Actor. Born February 8, 1925, in Boston, Massachusetts, to John Uhler Lemmon, Jr., a vice president of sales for the Doughnut Corporation of America, and Mildred LaRue (Noel) Lemmon. His mother was engrossed in a bridge game and did not acknowledge the labor pains that brought her son into the world two months early. She did not make it in time and gave birth in the Newton-Wellesley Hospital elevator. Though Lemmon was very close to his parents, they had marital troubles when he was young. When they began sleeping in separate bedrooms, Lemmon's mother told him it was due to his father's snoring. Lemmon devised a comedy routine that involved an extensive menu of snoring sounds to amuse his parents and guests.
As Lemmon's father took more lengthy business trips, his mother would socialize at the bar of the Ritz-Carlton in Boston. Their escalating difficulties gave birth to Lemmon's cheerful personality. He felt that if he gave them nothing to worry about, then they would be able to devote more time to getting along with each other. His parents never divorced, but they never were happy with each other, either, which caused Lemmon great pain. They finally separated permanently during his senior year in high school. Lemmon attended the exclusive prep school Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where he was a champion distance runner and taught himself to play piano. In 1943, he enrolled in Harvard University. Though he lagged in core subjects, he excelled in music and drama and was active in a variety of clubs. He was president of the Hasty Pudding Club and performed in one of its musical reviews; he was vice president of the Dramatic and Delphic clubs; and he was well known for his acting talent. He also played piano and wrote songs, but seemed to shine more at acting.
Lemmon served in the U.S. Naval Reserve toward the end of World War II in 1945 and 1946 as a communications officer, then graduated from Harvard with his B.A. and B.S. degrees in 1947. He went on to act in summer stock. His father offered him a job at the doughnut company, but Lemmon stubbornly and rather unsuccessfully held out for acting parts, biding his time waiting tables, playing piano, and serving as master of ceremonies at the "Old Knick" show bar in New York City. His father eventually moved to New York and set Lemmon up with an apartment and a steady source of available money. In 1948, he landed his first professional part in a radio soap opera. Although he had only considered acting in the theater, television was developing as a promising new medium, and he ended up finding plenty of work in that arena.
Lemmon's television debut was in "The Times Square Story" for the Old Knickerbocker Music Hall program on CBS in 1948. He went on to roles in the Philco Television Playhouse, Kraft Television Theatre, and others. These dramatic, live, hour-long shows provided excellent training and helped showcase new talent, including the likes of James Dean, Paul Newman, Grace Kelly, Rod Steiger, Charlton Heston, and others. Lemmon was especially acclaimed for his performance in the 1956 Ford Star Jubilee program, "The Day Lincoln Was Shot." It is estimated that he had about 400 parts in those early years. "I had no idea what great experience I was getting," Lemmon recalled in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I just accepted it. I realized I was lucky because I was getting a lot of work." Thanks to his prolific appearances on television, Hollywood studios took notice and Columbia Pictures offered Lemmon a contract in 1953.
Lemmon's comic talent won him the lead in his first film, It Could Happen to You, costarring Judy Holliday, in 1954. After just his fourth film, Mister Roberts, starring Henry Fonda, Lemmon won an Academy Award in 1955 for Best Supporting Actor for his role of Ensign Pulver. In 1959, he had another big hit with Marilyn Monroe in the comedy Some Like It Hot, landing his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor and taking a Golden Globe. He dressed in drag throughout most of the film, masquerading as a woman in order to disguise his identity from the Mafia. Lemmon's next nomination came in 1960 for The Apartment, costarring Shirley Maclaine (who also received a Best Actress Oscar nomination); though he did not take the award, the film did get the Academy Award for best picture and Lemmon won another Golden Globe.
After lobbying to make a powerful drama about alcoholism, Days of Wine and Roses, Lemmon found many of his fans thought that he really was a problem drinker and wrote him letters touting the benefits of Alcoholics Anonymous. Lemmon, though he enjoys a martini or two, claims he never had a drinking problem, despite an arrest for drunk driving in 1976. He later explained that his friends had thrown him a party and did not let him get a bite to eat, and that he only had a small amount of wine and barely flunked the sobriety test. He later, at age 60, gave up drinking, as well as smoking pipes and cigars.
