Why the eight-time Oscar nominee became his era's Everyman.

By Ty Burr
Updated July 13, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Odd Couple (Movie)

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Jack Lemmon was the postwar American male — and the way he played it, it was rarely a compliment. The actor, who died at 76 of cancer, in Los Angeles on June 27 — almost a year to the day after the passing of his great screen partner Walter Matthau — was the spark of many a comedy. But even in his broadest farces he came on like a midlevel corporate manager flying apart at the seams. And in drama, Lemmon dug even deeper, nailing both white-collar insecurity and the desperate smile that barely conceals it.

In truth, the double Oscar winner was a hyper-articulate sweetie off camera. Billy Wilder, who directed Lemmon in such classics as Some Like It Hot, once said, ”I wish I could think of an adjective to show some sign of depravity, but I can’t” (coming from Wilder, that’s high praise). A Harvard-educated son of a Boston doughnut company executive, Lemmon won generations of fans, up to and including the audiences that flocked to his post-Grumpy Old Men comeback films. Here are 10 peak moments — delightful and disturbing in equal measure — to remember him by.

MISTER ROBERTS (1955) It’s not easy stealing a movie from Henry Fonda and James Cagney — especially for a guy who’d been toiling in Off Broadway, early television, and second-rate comedies at Columbia. But director John Ford insisted that Lemmon be cast as Ensign Pulver, the merry schemer among the crew of a rusty WWII supply ship, and the risk paid off with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and the anointing of a major new talent.

SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) The producers originally wanted Frank Sinatra, but now that Wilder’s film is enshrined as perhaps Hollywood’s greatest comedy, it’s clear that no one could have filled the sagging stockings of lady jazz musician Daphne — a.k.a. on-the-lam bass player Jerry — better than Lemmon. Tony Curtis may tickle the ribs with his Cary Grant impersonation, but it’s Lemmon, joyfully drag, who takes Hot out of fusty cross-dressing slapstick and into our neurotic modern age of gender confusion.

THE APARTMENT (1960) Perched on the continental divide between comedy and tragedy, Lemmon’s C.C. ”Bud” Baxter (opposite) is the role that should have won him a Best Actor Oscar (he was nominated but lost to Elmer Gantry’s Burt Lancaster). Lemmon’s corporate shnook rises through the ranks by lending his flat out for his bosses’ afternoon delight. It’s a performance that tells painful truths of our times, and Lemmon was to ring changes on it throughout his career.

DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1962) In fact, this adaptation of J.P. Miller’s teleplay could fairly have been titled Bud Baxter Falls Off the Wagon. Lemmon’s first foray into serious drama — playing an ad man who drags wife Lee Remick along with him into the pits of alcoholism — is heartbreaking stuff. And it took its toll on the actor, who went so deeply into the infamous straitjacket-detox freakout scene that director Blake Edwards had to enlist the crew’s help to snap Lemmon out of it.

The Odd Couple (Movie)

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