With a career that spanned four decades, Jack Lemmon was one of America’s most beloved performers. Eleven years after his death, we look back at 10 roles that best define him as an actor.
Jack Lemmon, 1988 (Wikimedia Commons/Photo by Alan Light)
It Should Happen to You (1954)
This film marked the big screen debut of Jack Lemmon. Studio head Harry Cohen worried Lemmon’s last name would prove too tempting for headline writers should the film receive bad reviews, and wanted him to change his name to “Lennon.” Jack Lemmon kept his real name on the screen by convincing the studio head that “Lennon” might too easily be confused with “Lenin” and give the film a whiff of Communism. Critics liked the film and it did moderately well at the box office, leading to the studio casting Lemmon and Judy Holliday together again that year.
Some Like it Hot (1959)
Lemmon was a favorite of director Billy Wilder, who cast him in films including Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Irma la Douce and The Front Page. Some Like it Hot – which the American Film Institute has listed as the greatest comedy of all time – saw Lemmon acting opposite Marilyn Monroe. “Difficult?” he said later when asked about working with Monroe. “Yes. But she was a wonderful comedienne and she had a charisma like no one before or since.” For his part Lemmon was awarded a Golden Globe and nominated for an Oscar. He also released an album called A Twist of Lemmon/Some Like it Hot which featured him performing originals on piano and singing selections from the movie.
The Apartment (1960)
After the success of Some Like it Hot, Wilder was eager to work with Lemmon again and decided to cast him in The Apartment, another collaboration with screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond. Paired opposite Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray, Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a lowly employee at an insurance company who lends his apartments to higher-ups for their daytime extra-marital dalliances. The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards and came away with five of them, though Lemmon lost in the best actor category to Burt Lancaster for his role in Elmer Gantry. Asked about working with Lemmon, director Wilder said, “I would describe him as a ham, a fine ham, and with ham you have to trim a little fat.”
Days of Wine and Roses (1962)
Adapted from a 1958 Playhouse 90 TV episode written by J.P. Miller, Edwards’ Days of Wine and Roses was one of the first films to give serious treatment to alcoholism rather than play drunks for cheap laughs. Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick give gut-wrenching performances as a downward spiraling couple who succumb to their addictions at the expense of everything else in their lives. Both Lemmon and Remick were nominated for Academy Awards for their work, and, ironically, both would later seek treatment for alcoholism, as would director Blake Edwards.
The Odd Couple (1968)
Based on a play by Neil Simon, this film produced the memorable pairing of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, the former playing neurotic Felix Unger who takes up residence with the sloppy divorced sports writer Oscar Madison. The film was the basis for the 1970 spinoff TV series starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. The poorly received The Odd Couple II reteamed Lemmon and Matthau in their roles thirty years later, setting a record for the length of time between an original movie and its sequel.
Save the Tiger (1973)
Jack Lemmon liked this part so much he waived his usual fee in order to act in the modestly budgeted tale covering two days in the life of Harry Stoner, a disillusioned, middle-aged business executive whose apparel company is failing as he struggles to find his place in a world he no longer understands. Though not a blockbuster at the box office, the film earned Lemmon his first Academy Award for Best Actor.
The China Syndrome (1979)
This thriller about a cover-up at a nuclear power plant had the good fortune of being released just 12 days before the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania, making it instantly relevant (though the studio took great pains to avoid seeming as if it was using the accident for marketing purposes, even yanking it out of some Pennsylvania area theaters). Co-starring Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas, the film casts Lemmon as Jack Goddell, a shift supervisor and whistleblower at the Ventana power plant. The film would earn Lemmon his second Academy Award for Best Actor.
The first movie by director Costa-Gavras filmed in English, Missing is based on the true-life story of young journalist Charles Horman, who disappeared in Chile following the U.S.-backed ousting of left-wing President Salvador Allende. Jack Lemmon plays the journalist’s father, who teams up with his daughter in-law (played by Sissy Spacek) to find out what happened. Banned in Chile, the film was also condemned by high-ranking officials in the Reagan administration. Few of them (aside perhaps from Ronald Reagan himself) were likely members of the Academy, as the movie took home a number of awards, including another Best Actor statue for Lemmon.
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
The film based on David Mamet’s stage masterpiece brought us Shelley “The Machine” Levene. A variant on the Willy Loman character in Death of a Salesman, Levene is a once hotshot real-estate salesman on the decline. With a sick daughter in the hospital he desperately needs a big sale, but his outmoded tactics, old school smarm and rapidly eroding confidence undermine him at every turn. So well did Lemmon nail the part that The Simpsons created the long-running Gil Gunderson character in homage to his performance.
Grumpy Old Men (1993)
Lemmon and Matthau had the surprise hit of the year with this project, one that saw them play Minnesota neighbors locked in a comic decades-old feud started when John Gustafson (Lemmon) supposedly stole Max Goldman’s (Matthau) girlfriend. The rivalry reaches new heights when new neighbor Ariel Truax (Ann Margaret) moves in and the two begin competing for her attention. The movie spawned a sequel and the franchise’s success was largely responsible for getting the second Odd Couple picture made, which was Lemmon’s final credited picture before his death on June 23, 2001 of cancer. He was 76 years old.
Originally published June 2011