Lemmon followed Days of Wine and Roses with another comedy, Irma La Douce, costarring Shirley Maclaine, in 1963, and The Fortune Cookie in 1966. In the latter, he was first teamed with comic actor Walter Matthau, who won an Oscar for best supporting actor in the picture. In The Fortune Cookie, Lemmon plays a television cameraman who is plowed over by a star football player and is talked into faking an injury by his brother-in-law, an unscrupulous attorney (Matthau). The two actors had an undeniable chemistry, working together again in Neil Simon's classic hit The Odd Couple in 1968. In one of Lemmon's most memorable parts, he played the neat Felix Ungar to Walter Matthau's messy Oscar Madison in this hilarious story of two opposites trying to live together.
Lemmon went on to work with Matthau again on a number of projects, including The Front Page (1974), Buddy Buddy (1981), Grumpy Old Men (1993), Grumpier Old Men (1995), Out to Sea (1997), and The Odd Couple II in 1998. The Grumpy Old Men movies re-established Lemmon and Matthau's presence as an unparalleled comic duo and introduced them to a new generation of viewers. Older audiences continued to enjoy them as longtime favorites, and younger audiences could identify with the feisty older men as they would perhaps their senior relatives. Their rapport, energy, and rapid-fire humor in the films belied the fact that Matthau was 73 and Lemmon 68 when the first Grumpy film was released. They delighted fans again in 1998 with Neil Simon's sequel to The Odd Couple. In The Odd Couple II, Oscar and Felix have led separate lives for decades but are reunited when Oscar's son and Felix's daughter decide to get married.
Lemmon, meanwhile, had a string of other successes. In 1967, he stepped behind the scenes as executive producer of the legendary prison flick, Cool Hand Luke, and in 1971 he tried a stint at directing with Kotch, starring Matthau. In 1972, he won an Emmy when he returned to his piano-playing roots in the television special Jack Lemmon in S'Wonderful, S'Marvelous, S'Gershwin. The following year he picked up an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Save the Tiger, a drama about a day in the life of a pathetic man. In 1979, he was again nominated for an Oscar for The China Syndrome, about a reporter who witnesses an accident at a nuclear power plant. Lemmon played the plant manager who decided to speak out even though doing so would likely end his career. The movie was notable, but in addition, a real-life nuclear meltdown at the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania shortly after the movie's release made it all the more frightening. Lemmon won a Best Actor Award at the Cannes International Film Festival for this role.
In the early 1980s Lemmon was acclaimed for his work in the stage and screen versions of Tribute, about a dying publicity agent, earning a Drama Guild Award, Berlin Film Festival Award, Genie Award, and a nomination for another Academy Award. He was again honored with a Best Actor nod at Cannes in 1982 for his role in Missing and was nominated for a Tony in 1986 for the stage version of A Long Day's Journey into Night. He also received a Golden Globe in 1988 for the television movie version of that story. Meanwhile, he also kept busy in television, predominantly appearing on awards shows and occasionally in specials such as Neil Simon: Not Just for Laughs (1989).
After playing a dying man, in 1989's Dad, Lemmon wanted to move on to new challenges. He got his chance when one of the meatiest parts of his career came in 1992, playing Shelley "The Machine" Levine in the film version of David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Glengarry Glen Ross. In this tale of the cutthroat world of real estate, Lemmon portrays a down-and-dirty, desperate, shameless salesperson. He was awarded the Volpi Cup from the Venice Film Festival for his gritty depiction. In the 1990s, he also worked on the Robert Altman films The Player and Short Cuts; 12 Angry Men (1997), a Golden Globe nominated cable remake of the classic 1950s jury-room drama; and a tv film in 1998 called The Long Way Home, about a retired carpenter on a cross-country road trip with a young woman.
Lemmon won a Golden Globe for best actor in a TV mini-series or TV movie for Inherit the Wind and a Screen Actors Guild award for best actor in a TV movie or mini-series for Tuesdays with Morrie, both in 1999.
In 1950, Lemmon married Cynthia Boyd Stone, an actress he met in New York. They had a son, Christopher, in 1954, but were divorced in 1956. Lemmon then married actress Felicia Farr on August 17, 1962, in Paris, France, and they have been together since. Their daughter, Courteney, was born on January 7, 1966. Christopher has followed his father into the acting business, and Courteney is a journalist. Lemmon also has a stepdaughter, Farr's daughter, Denise.
On June 27, 2001, at the age of 76, Lemmon died from complications related to cancer. Ironically, he passed away just a few days short of the one-year anniversary of the death of his good friend, Walter Matthau.
© 2001 Gale Group
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