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Jack Lemmon, Mr Average with Genius

Updated on November 3, 2011

Jack Lemmon was an award winning American actor whose career spanned 5 decades and which included a wide range of movie genres, from screwball comedies like 'Some Like It Hot' and 'The Apartment', to serious dramatic roles such as in 'Missing' and 'The China Syndrome'. He was a deceptively clever actor who excelled in portraying the average man struggling against a cruel world.

He was popular with his fellow professionals and he struck up a formidable and productive partnership with Walter Matthau, the two making eight movies together, and with director Billy Wilder, making seven films with him.

He was nominated for Academy Awards eight times, winning the Best Actor Award in 1973 for 'Save the Tiger' and the Best supporting Actor Award in 1955 for his performance in 'Mr. Roberts'. He also won the Cannes Film Festival's best actor award for "The China Syndrome" and "Missing." In 1988, he received the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award.

Baby Jack
Baby Jack
The young Actor
The young Actor

   Jack Lemmon was born John Uhler Lemmon III on February 8, 1925, in Newton, a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts, the son of a Boston doughnut company executive.  He was a sickly child with illnesses including tonsillitis and mastoiditis - undergoing ten operations before the age of 13. 

After local elementary school he attended Phillips Academy and Harvard University where he was an active member of several Drama Clubs including the famous Hasty Pudding Club.

After a brief stint in the Naval Reserve, serving as an ensign at the end of WWII, he graduated from Harvard and moved to New York City to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. His first acting guide was Uta Hagen and whilst a student Lemmon used his considerable self-taught ability at the piano to earn a living by playing in the evenings in a beer hall and for silent movies.

As he became known he began to be offered acting jobs, not just in the theater but also in radio where his first acting break came with the soap opera, 'The Brighter Day'. This helped launch him into the new medium of television and in three years in the early 1950's he appeared in over 500 live shows on such quality dramatic programs as "Kraft Television Theater," and "Robert Montgomery Presents."

It was a superb training ground and Lemmon took full advantage of it. He was selected for a Broadway role in a revival of 'Room Service' and although the production flopped it enabled the young actokr to get noticed by Hollywood scouts. In 1953 he signed a contract with Columbia Pictures and made an immediate impression with his first movie starring opposite Judy Holliday in the comic hit 'It Should Happen to You', directed by George Cukor.

Young Jack with Judy Holliday
Young Jack with Judy Holliday

Mister Roberts

With Shirley Maclaine in 'Irma La Douce'
With Shirley Maclaine in 'Irma La Douce'

After just two more movies he won his Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance as Ensign Pulver in 'Mister Roberts', easily holding his own with established stars like Henry Fonda and James Cagney.

By the end of the 1950's he had become one of the most infuential stars in Hollywood and he began the first of his two wonderfully creative partnerships when he was cast by director Billy Wilder in the comedy classic 'Some Like It Hot' in 1959, alongside Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe.

He received a Best Actor Award nomination for his performance and the following year he again received a Best Actor nomination when he appeared in another Billy Wilder comic hit, 'The Apartment' with Shirley Maclaine.

He successfully teamed up again with Wilder and Shirley MacLaine in 'Irma la Douce' in 1963.

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in 'Some Like It Hot'
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in 'Some Like It Hot'

Lemmon's second legendary partnership was with Walter Matthau and it began in 1966 with 'The Fortune Cookie', a sharp comedy again directed by Billy Wilder. He and Matthau complimented each other's styles and their popularity increased in 1968 when they appeared together in Neil Simon's 'The Odd Couple' the movie which defined their relationship and individual personality traits and quirks.

Amongst other movies they also starred together in 'The Front Page' in 1974 and Wilder's final film, 'Buddy Buddy' in 1981. In 1971, Lemmon directed Matthau in the comedy 'Kotch' which was the only movie that Lemmon ever directed. Matthau was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in the movie.

The Odd Couple - a classic scene

In 'Save the Tiger'
In 'Save the Tiger'
In 'The Front Page' with Walter Matthau
In 'The Front Page' with Walter Matthau

Lemmon remained at the top of his profession for the rest of his long career, moving effortlessly between comedy and drama. He worked for a token minimum salary to play a disenchanted middle-aged businessman in 'Save the Tiger' in 1973, for which he won the Academy Best Actor Award. His output lessened during the 1970's but the quality of his work remained high. He gave an impassioned performance the drama 'The China Syndrome' in 1979 which gained him another Oscar nomination for Best Actor and again he was nominated for his fine performances first as a press agent in 'Tribute' in 1980 and then as the anguished father in the dramatic and controversial 'Missing'in 1982.

Never one to shirk a challenge Lemmon returned to the Broadway stage in 1986 in the difficult role of James Tyrone in O'Neill's 'Long Day's Journey Into Night'. He continued to make movies including some excellent performances during the 1990's in such films as 'JFK' in 1991, 'Glengarry Glen Ross' the following year and 'Short Cuts' in 1993.

He and Walter Matthau continued their partnership with the successful 'Grumpy Old Men' in 1993 and the sequel 'Grumpier Old Men' two years later. They also made together the less successful 'Out to Sea' in 1997 and 'The Odd Couple II' in 1998. Lemmon continued to work through the late 1990's with appearances in 'Getting Away With Murder in 1996, 'Forever Hollywood' in 1999 and 'The Legend Of Bagger Vance' in 2000. His final movie appearance in a telvision movie was in 1999 in 'Tuesdays with Morrie' for which he won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor.

Lemmon was married twice, the first time to actress Cynthia Stone with whom he had a son, Chris, and the second time to actress Felicia Farr, with whom he had a daughter, Courtney.

Jack Lemmon died on June 27, 2001 of colon cancer. He is buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California, near the grave of Walter Matthau.

On his headstone is inscribed "Jack Lemmon - in".

Jack Lemmon on Amazon


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    • jimmyglaughlin profile image

      Jim Laughlin 4 years ago from Connecticut

      Many great movies come to mind with Lemmon, even his later movies were great!

    • gunsock profile image

      gunsock 6 years ago from South Coast of England

      William, you've got me once again with your reference to Out of Towners. That's another one for my list!

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 6 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      When I think of Jack Lemmon, gunsock, I think first of "Out of Towners," where he was superb in his performance with Sandy Dennis. He was a very versatile trouper. Good work as always.

    • gunsock profile image

      gunsock 7 years ago from South Coast of England

      Yes, that was a great movie. Lemmon is apreciated by many but somehow unerrated in my opinion. Everything he does is quality.

    • Andy Webb profile image

      Andy Webb 7 years ago

      Superb hub. Lemmon starred in so many great movies, one of my favourites is Glengarry Glen Ross where Lemmon was at his best as put upon salesman Shelley Levene.