Tracy)
Three for the Show (Potter) (as Marty Stewart); Mister Roberts (Ford and LeRoy) (as Ensign Pulver); My Sister Eileen (Quine) (as Bob Baker)
You Can't Run Away from It (Powell) (as Peter Warne)
Fire Down Below (Parrish) (as Tony); Operation Mad Ball (Quine) (as Pvt. Hogan)
Cowboy (Daves) (as Frank Harris); Bell, Book and Candle (Quine) (as Nicky Holroyd)
Some Like It Hot (Wilder) (as Jerry/Daphne); It Happened to Jane (Quine) (as George Denham)
The Apartment (Wilder) (as Baxter); Pepe (Sidney) (as himself)
The Wackiest Ship in the Army (Murphy) (as Lt. Rip Crandall)
Stowaway in the Sky (Lamorisse) (as narrator); The Notorious Landlady (Quine) (as William Gridley); Days of Wine and Roses (Edwards) (as Joe)
Irma la Douce (Wilder) (as Nestor); Under the Yum-Yum Tree (Swift) (as Hogan)
Good Neighbor Sam (Swift) (as Sam Bissel)
How to Murder Your Wife (Quine) (as Stanley Ford); The Great Race (as Prof. Fate) (Edwards)
The Fortune Cookie (Wilder) (as Harry Hinkle)
Luv (Donner) (as Harry Berlin)
The Odd Couple (Saks) (as Felix Ungar)
The April Fools (Rosenberg) (as Howard Brubaker)
The Out-of-Towners (Hiller) (as George Kellerman)
The War Between Men and Women (Shavelson) (as Peter Wilson); Avanti! (Wilder) (as Wendell Armbruster)
Save the Tiger (Avildsen) (as Harry Stoner)
Wednesday (Kupfer); The Front Page (Wilder) (as Hildy Johnson)
The Prisoner of Second Avenue (Frank) (as Mel)
The Entertainer (Wrye—for TV) (as Archie Rice); Alex and the Gypsy (Korty) (as Alexander Main)
Airport '77 (Jameson) (as Don Gallagher)
The China Syndrome (Bridges) (as Jack Godell)
Tribute (Clark) (as Scottie Templeton)
Buddy Buddy (Wilder) (as Victor Clooney)
Missing (Costa-Gavras) (as Ed Horman)
Mass Appeal (Glenn Jordan) (as Father Tim Farley); Macaroni (Scola) (as Robert)
That's Life (Edwards) (as Harvey Fairchild)
Long Day's Journey into Night (Miller—for TV)
The Murder of Mary Phagan (Hale—for TV) (as Gov. John Staton)
Dad (Goldberg) (as Jake Tremont)
JFK (Stone) (as Jack Martin)
Glengarry Glen Ross (Foley) (as Shelley Levine); The Player (Altman) (as himself); For Richer, for Poorer (Sandrich—for TV) (as Aram Katourian)
A Life in the Theater (Mosher—for TV) (as Robert); Short Cuts (Altman) (as Paul Finnigan); Grumpy Old Men (Petrie) (as John Gustafson); Earth and the American Dream (Couturie (doc) (voice only); Luck, Trust & Ketchup: Robert Altman In Carver Country (Dorr, Kaplan) (doc) (as Interviewee)
The Grass Harp (Charles Matthau) (as Morris Ritz); Grumpier Old Men (Deutch) (as John Gustafson); Getting Away with Murder (Harvey Miller) (as Max Mueller/Luger)
Hamlet (Branagh) (as Marcellus); A Weekend in the Country (Bregman—for TV) (as Bud Bailey); My Fellow Americans (Segal) (as Russell P. Kramer)
Puppies for Sale (Krauss); Out to Sea (Coolidge) (as Herb Sullivan); 12 Angry Men (Friedkin—for TV) (as Juror #8)
The Long Way Home (Jordan—for TV) (as Tom Gerrin); The Odd Couple II (Deutch) (as Felix Ungar)
Inherit the Wind (Petrie—for TV) (as Henry Drummond); Tuesdays with Morrie (Jackson—for TV) (as Morrie Schwartz); Forever Hollywood (Glassman, McCarthy) (doc) (as himself)
The Legend of Bagger Vance (Redford) (as Hardy Greaves)
Kotch (+ ro as stranger on bus)
"Such Fun to Be Funny," in Films and Filming (London), November 1960.
"Interview: Jack Lemmon," in Playboy (Chicago), May 1964.
