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The Lemmon Syndorme : Oscar-Winning Actor Returns To Farce in An HBO movie

February 23, 1992|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A funny thing happened to Jack Lemmon late last summer.

The two-time Oscar-winner ("Mister Roberts" and "Save the Tiger") was in New York filming the movie version of David Mamet's acclaimed Broadway play "Glengarry Glen Ross" when he received a call from his agent. Lemmon was informed he was needed for re-shoots on HBO's Saturday night comedy "For Richer, For Poorer."

Even after working 37 years in film, Lemmon was surprised by the news. "I couldn't figure out what happened. We shot the movie. Everything went well. I saw the rough cut and it looked pretty good to me, and then I get a call and they want me to do some added scenes. I said, Added scenes? "

Frequently, Lemmon said, when a movie runs into a problem during production, rewrites are in order. But his agent said this was not a case of rewrites. "Then I remember what happened," Lemmon said. "In the very original script there was another character. It was then cut out. They thought we didn't need this character. When they put it all together they said, 'You know, it would be better with the other character.' "

Written by Stan Daniels ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Taxi"), "For Richer, For Poorer" finds Lemmon playing Aram Katourian, a charming Armenian who has it all: a chain of successful grocery stores, a Beverly Hills mansion, a beautiful wife (Talia Shire), an equally beautiful mistress (Joanna Gleason) and a wonderful college-educated son (Jonathan Silverman).

But Aram is bored and unchallenged with his job. His wife refuses to make love. And his son prefers to play tennis rather than begin a career. In order to restore passion to his life and marriage and to force his son to pick a career, Aram decides to liquidate his business and start all over again.

Madeline Kahn plays the new character, a homeless woman who befriends Aram after preventing him from committing suicide. "Everything is in flashback now," Lemmon said. "It is not only fun because she is a total delight, but it pulls the whole thing together."

Lemmon, 67, said it was weird to step back into Aram's shoes nearly six months after he completed the movie.

"I told them, 'God, get me a cassette right away. (The character) is all gone. It is out of my mind.' So I ran it before (the re-shoots).

"Fortunately it didn't make me throw up at all because a lot of times I look at something I have done, and I am not kidding, I will look at it and say, 'What the hell was I doing? Why did I do it that way?' But I kind of liked it. I had a little time before we had to do (the re-shoots). It was all there in the original. We just put back original scenes that we never shot."

Lemmon is happy with the results: "To tell you the truth, (HBO) would have great trouble getting me to sit here doing interviews if I thought it was a bomb." He was sitting in his Beverly Hills office, where Kirk Douglas has a spot down the hall.

Jonathan Silverman, Lemmon's "For Richer, for Poorer" co-star, said Lemmon is a nice, regular guy--much like those he has played on the screen since making his film debut in 1954's comedy "It Should Happen to You."

"We played softball against each other in the Broadway Show League," Silverman said. "I was doing 'Broadway Bound' and Jack was doing 'Long Day's Journey (Into Night).' He is a terrific second baseman."

The first time they actually engaged in "deep conversation" was over lunch before production began. "I was terribly nervous at that point," Silverman said. But he quickly discovered Lemmon "is a human being and a nice person. He is a lovely, lovely person. His energy never stops. His mind never stops working. For awhile I was on my guard, but he brought out some wonderful things (in me) and was encouraging."

Lemmon, who was the 1988 recipient of the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award, has had two distinct movie careers.

During the 1950s and '60s, he was primarily known as one of the best movie clowns around, starring in such comedies as "Mister Roberts," "Some Like It Hot," "Operation Mad Ball," "The Apartment," "The Odd Couple" and "The Fortune Cookie."

But after winning the best actor Oscar in 1973's melodrama "Save the Tiger," the bulk of Lemmon's film and TV work has consisted of such dramatic fare as "JFK," "Missing," "The China Syndrome," "Dad," "The Murder of Mary Phagan, "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "Glengarry," which is due for release this fall.

"For Richer, For Poorer" marks the first time since 1986's "That's Life" that Lemmon has exercised his comedic muscles. He said it was easy to return to farce after a long absence.

"Several times in my career, I have literally waited over a year and not worked because I am waiting for something specific," he said. "You really begin to think, 'Have I forgotten how to act? Will I be able to act? Is it gone?' But the minute you start again, it is there."

The thought reminded Lemmon of a story about his late mother.

"Have you got an hour?" Lemmon said, laughing, as he began to recount the tale.

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