Interview

July 10 1978

Interview

July 10 1978

Interview

Jack Lemmon

John Uhler Lemmon III was born in Boston on February 8, 1925. His father was in the bakery business, an executive of the Doughnut Corporation of America, and the family was comfortably well off. Young Jack received an Ivy League education at Phillips Andover Academy and Harvard University, where he was elected president of the Hasty Pudding Club in 1945. After graduating in 1946 Lemmon did a brief stint in the navy and then gravitated to Broadway. His acting apprenticeship was served in radio, television and summer stock. After five gruelling years Lemmon was offered a part in a movie. It was the beginning of a career which has spanned 25 years, some 35 films, and two Academy Awards. He has established himself as one of Hollywood’s most respected and durable stars.

Jack Lemmon is a far more complex man than the febrile clown he is so adept at playing on the screen and stage. At 53, his hair is grizzled but his nervous energy is undiminished. He is lean and fit, his movements lithe and feline. Behind the jester’s mask is a shrewd and sombre professional who takes his craft very seriously. In Toronto, where he played to a packed house every night for a month in a pre-Broadway run of Bernard Slade’s play Tribute (see page 33), Lemmon took time off from a hectic schedule to talk with Maclean’s contributing editor Hubert de Santana.

Maclean’s: Is it true you were born in a hospital elevator?

Lemmon: Yes. According to my mother, who always swore it.

Maclean’s: And you were born with jaundice? (A nurse is said to have exclaimed: “My, look at the little yellow Lemmon!”) Lemmon: That’s for sure. And a hernia. Oh Jesus, premature, everything. I had everything you can think of in about the first 12 years. I had three mastoid operations which at that point were serious, before penicillin. And I had my tonsils and adenoids out. I had five operations, three of which were major.

Maclean’s: Have you been in good health since?

Lemmon: Yes, it’s sort of like I built up an immunity.

Maclean’s: How do you cope in a profession that is so physically demanding?

Lemmon: When you are working hard, that’s good for you. It’s like going to the gym for 2Vi hours every night, doing the play, and it’s great. The only gauge 1 use is if I can keep my weight to what it was in my

It took about a year and a half to get anybody to do ‘Days of Wine and Roses’

20s. 1 only weighed around 143 to 145, and I weigh around 147 now.

Maclean’s: Isn 7 acting an unusual career for someone brought up in a stable and affluent family?

Lemmon: Yes, but that’s a little overblown. At that time in America there was a definite middle class in income, style of life, etc. My father was an extremely “successful” man in the sense of what we used to consider—hard work, slowly move up the ladder, and a better lifestyle reflects all this, etc. He epitomized the so-called American success story.

Maclean’s: Did he have misgivings when you announced that you wanted to be an actor?

Lemmon: He had fear about it but not mis-

givings. He would have loved it if 1 had gone into his business and started at the bottom as he did. Most fathers, if they really love the business, would love to have the son continue on.

Maclean’s: How old were you when you were bitten by the stage bug?

Lemmon: 1 was bitten at an awfully young age. As a kid in school, if 1 got an audience in a school play, fine. If not I would become a sort of raconteur and tell long stories at parties. It was my way of getting attention, and I had a flair for it.

Maclean’s: Was it easy to break into television as an actor?

Lemmon: A marvelous man called Worthington Miner was one of the television pioneers. His major accomplishment, among many, was the conception of Studio One, which really was a milestone. They were just starting a show called Shadow and Substance, and Chuck Heston got the lead. They were expanding so fast that CBS and NBC couldn’t even keep themselves in the same buildings. They had offices in Grand Central Station and everywhere. They didn’t have doors on Miner’s office as yet, so I just walked in and told him that I was just off the boat and was one of the Abbey Players from Dublin.

Maclean’s: Was he convinced by your brogue?