"I Never Had a Better Experience in My Professional Life," interview with B. Thomas, in Action (Los Angeles), January-February 1972.
Interview with S. Greenberg, in Film Comment (New York), May-June 1973.
"Dialogue on Film: Jack Lemmon," interview in American Film (Washington, D.C.), September 1982.
Interview, in Films and Filming (London), December 1984 and January 1985.
Interview with Gary Crowdus and Dan Georgakas, in Cineaste (New York), vol. 14, no. 3, 1986.
"Jack of All Trades," interview with Burt Prelutsky, in American Film (New York), March 1988.
Interview in Talking Films: The Best of the Guardian Film Lectures , edited by Andrew Britton, London, 1991.
"Saint Jack," interview with Michael Wilmington, in Film Comment (New York), March-April 1993.
"Kids!" interview with Henry Cabot Beck, in Interview , January 1996.
Widenen, Don, Lemmon: A Biography , New York, 1975.
Baltake, Joe, The Films of Jack Lemmon , Secaucus, New Jersey, 1977; rev. ed., 1986.
Freedland, Michael, Jack Lemmon , London, 1985.
Baltake, Joe, "Jack Lemmon," in Films in Review (New York), January 1970.
Eyles, A., "Jack Lemmon," in Focus on Film (London), Spring 1972.
Crist, Judith, "Jack Lemmon," in The Movie Star , edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.
Wood, Michael, "In Search of Missing ," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), March 1982.
Cieutat, Michel, "Jack Lemmon, un Arlequin d'Amérique," in Positif (Paris), September 1983.
Buckley, Michael, "Jack Lemmon," in Films in Review (New York), December 1984, January and February 1985.
Current Biography 1988 , New York, 1988.
Junod, Tom, and Michael O'Neill, "Laughing on the Outside," in Life , October 1992.
Mitchell, Sean, "A Slice of Lemmon," in Premiere (New York), November 1992.
Medhurst, Andy & Gray, Louise, "Odd Man Out: Grumpy Old Men ," in Sight & Sound (London), June 1994.
Collins, K., "Laudable Lemmon," in EPD Film (Frankfurt/Main), 12–18 February 1996.
Brandlmeier, Thomas, "Die Berlinale als Verleger: Wyler, Kazan, Lemmon," in EPD Film (Franfurt/Main), June 1996.
Parkinson, David, "A Grumpy Old Couple," in Radio Times (London), 3 May 1997.
* * *
In Jack Lemmon's special brand of comedy, he spotlights the futility of the well-brought-up and well-intentioned male who flounders in a society rife with corruption and hypocrisy. His characters can triumph only when they develop a stronger sense of self, and take stands against those who abuse them. The flip side of this marvelous actor is that he is equally adept at playing dramatic roles. He is at his finest when cast as characters who either are sadly and tragically deluded, or are complacent, average Americans who become radicalized by events that shatter their value systems.
As a younger movie star, Lemmon's best roles were as characters who moved from states of innocence to states of awareness through painful, if often humorous, experience. This type of character development highlighted Lemmon's nuances of gesture and facial expressions to their best advantage, as the characters endured bafflement and disorientation in their brave attempts to understand their world. In Mr. Roberts , Lemmon's Ensign Pulver starts out a comical wheelerdealer, a jester-schemer who is far more adept at talking than functioning. But upon hearing of the death of the title character, who had been in conflict with his ship's martinet captain, Pulver's face and entire form are energized as he defiantly throws the captain's sacred palm tree overboard. Through most of The Apartment (in which Lemmon, as he often was in the initial phases of his career, is directed by Billy Wilder), his character, C. C. Baxter, is caught in a web of petty corporate corruption. In order to curry favor with his superiors, Baxter lends them his apartment for their overnight trysts, resulting in habitual inconvenience and many a sleepless night. Finally, having fallen in love with his boss's mistress, Baxter regains his dignity and quits his job. Lemmon plays this spineless organization man to perfection, making his transformation all the more impressive. Few viewers can resist the moment when Baxter thrusts out his formerly weak chin and tells his boss what he can do with the job and his key to the executive washroom.
