- The Washington Times - Friday, June 29, 2001


Jack Lemmon, who died yesterday in Los Angeles at age 76, made a specialty of playing somewhat melancholy and apprehensive characters. His early appeal, in comedies such as "It Should Happen to You," "Mister Roberts," "Some Like It Hot" and "The Apartment," often depended on making a virtue of jumpiness or disillusionment.

In an interview 25 years ago, the actor said, "If you think I'm insecure now, you should've seen me when I was first breaking in."

Fans who recall some of his apprentice work on television in the early 1950s can testify to a bundle of irrepressible but often self-defeating energy and aspiration. Busyness seemed to be one of his trademarks, but also a potential stumbling block.

"All good acting is method — remembering from your own experience that thing in your past that can induce the emotion you are striving for," Mr. Lemmon said at one point. "Acting for me is what analysis must be for some people. It's such a terrible self-exposure, such a delicious hell."

The irony of this self-appraisal is that few performers enjoyed such immediate or lasting popularity with both the public and fellow actors. Mr. Lemmon played leading roles from the outset, when he was cast opposite Judy Holliday in "It Should Happen to You" and "Phffft."

Billy Wilder, who directed the memorable Lemmon performances in "Some Like It Hot" and "The Apartment," was not known as a softie in his prime, but he permitted himself to comment, "Happiness is working with Jack Lemmon." Mr. Wilder also was known to rebuke less agreeable actors for failing to approach the Lemmon standard of discipline, sincerity and sweetness of temper.

A notoriously tough customer, Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures where Mr. Lemmon entered the movies with a long-term contract in 1954 was overheard saying, "That's the nicest actor we've ever had on the lot."

Walter Matthau, who died a year ago, was matched with Mr. Lemmon in eight movies, starting in 1966 with Mr. Wilder's "The Fortune Cookie" and concluding in 1998 with "The Odd Couple II." From the perspective of a 30-year association, Mr. Matthau observed, "I felt just as comfortable working with Jack the first time … as I do today."

Ving Rhames astonished those attending the Golden Globes ceremony two years ago with a spontaneous act of veneration. Having won an award for his performance as boxing promoter Don King, Mr. Rhames insisted on giving it to Mr. Lemmon, a nominee in the same category for a television revival of "Inherit the Wind." Unfortunately, no one in Hollywood got around to writing something that would be suitable for both Mr. Lemmon and Mr. Rhames.

The secret of the Lemmon appeal may have been that people felt comfortable with the actor while also appreciating the insecurity that roiled beneath his congenial surface. Mr. Lemmon's initial rapport with the movie audience never failed him. It was confirmed decisively in his second year in Hollywood, when his performance as the lovable coward and sneak Ensign Pulver in John Ford's 1955 movie version of "Mister Roberts" won him an Academy Award for best supporting actor.

Mr. Lemmon was exceptionally skillful at garnering audience sympathy for young male characters of ill repute and justifiable self-loathing.

For a while, the characters he played made him seem the country's favorite opportunist. Frank Pulver in "Mister Roberts" is a slacker with hapless designs on a group of nurses. The resourceful Pvt. Hogan in "Operation Mad Ball" organizes a farewell rendezvous for nurses and the enlisted men who adore them, defying the chain of command while demonstrating enviable organizing prowess. The moviegoing world looked fondly on Jerry, the masquerading bass player who loses track of his sexual identity in "Some Like It Hot." C.C. Baxter, the pathetic accountant of "The Apartment," loans his place to lecherous bosses until a near calamity puts him on the road to self-respect and redemption.

Because the death of Mr. Lemmon occurred only a few days short of the first anniversary of the death of Mr. Matthau, the likelihood increases that their partnership as comic co-stars will remain paramount in recollections of their careers. However, neither was dependent upon the other to make a good impression. A strong case could be made for reviving interest in the three comedies that matched Mr. Lemmon with the late Ernie Kovacs in the late 1950s: "Operation Mad Ball," "Bell, Book and Candle" and "Leave It to Jane." The antagonistic relationship they shared in "Mad Ball" is one of the underrated treasures in the decade's comedy inventory.

The back-to-back prestige of "Some Like It Hot" and "The Apartment" also obscured the indispensable role played by another director, the late Richard Quine, in fostering Mr. Lemmon's career. Mr. Quine brought out the best in several performers of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The pivotal Lemmon performance as Ensign Pulver reflected Mr. Quine's influence. A test with Mr. Lemmon for the leading role in John Ford's West Point homage, "The Long Gray Line," had been directed by Mr. Quine when Mr. Ford was unavailable. The role went to Tyrone Power, but Mr. Ford remembered the test vividly a year later when he was casting "Mister Roberts."

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