LOS ANGELES (AP) – Jack Lemmon, the two-time Oscar winner whose acting talents ranged from adroit comedies "The Apartment" and "Some Like It Hot" to the dramatic intensity of "Days of Wine and Roses" and "Tuesdays with Morrie," has died. He was 76.
Lemmon died Wednesday night from complications related to cancer, said his spokesman Warren Cowan. His wife Felicia, his two children and a stepdaughter were at his bedside at USC/Norris Cancer Center, Cowan said.
"To say one word about him would be to say he's a beautiful person," Cowan told The Associated Press on Thursday.
The Harvard-educated actor began in films with two stylish comedies and a musical with Betty Grable. Then in 1955, his unique comedy style shined through as the hapless Ensign Pulver in "Mister Roberts," a role that won Lemmon a supporting actor Oscar.
Throughout his career, and especially in films with Walter Matthau, Lemmon was often cast as the well-meaning fellow, a trifle square, who is taken advantage of.
In "The Fortune Cookie," he is browbeaten into filing a false insurance claim by his brother-in-law. "The Odd Couple" portrayed Lemmon as the fastidious Felix Unger, who suffers from the slobbish habits of his roommate, Oscar Madison (Matthau). In "The Front Page," city editor Matthau tricks his star reporter, Lemmon.
In 1962, Lemmon switched from lighthearted comedies to intense drama. In "Days of Wine and Roses," he played an alcoholic who induces his new wife (Lee Remick) to join him in drinking sprees. His performance earned his first Academy nomination as lead actor.
Of his seven Oscar nominations for lead actor, two were for comedies and five for dramas.
"Save the Tiger," in which he played a dress manufacturer going along with shady business ethics despite the idealism of his youth, won him the Oscar for best actor of 1973. The project was rejected by studios until Paramount agreed to make it on a $1 million budget. Lemmon cut his salary to the Guild minimum of $165 a week to pull it off.
Lemmon's comedic style was based on his portrayal of a well-meaning Everyman beset by disasters. Such a guise seemed to come easily – he was a self-proclaimed klutz.
His life, he often admitted, was a series of faux pas, like the night he won his first Oscar:
"Naturally I was thrilled, and I arrived at the Pantages Theater in my best tuxedo. I walked up a ramp to a platform for an interview, and I leaned against a railing. Only after I finished did I see a sign that said 'Fresh Paint.'"
Lemmon's roles reflected a nervous energy that came naturally.
"I seldom think that I'm up for a good role," he said in a 1975 interview. "I nearly walked out on 'Days of Wine and Roses' and 'Some Like It Hot' because I didn't think I could handle the demands they made upon me as an actor. But if you think I'm insecure now, you should've seen me when I was first breaking in."
Off-screen, the actor seemed sad, says Don Widener, who penned the 1975 biography "Lemmon."
"For all his persona on screen, he was one of the saddest men I've known," Widener told the AP in an interview Thursday. "You could see it in his eyes. The face would be laughing but his eyes were sad. I never found out why that was."
Lemmon's career in film was marked by two inspired collaborations, with Billy Wilder and Matthau.
Wilder first directed Lemmon in "Some Like It Hot" and "The Apartment," which resulted in back-to-back Oscar nominations. They joined in five more films: "Irma La Douce," "The Fortune Cookie," "Avanti!" "The Front Page" and "Buddy Buddy."
From his first film with Matthau, "The Fortune Cookie" in 1966, Lemmon's fresh-faced, Ivy-League manner proved a perfect match for the slouching, gruff Matthau, who won the supporting actor Oscar.
"The Odd Couple" in 1968 cemented their relationship, and they co-starred in six more films.
In his sole venture as a film director, Lemmon didn't appear in the 1971 "Kotch." Matthau's role as a grumbling old-timer brought him an Academy nomination.
Lemmon returned to Broadway in 1985 for a well-received revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night." He remained active in films and television through the 1990s. He had cameo roles in "JFK," "The Player," "The Grass Harp" and "Hamlet."
In 1993, he and Matthau rejoined for "Grumpy Old Men" with Ann-Margret. The comedy became a surprise hit and resulted in a sequel. The pair tried another sequel in 1998, "The Odd Couple II," but it failed. Matthau died last July 1.
Television provided Lemmon's best roles in his mature years. He and George C. Scott appeared in acclaimed versions of "Inherit the Wind" and "12 Angry Men." He earned an Emmy as the dying professor in the 2000 TV adaptation of the best seller "Tuesdays with Morrie."
Lemmon's mishaps began at birth: He was born Feb. 8, 1925, in an elevator at a Newton, Mass., hospital. He had a case of jaundice, prompting a nurse to comment, "My, look at the little yellow Lemmon." His name: John Uhler Lemmon III.
His father owned a bakery business, and young Jack was brought up in comfortable circumstances. He made his acting debut at 4 in an amateur play, but his real passion was music, and he taught himself to play piano.
Jack was a sickly boy who required 13 operations before he was 13 (some credit that experience for the quirky posture that was part of his comedic style). To build himself up, he trained in the gym at Andover prep school and became a fleet runner. At Harvard, his grades were modest except in drama.
When he returned from Navy service as an ensign in World War II, Lemmon announced to his father his resolve to become an actor, telling him, "I'll have to try it or all my life I'll wonder."
With $300 from his father, Lemmon moved to New York. His first break came with a role on a radio soap opera, "The Brighter Day."
By 1947, television drama was burgeoning, and he began working on shows such as "Studio One." His first Broadway play, a revival of "Room Service," lasted only two weeks but provided a ticket to Hollywood. A Columbia Pictures scout recommended him for the lead opposite Judy Holliday in "It Should Happen to You," and studio boss Harry Cohn agreed.
Cohn, the epitome of the bombastic studio chief, insisted on changing his new actor's name. He argued critics would use it as a weapon, declaring the picture and actor were lemons.
Lemmon stood his ground. He had gone through school being taunted with cries of "Jack, you lemon," and wasn't going to change it.
After another comedy with Holliday, "Phffft," and a musical, Lemmon was loaned to Warner Bros. for the film that established his movie career, "Mister Roberts."
Lemmon was married from 1950 to 1956 to actress Cynthia Stone, and they had a son, Chris. In 1962, he married actress Felicia Farr, with whom he had a daughter, Courtney.
Copyright © 2001 The Associated Press
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Published online on June 28, 2001 courtesy of Legacy.com.