Jack Lemmon
A Biography Of A Great Actor/Comedian
Jack Lemmon

Jack Lemmon was one of Hollywood's most distinguished and highly regarded actors. His greatness as an actor, and his achievements as a performer, made him nothing less than an American icon, a legend.

Mr. Lemmon's powerful portrayals of men whom audiences could easily identify with have endeared fans to his various roles. From the wacky racer in The Great Race, to his brilliant portrayal of the Manhattan executive in search of his lost son in the film Missing, Mr. Lemmon repeatedly stretched himself, striving for perfection. His successful transition from light comedian to heavyweight dramatic actor was evidence of his great ability and talent.

A winner of two Academy Awards, Mr. Lemmon was the first man ever to win Oscars® as both Best Actor (Save the Tiger, 1973) and Best Supporting Actor (Mister Roberts, 1955), and he was the only Best Actor winner who directed another performer to a nomination for that Award (Walter Matthau in Kotch, 1971). He ws also the only actor to have been presented the Best Actor Award twice (for Missing and The China Syndrome) at the Cannes Film Festival. He received a total of eight Academy Award nominations, with Spencer Tracy, Sir Laurence Olivier, and Jack Nicholson being the only actors with more nominations, as well as numerous national and international awards and honors for his work. 

By birth and background, Mr. Lemmon should have ended up in the executive suite of a major corporation like his father who headed The Doughnut Corporation of America. The only child of John and Mildred Lemmon, he was educated at the best prep schools and Harvard University. But he was destined to follow a different road. Even at the age of four, after appearing with his father in an amateur production of Gold in Them Thar Hills, he declared to his parents that he knew what he wanted to be -- an actor.

Scrawny as a boy, plagued by attacks of tonsillitis and mastoiditis, Jack Lemmon took up cross-country running so avidly that he eventually broke the New England record for the two-mile.

At Andover, Mr. Lemmon became enthralled by the piano and learned to play by ear. This enthusiasm for the ivories overshadowed his interest in acting until late in his senior year when he helped write, direct, and act in the Class Day musical.

At Harvard, however, he was active in dramatics from enrollment to commencement and rose to the presidency of the famed Hasty Pudding Club. Graduating in 1947, Mr. Lemmon served in the Navy as a communication officer with the rank of ensign aboard the carrier Lake Champlain. 

Mr. Lemmon then headed to New York and the Great White Way. He worked at odd jobs while he waited for a show business opening. He managed to get one as emcee at the Old Knick Music Hall, a converted movie house. "I was the head waiter, the entire orchestra, the comedian, a 143-pound bouncer, song-and-dance man -- you name it," said Mr. Lemmon. His salary dipped to a low of five dollars a week, but the exposure proved to be Mr. Lemmon's door opener.

Mr. Lemmon started working in radio with running parts in several soap operas, including The Brighter Day and Road to Life. Soon he found himself working a new medium: television. He gave about 500 television performances, almost all of them live, on such shows as Studio One, Robert Montgomery Presents, Suspense, and Playhouse 90. He also was involved in four series: Wonderful Guy, The Couple Next Door, Heaven for Betsy, and The Ad-Libbers.

In 1953 Mr. Lemmon made his Broadway debut in Room Service, in which he was noticed by scouts from Hollywood. He was soon summoned west by Harry Cohn, the czar of Columbia Pictures. Mr. Cohn tried to change Jack's surname to Lennon but the young actor held firm, winning the admiration of the often tyrannical mogul.

Mr. Lemmon started his screen career in a pair of Judy Holiday pictures, It Should Happen to You and Phffft! He became an Academy Award winner in only his fifth movie, winning an Oscar® for his portrayal of Ensign Pulver in John Ford's Mister Roberts. Blessed with the rare capacity to be credible as both comedian and romantic lead, it wasn't long before Mr. Lemmon's career took off, and he was nominated for Best Actor three times in four years (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and Days of Wine and Roses).

Despite having made it big in the movies, Mr. Lemmon did not forsake the stage. He returned to Broadway in 1960 to star in Face of a Hero. In 1970 he starred in Idiot's Delight at the Los Angeles Music Center, to which he returned in 1975 to Juno and the Paycock with Walter Matthau and Maureen Stapleton. His biggest stage success though, came with Tribute, playing the character of Scottie Templeton, the cancer-ridden press agent trying to clear up his conflicts with his ex-wife and son. The play opened on Broadway in 1978. As Templeton, Mr. Lemmon won the Broadway Drama Guild Award and was nominated for a Tony. After touring with the play, Mr. Lemmon shot the film version with Lee Remick, Colleen Dewhurst and Robby Benson, and received his seventh Oscar® nomination for his performance.

In 1986, Mr. Lemmon starred with Julie Andrews in Blake Edwards' film That's Life, a film which was fully improvised. The versatile actor then returned to the stage, starring in Eugene O'Neill's classic Long Day's Journey Into Night, which appeared for several months on Broadway before playing to sold-out audiences in London. 

Just prior to the release of the 1989 Amblin-Universal film Dad, with Ted Danson and Olympia Dukakis, Mr. Lemmon completed a four-month stretch on stage in Donald Freed's Veterans Day, co-starring with British stage favorite, Michael Gambon.

Mr. Lemmon also returned periodically to television. He won an Emmy for his performance in the 1972 presentation of 'S Wonderful, 'S Marvelous, 'S Gershwin, and was nominated for another for his portrayal of a down-at-the-heels song-and-dance man in The Entertainer. In 1988 he earned another Emmy nomination in the NBC miniseries The Murder of Mary Phagan. He received critical acclaim for his Emmy and Golden Globe nominated performance as Juror #8 in Showtime's 12 Angry Men, directed by William Friedkin and broadcast in 1997. In 1999 he received accolades for his performance in Showtime's Inherit the Wind. 

But film remained his first love, especially when working with friends like Billy Wilder and Walter Matthau. In Buddy, Buddy, Mr. Lemmon worked under Mr. Wilder's direction for the seventh time, and also acted with Mr. Matthau for the fourth time. Mr. Wilder previously directed six of Mr. Lemmon's most memorable screen outings: Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Irma La Douce, The Fortune Cookie, Avanti! and The Front Page. 

Mr. Lemmon's pairing with Mr. Matthau started with Mr. Wilder's The Fortune Cookie, in 1966, then to The Odd Couple, and again for Mr. Wilder in The Front Page. They worked together in the hit films Grumpy Old Men and Grumpier Old Men. Some of his last films include Out to Sea and Neil Simon's The Odd Couple II, both with Walter Matthau. 

Deeply concerned about the worldwide pollution of our environment, Mr. Lemmon devoted much of his free time to bringing our planet's plight to the attention of the public. In addition to doing many radio and television spots for local and national ecology groups, Mr. Lemmon was the anchorman on four TV specials relating to air, water, and nuclear pollution. 

Film Credits