Lemmon: I had just done a show on TV two weeks before, on Kraft Theatre. And I was going on about the Abbey Players, and Tony Miner listened and said, “That’s just about the worst accent and the worst lie i have ever heard. Not only are you not from Ireland or the Abbey Players, but two weeks ago I saw you play this American kid on Kraft Theatre. However, if you’ve got that much chutzpah you can have the part.” It turned out to be a good part, and I worked a lot with Tony after that. Maclean’s: How did you break into films? Lemmon: They were looking for somebody to play opposite Judy Holliday in It Should Happen to Tom—this was around 1953—and I had just done a TV show called Robert Montgomery Presents..., and a fellow named Max Arnow, on the West Coast, saw a delayed kinescope a couple of weeks later in California and said, “Hey, this kid may be good for the Judy Holliday film.” Meanwhile I was just opening in a Broadway revival of an old farce called Room Service. So they had a couple of people from Columbia Pictures in New York come to see me.

Maclean’s: I take it their report was favorable.

Lemmon: They made me an offer to come out and do a test. Well, because it was Judy Holliday, and the part was marvelous, and it would be directed by George Cukor— whom I’d always heard was a marvelous actors’ director, and that interested me— we worked out a sort of preliminary thing. If they liked the test and I wanted to do the film, I wouldn’t have to sign one of those standard seven-year contracts.

Maclean’s: Did they agree?

Lemmon: They agreed, and when I did the test I got the part. It was such a marvelous experience that I just fell in love with film. I think it’s an incredible medium. With every film I do, I fall more in love with film. Maclean’s: How do you approach a role? Lemmon: That’s the most exciting part of it. It is a delicious hell; it’s what basically an actor is there for. I’ll make an analogy. Billy Wilder, who both writes and directs, once said that when he has completed the final draft of the script, he feels that 85 per cent of the film is already done, before he has shot a foot of film, or hired anyone. Maclean’s: So the search for a character is the most important part of an actor’s performance?

Lemmon: I think 80 per cent of your performance has already been given before the curtain ever goes up, if you have found the character—the search and the working and the honing and then finally reaching a point where you can play it. The last part, actual performance, is just the final step. Maclean’s: You have done some of your best work for Billy Wilder. Do you have a special rapport with him?

Lemmon: Yes. There’s some kind of a wavelength that we’re both on. We don’t think alike, necessarily, but there is a love and a respect there and we communicate very clearly. I’ve been close to Billy now almost 20 years, and I cannot remember 30 seconds that were dull.

Maclean’s: Do you do a lot of background research before tackling a part? For instance, did you investigate the red-light districts of Paris before doing Irma La Douce in 1963?

Lemmon: We did, just for fun. Shirley MacLaine and I went to a whorehouse one night in Paris, and it was hysterical. They had about 30 or 40 girls running in and out like hot and cold running water. None of them spoke any English except for the madam, who spoke a little broken English. She says, “I bring you in a beautiful, wonderful, sweet girl,” and she brings in this little Marie, who’s in her mid-20s, a pretty girl. Shirley would say, “What is your overall attitude? Do you have a lover yourself?” And she would say, “Mais oui”—all this would be translated. Now 15 seconds after she sat down you would hear a voice holler: “Ma-rieee!” And she’d say, “Pardon, un moment,” and off she’d go, and we’d wait. About a minute and a half later, she was back. “Pardon, now where were we?” About 30 or 40 seconds into the next answer, “Ma-rieee!” All night long Marie just disappeared. Now it turns out that Marie’s pride was being the fastest. I mean, she could get rid of a customer—he would be over, done, out and ready for a stretcher—in about 60 seconds.

Maclean’s: What sort of research did you do for the role of the alcoholic in Days of Wine and Roses?

I’ve never worked with anybody, male or female, that I did not get along with

Lemmon: I went to drunk tanks for several nights; I went to AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings, and for some peculiar reason they greeted me with open arms, I don’t know why! I got several of the ideas which we used in the film—the dry-out table where you’re strapped down—from seeing those poor bastards strapped down and raving insanely. Oh God, it’s the most depressing thing in the world.

Maclean’s: Did you have trouble persuading the movie moguls to let you make such a radical departure from comedy?

Lemmon: After Mister Roberts, which was my third or fourth film, and was such a big success, 99 out of 100 scripts that came to me were comedies, and it’s understandable. It took me about a year and a half to get anybody to do that damned thing [Days of Wine and Roses], They’d keep saying, “Do any comedy you want; but don’t do this downbeat thing. Stop trying to play Pagliacci; do what you do best.” And finally Jack Warner said, “OK, so long as you put a happy ending on it.” We said, “Oh, sure, don’t worry, they’ll get together at the end.” We had no intention of ever doing it, and we didn’t. But by that time Warner liked the film, and was smart enough not to push for a happy ending. Maclean’s: Are you bothered by the limitations of stardom?

