"Happiness," said the acclaimed movie director Billy Wilder, " is working with Jack Lemmon." For people around the world, happiness is simply seeing a Jack Lemmon film. For five decades Lemmon was one of the hardest-working, best-liked, most-rewarded stars of Hollywood. He was a hit with audiences with his very first film (1954's It Should Happen to You). He won his first Oscar for best supporting actor one year later (Mr. Roberts). With a string of wildly successful comedies, he became a top box office attraction in the '60s. He won a best actor Oscar in 1973 for Save the Tiger, thus becoming the first performer to receive the Academy Award in both categories. By the early '80s he had been nominated a staggering eight times.
This is remarkable longevity for a career equally divided between endearing comedic roles and dramatic portrayals of men who are inadequate, desperate failures. The film critic Judith Crist said: "As Chaplin's clown in his time embodied the commonality of the common man, so Lemmon's everyman has provided the empathetic symbol for the mid-twentieth century man. Whether he's the smooth operator or the schnook, the crafty conniver or the victim thereof; whether he's out for the laughter or tearing at the heart--he's one of us, the all too human people in the middle who get it from top and bottom alike." As such, Lemmon became the clown for our Age of Anxiety. "A prototypical American," the great screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond called him. "When he gets into trouble, people root for him to straighten out because of their tremendous identification with him."
The only child of a president of a doughnut company and a socialite, Lemmon never planned to become an actor. "I always was an actor," Lemmon explained, "so how could I ever decide to become one?"
His acting debut, in fact, came at age four when his father volunteered him for an amateur stage production of Thar's Gold in Them Thar Hills. After his unqualified personal triumph, young Jack got hooked. A number of select New England schools paved the way to Harvard. He was a poor student in most subjects. "The only reason I know French is because I flunked the course so many times that it sunk in by osmosis," Lemmon admited. He did very well, however, in music and dramatics and this talent led to his becoming president of the famous Hasty Pudding Club, acting in drag and writing songs for its annual shows. In '46 he interrupted his education to serve a three-month hitch in the Navy as an ensign aboard the aircraft carrier.
After graduating from Harvard he left for New York City with $300 which he borrowed from his father. While living in a five-dollar-a-week room over a delicatessen, he studied acting with Uta Hagen and played the piano in a beer hall. His first acting break came with a radio soap opera, "The Brighter Day." From there he got jobs in the burgeoning television industry. In three years he notched 500 live shows on such prestigious dramatic programs as "Studio One," "Kraft Theater," and "Robert Montgomery Presents."
With the experience of radio, TV, and some summer stock, Lemmon at long last was ready for Broadway, making his debut in a revival of Room Service. The production was a complete flop, but provided a showcase for Lemmon to be noticed by a number of Hollywood scouts, and by 1953 he was off to Hollywood with a Columbia Pictures contract to star opposite Judy Holliday in It Should Happen to You, directed by George Cukor and written by Garson Kanin. The film was a great success. His second, a Betty Grable musical called Three for the Show, was not. But after two more films, Lemmon played Ensign Pulver to Henry Fonda's Mr. Roberts and became and Academy Award-winning star.
Lemmon's advice to young actors was to work with the most talented people you can, every chance you get. Lemmon applied this wisdom to his own career and worked with some of his favorite collaborators as often as he could. With Billy Wilder he made Some Like It Hot in 1959, The Apartment in 1960, Irma La Douce in 1963, and The Fortune Cookie in 1966. The latter introduced the brilliant Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau partnership which would also be seen in The Odd Couple (1968), and The Front Page (1974) and Buddy, Buddy (1981), both also directed by Wilder. Matthau once described Lemmon as having "quiet hysteria seeping out of every pore," which made him the ideal interpreter of Neil Simon, another ongoing collaboration that began with The Odd Couple and continued with The Out-of-Towners (1970), and The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975). He also had the good fortune to appear opposite some of the movies' most popular actresses, including Kim Novak (Bell, Book, and Candle and The Notorious Landlady), Janet Leigh (My Sister Eileen), Rita Hayworth (Fire Down Below), Marilyn Monroe (Some Like It Hot), Doris Day (It Happened to Jane), Shirley McLaine (The Apartment and Irma la Douce), Romy Schneider (Good Neighbor Sam), Natalie Wood (The Great Race), Virna Lisi (How to Murder Your Wife), Catherine Deneuve (The April Fools), and Julie Andrews (That's Life). And while he is perhaps most fondly remembered for his roles in romantic comedies and all-out farces, at least four of his outstanding dramatic performances form the cornerstones of his career--The Days of Wine and Roses opposite Lee Remick (1962), his Oscar-winning turn in Save the Tiger (1973), The China Syndrome opposite Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas (1979), and Missing directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras.
"Lemmon is a craftsman, devoted to his acting art, and that, I suspect, explains the surprise with which even Lemmon devotees look back at the varieties of his performances, the risks taken," said Judith Crist. And for audiences happiness is seeing a Jack Lemmon movie because, as the star himself put it: "I have never lost a total passion for my work." And it shows in every movie starring Jack Lemmon.