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THE TART TASTE OF LEMMON

FROM SEAMAN TO SALESMAN, THE ACTOR SHARES SOME ACIDIC FLASHBACKS.

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As a grumpy old ex-President in My Fellow Americans, Jack Lemmon proves that at the age of 71 he is still commander in chief of movie comedy. Moreover, as his cinematic campaigns over the past 42 years prove, the Oscar winner has quite a talent for drama as well. Here, he pauses to reflect.

— MISTER ROBERTS (1955, Warner, unrated) ”A big turning point for me. It was my fourth film, so getting that part, which any young actor in the country would have died for, was terrific, and it was terrific to work with — for — John Ford. [When Ford fell ill, Mervyn LeRoy replaced him as director, and Ford’s credit was dropped.] He was very didactic, but he was a great director. The one problem I had with him was he kept trying to build my part up more than it should have been. He shot a lot of crap that ended up on the cutting-room floor.”

— SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959, MGM/UA, unrated) ”The first preview was the worst of any film I’ve ever been in. The audience walked out in droves, with comments like ‘This is disgusting — men dressed up as women. What are they, transvestites?’ Afterward, [the producers] were trying to tell [director] Billy Wilder he had to cut the picture by 10 to 15 minutes. And Billy was just nodding and saying ‘Uh-huh…uh-huh…uh-huh.’ He cut [from] one scene. And he previewed the picture again and, my God, they were screaming and laughing and clapping. Billy just seems to have an unerring instinct that 99 percent of the time has proven to be right.”

— DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1962, Warner, unrated) ”This was my first major dramatic role in film. When I started I was worried about whether I could really play the part [of an alcoholic PR man] well. But then, it’s like stage fright. Once you get out there, all you do is play the scenes. Blake Edwards did a marvelous job directing. He had an extremely good sense of when to inject lightness or comedy into the drama, which was far more important than people realize.”

— THE ODD COUPLE (1968, Paramount, unrated) ”The definitive vehicle for Walter Matthau and myself. The reason we play off each other so well? It’s a combination of personalities and talent that we don’t have a damn thing to do with. When we rehearse a scene — which we don’t do much — it’s like sitting down and chatting at breakfast. A while ago, Neil Simon had written about a third of a sequel. Then the regime changed at Paramount. They said, ‘No, we don’t want to do it, because we’re making pictures only for people in their twenties and younger.’ Who those assholes were, I don’t know.”

— MISSING (1982, MCA/Universal, PG) ”You can just change the country, and it could happen tomorrow. One of the overriding points is that what we read in the newspaper does not necessarily tell us what’s going on with our government. Films like this, The China Syndrome, and Days of Wine and Roses go beyond entertaining, because they have a point of view and the chance to enlighten people.”

— GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (1992, LIVE, R) ”I think [screenwriter]David Mamet may be our best playwright. But also I think he is the most difficult to do correctly. If you do his lines right they sound perfectly normal. But they are the hardest to remember accurately. Every one of the ah, ooh, uh, mmphs is written, and you’d better get them right, or you’re going to blow the rhythm.”