Lemmon's other great early career comic performance came in a classic concoction meant strictly for laughs, Some Like It Hot , in which he and Tony Curtis dress in drag and join an all-girl band after accidentally witnessing the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. In 1966, still barely over a quarter-way through his career, Lemmon was paired with Walter Matthau in The Fortune Cookie , an inspired teaming which has continued through various other films well into the 1990s. Lemmon and Matthau are at their best when playing polar opposites who find themselves united by happenstance. They have never been funnier than in The Odd Couple , in which both actors' comic abilities are exploited to the extreme with Lemmon as the neurotically obsessive neatnik Felix Ungar and Matthau as the glorious slob Oscar Madison.
In Lemmon's initial noteworthy roles, he was called upon to be a comic actor. But as his career progressed, he displayed his flip side as a superb dramatic actor-tragedian. His first great dramatic role is Joe, the pathetic alcoholic, in Days of Wine and Roses . In Save the Tiger , he brilliantly plays another miserable creature, Harry Stoner, a dress manufacturer who (like so many of his comic characters) has lost his innocence. But in so doing, he has become a weaker rather than stronger man as he shrugs his shoulders and submits to the daily acts of degradation he feels are necessary to his survival in the business world. Lemmon plays a variation on this character in Glengarry Glen Ross , David Mamet's emotionally gripping adaptation of his stage play, in which Lemmon gives what is perhaps his most riveting late-career screen performance as real estate salesman Shelley "The Machine" Levine. As with Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman —and Harry Stoner in Save the Tiger —Levine is an aging, desperate man. He will say anything and do anything to get the good leads that will allow him an audience for his tired sales pitches. Levine is all sweat and angst beneath his superficially friendly handshake, and Lemmon plays him with a master touch.
The actor has also played more sympathetic dramatic characters. He commands the screen in two overtly political dramas in which his characters undergo catharses similar to the ones experienced by his more comic alter-egos. In The China Syndrome , Lemmon plays nuclear power plant worker Jack Godell, a loyal company man who is transformed upon realizing that the authorities have failed to deal with the causes of an accidental meltdown at his plant. In Missing , he is conservative American businessman Ed Horman, who becomes radicalized upon the disappearance of his son in a Latin American country, and by his realization of America's squalid complicity in the country's repressive policies.
As Lemmon's career entered its fifth decade, the actor made a brief but memorable appearance in The Grass Harp , directed by Charles (son of Walter) Matthau. Here, he plays just the type of character who might have been his nemesis in The Apartment : a slick, scheming entrepreneur-shyster who entices and then cons a narrow-minded, naive small-town businesswoman. He is especially fine in his poignant vignette in Short Cuts , playing a character who has forgotten how to feel: a father, estranged for many years from his son, who reenters the latter's life from out of nowhere—and who does not even know his own grandson's name. Another excellent starring role came in A Life in the Theater , a television movie which, like Glengarry Glen Ross , is based on a David Mamet play. Lemmon plays Robert, an older actor who has devoted his life to the stage; in fact, to him, life is the theater. He and a younger actor are seen rehearsing, performing, and forever discussing and arguing about the craft of acting during a season of repertory plays. Primarily, A Life in the Theater serves as a showcase for Lemmon, who offers a canny, knowing performance as Robert—yet one more in a seemingly unending line of colorful, memorable characterizations.
Not all of Lemmon's late-career roles have been serious and dramatic. In 1993, he was re-teamed with old pal Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men. The two were cast as senior citizen variations of The Odd Couple's Oscar and Felix: lifelong pals who endlessly and comically feud. The film's success led to a by-the-numbers sequel, Grumpier Old Men, the inanely comic Out to Sea, and the distressingly unnecessary and unfunny Odd Couple II. Particularly in the latter, the actors are game—but their act is tired. Lemmon fared a bit better when paired with fellow senior actor James Garner in the comedy My Fellow Americans, with both cast as former American presidents who despise each other but must work together to foil a nefarious scheme.
Lemmon's most important late-1990s credits are a trio of high-profile made-for-TV movies: projects that are too intelligent and literate for Hollywood to make into theatrical features. In 12 Angry Men, Inherit the Wind, and Tuesdays with Morrie , the actor offers sterling performances . And as he has aged, he has come to be viewed as an American treasure, an actor's actor who is beloved by his peers. In 1998, Lemmon earned a Golden Globe nomination for 12 Angry Men , but was bested for the prize by Ving Rhames (for his performance in Don King: Only in America ). While accepting his award, Rhames respectfully called Lemmon to the stage and all but handed over his trophy. Then Kevin Spacey, upon winning his Best Actor Academy Award for 1999's American Beauty , paid special, heartfelt tribute to Lemmon in his acceptance speech.
—Rodney Farnsworth, updated by Rob Edelman