Jack Lemmon: 1925-2001
Whenever you heard Jack Lemmon talk about acting he would say it’s about what happens to the audience, not about what happens to the actor. He saw acting as important. He adored his craft. He called it a glorious profession. A noble profession. One which was unique in that an actor can move an audience. Can move a person. That an actor can actually change people.
And so Jack helped to change and shape me. I remember the first time we met. It was 1974. It was before a matinee performance of Juno and the Paycock, which Jack was playing with Walter Matthau and Maureen Stapleton at the Mark Taper. He talked at a seminar to a group of young acting students. I was one of them. I was 14. My dream was to be an actor. I admired Jack more than words could describe. But I was very intimidated. So following the discussion, I very nervously walked up to him and asked for his autograph and for any advice he could offer. He stood there and spoke to me directly for a few minutes.
He described how important it would be for me to train, to learn and start doing plays. To build confidence and not to get discouraged if I truly believed I was meant to be an actor. I remember the commitment he described. I recall his focus and the way he spoke to us. Kind and sincere. Authentic.
I took his advice. Eleven years later I walked into a rehearsal room in New York City and was introduced once again to Jack. It was to audition to play Jack’s son in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I was 25 years old and starting my career in the theater. I was excited and determined. We read three or four scenes together. I was relentless with him. I toppled over his lines. I drove through his pauses. He started to react and we started to play together and we both could feel it. Something started with us. Like a motor. At the end of the audition Jack walked up to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, ”I never thought I’d find the rotten kid, but you’re it.”
I got the part. Suddenly there I was, working every night with my idol. Watching him, learning from him. His example. His dedication.
From 1954 to the year 2000 Jack Lemmon acted in and/or directed some 70 pictures, from light comedies to sophisticated and controversial dramas. His searing portraits always sprung from the deepest place from which his life flowed. As [film critic] Judith Crist said, ”Whether he’s the smooth operator or the shnook, 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 the top and bottom alike.”
Who was this man who had such influence, a career that lasted through every decade, every fad, every ”new” Jack Lemmon that came along? Like the handful of great actors before him—Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, and Jimmy Stewart—he managed to make us feel that we were all him. He located the Jack Lemmon in all of us. That his concerns, his feelings, his pain, his humor, his way of seeing the world, even his hacking nasal whine, was our own.
So we identified with Uhler (his middle name). He was just like us. Except those of us in the entertainment business know he wasn’t. Jack Lemmon was unique in the world of show business. He always treated people with respect and never let Hollywood glory affect his basic decency. He challenged himself and raised the bar higher for everyone. And he was a man of his word. Many of the great, risky films he was in got made because of his word.
If every contract in Hollywood came with a “Lemmon” clause, then the measure of quality, of honesty and integrity would rise just as it did whenever Jack was in the room. So the best that those of us who knew him and admired him can do is to try to always keep a Lemmon clause in our hearts. I know I will always carry with me a little bit of Jack’s “magic time” wherever I go.
(Lemmon died of cancer in Los Angeles.)
AL PACINO REMEMBERS
Jack was the most selfless actor I’ve ever worked with. He was the most considerate and the most generous. He cared a great deal about what he was doing. He was a complete actor who gave 150 percent. But the remarkable thing about Jack was that he kept growing. So his best work was his latest work.
He achieved a simplicity and grace in his work that could only come from such devotion to his acting craft. It was because of Jack’s inordinate attention to the role in connection with himself that he achieved a kind of glorious freedom in the end. A freedom that only comes after going through all the trials and ordeals that make it possible to survive in this world as an actor.
In the end, he achieved the highest standard of acting: simplicity, utter simplicity and grace. I, for one, will miss looking forward to his next project. I will miss his ceaseless development, because you knew when you were going to see Jack’s performance, especially in the later years, it was going to bring with it his consummate knowledge, gravity, depth, and wisdom that all the years of dedication had brought him to. I certainly will miss that.
Jack was never an old actor. He was always fresh and new. That’s why it’s always a bit of a shock when someone like him leaves us. He will always be remembered, of course. But what will be missed is the newness and originality he was bringing to his roles lately. What will be missed is the direction his art was taking.
(Pacino costarred with Lemmon in 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross.)