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Obituaries

Jack Lemmon, Everyman Star, Dies

Acting: From 'Mr. Roberts' to 'Missing,' he excelled in both comedy and drama.

June 29, 2001|GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jack Lemmon, whose gift for broad physical comedy and soul-searching drama made him one of Hollywood's most beloved and accomplished actors, has died. He was 76.

Lemmon died about 9 p.m. Wednesday at USC/Norris Cancer Center with his wife, actress Felicia Farr, two children and a stepdaughter at his bedside. The cause of death was complications from cancer, his longtime publicist Warren Cowan announced.

The two-time Academy Award winner, whose acting honors included two Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe and two Tony nominations, had been in failing health for some time.

For many, Lemmon was best known for his films with longtime foil Walter Matthau, including "The Odd Couple," "The Fortune Cookie" and "The Front Page."

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 30, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Jack Lemmon obituary--Friday's obituary of actor Jack Lemmon gave an incorrect name for the nonprofit organization designated by his family for donations. It is the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"He was a wonderful guy," said legendary film director Billy Wilder, whose seven films with Lemmon included the classic "Some Like It Hot."

"I loved him dearly," Wilder said, "and he was the best actor I ever worked with."

The impish son of a doughnut company executive, Lemmon first made his mark in comedy, starring in films by some of the masters of that genre. But during a career that spanned more than 50 films, Lemmon garnered as many Oscar nominations--eight--as Marlon Brando, considered by many the leading American actor of his generation.

And as one of the most versatile actors in motion pictures, the Broadway-trained Lemmon was the first actor to win Academy Awards for both best supporting actor, for the 1955 comedy "Mister Roberts," and best actor, for the 1973 drama "Save the Tiger."

"He was that rare combination of a true movie star in the old-fashioned sense and also a guy from Boston, your next-door neighbor," said "On Golden Pond" author Ernest Thompson, who also wrote "A Sense of Humor," in which Lemmon appeared at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre in the mid-1980s. "There wasn't a lot of pretense," Thompson said.

Added William Friedkin, who directed Lemmon in the 1997 television remake of "12 Angry Men": "All I can tell you is that anyone who ever worked with Jack feels the same way. It has been a privilege to have had Jack in your life."

For his part, Lemmon, though proud of his work, often gave much of the credit for his success to fate.

"My career has been full of remarkable coincidences that have nothing to do with me," the characteristically humble actor said when he received the American Film Institute's 16th Life Achievement Award in 1988.

From the opportunistic Ensign Pulver in "Mister Roberts," to Tony Curtis' sidekick in "Some Like It Hot," to the baleful C.C. "Bud" Baxter in the romantic comedy "The Apartment," Lemmon in just the span of 1955 to 1960 established himself as one of America's top comic actors.

Indeed, the three roles earned him Academy Award nominations and he won an Oscar for "Mister Roberts."

Comic Actor Turns to Drama

Over time, the Everyman qualities that guided him in comedies enabled Lemmon to deliver one searing dramatic performance after another.

In 1962, he and actress Lee Remick offered a devastating depiction of alcoholism as a couple whose addictions destroy their marriage in "Days of Wine and Roses," for which he received an Oscar nomination.

A decade later, in "Save the Tiger," Lemmon epitomized the confusion and disillusionment of the 1970s with his portrayal of Harry Stoner, a Los Angeles garment manufacturer in the throes of a breakdown.

And in many subsequent roles--the nuclear power plant official in "The China Syndrome," the father searching in Chile for the truth about his son's disappearance in "Missing," both Oscar-nominated performances, the conniving real estate salesman in the movie of David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "Glengarry Glen Ross"--Lemmon played ordinary characters confronting extraordinary events.

"From his comic turns in 'Mister Roberts' and 'Some Like It Hot' to his flawed characters in 'Save the Tiger' and 'Days of Wine and Roses' to his suddenly politicized common men in 'Missing' and 'The China Syndrome,' Mr. Lemmon has sent one consistent message to his audiences, 'This could be you,' " Samuel G. Freedman wrote years ago in the New York Times.

Or as Lemmon said in a 1980 interview, "I've never had to dodge that particular bullet of having to do [comedy or drama]. . . . I've been able to do both and sometimes both at once."

George Stevens Jr., founder of the American Film Institute, said Thursday that "when you look at [Lemmon's] career, there is a surprising diversity."

On a set or on stage, the actor always seemed to treat his craft with a mix of workmanlike professionalism and awe.

Before he shot a scene, Stevens recalled, Lemmon would say, "It's magic time."

"He would say it very quietly," Stevens said. "It was just a little tradition of his."

Born two months prematurely on Feb. 8, 1925, in an elevator at Boston's Newton-Wellesley Hospital, John Uhler Lemmon III was the only child of John Uhler Lemmon Jr., vice president of the Doughnut Corp. of America, and Mildred LaRue Noel Lemmon.

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