Lemmon: 1 had no idea that this kind of success breeds unemployment. You put yourself out of work because you have to become extremely selective, and you can’t do what I’ve always loved, and that is just play a part—five lines one week, 100 lines the next, Hamlet one time, the page boy the next. You end up doing 1 Vi performances a year, and you go bananas, not only with the inactivity, but with the fact that you are continuing to grow older and you don’t feel that you’re developing as fast as you should because you’re not working, period. It’s like an athlete being told he can’t go to the gym and work out. Maclean’s: Let’s talk about some of the people who have costarred with you. Lemmon: 1 truthfully have been very lucky; I have not worked with anybody, male or female, that I did not get along with very well. I also will admit there’s times when I’ve gone out of my way a little to make sure that happens, for the simple reason that I think that it is more important to make sure that the picture is going to be as good as possible. So I am very easy to get along with. I have been fortunate to work with some of the great, great people, starting off with Judy Holliday and Marilyn Monroe, who I found unique, and Shirley Mac Laine and Anne Bancroft-there is no better actress. Christ, in my third or fourth picture I’ve got Fonda, Cagney, and Bill Powell. And Ward Bond is the next character man, who’s done 150 films. That’s just incredible. And John Ford directing. And George Cukorjust before that.

Maclean’s: What do you think of Walter Matthau as an actor?

Lemmon: Matthau is the best actor that Fve ever worked with, in my opinion. He’s my closest friend. He. Billy [Wilder] and a handful of others.

Maclean’s: Do you like to direct? Lemmon: Yes. I love it. For two reasons. There’s no question that to yourself, to your ego, there’s an incredible satisfaction that you can’t get as an actor, of really being in creative control. You’re shaping it. The marvelous process afterwards, the editing, the scoring and everything, is just fascinating to me, absolutely fascinating. The second reason is that as an actor it can help you a great deal, because there’s no way you can overdo the simple tenet of trying to carry out the author’s intent. Maclean’s: How would you define the functions of the actor and the director? Lemmon: It all comes down to one simple thing that applies both to the actor and the director, and that is a selection. In other words, let’s say there are about 15 damned different ways that you can play this scene, and you’re going crazy. Thirteen or 14 of the 15 will be absolutely legitimate—the character could behave that way—but one of those ways is going to be much more

The Oscar? If s a pat on the fanny from the guys on the team after you get a touchdown

dramatically exciting. So it becomes a selection. What you choose to play in a scene that’ll knock them on their ass. There may be another way that is more honest; it may really be the way the character would probably behave, but it might also be duller. So you can bend it.

Maclean’s: A s an actor, do you always defer to the director’s judgment?

Lemmon: You must, otherwise you’ll end up with nothing but a hodgepodge. Maclean’s: Do English actors have any advantages over Americans?

Lemmon: I’ve always envied English actors because first of all they aren’t split by the country, Hollywood being here and New York there for Broadway and what we consider to be the cream of the theatre. They’re all together outside of London, and Larry [Olivier] can go and shoot five lines in a film or do a minor part, and then come back and be Othello that night, as the world’s greatest actor. This is perfectly accepted in England. But in our star system, it isn’t, unfortunately.

Maclean’s: What do the Academy Awards mean to you?

Lemmon: It’s the pat on the fanny from all of the guys in the team after you’ve made the touchdown. It’s a damned nice feeling. Maclean’s: Some actors, including George C. Scott and Marlon Brando, have been openly contemptuous of their Oscars. Lemmon: George’s attitude or Marlon’s about the award itself, I have absolutely no quarrel with, any more than they would with me, and they’re both good friends of mine. I have no quarrel with someone who says that acting should not be competition. The award may not be set up as com-

petitive, but it ends up that way. Maclean’s: Do you approve of people using the Academy A wards ceremony to make political statements?

Lemmon: No. For instance, when Jane Fonda got the award for Klute, she was personally at a height of controversy about different things. When she received it, she more or less said, as I remember, “This is not the time or the place to make any other statements except my appreciation, etc.” And I admire her so damned much, because she really felt very deeply about a lot of things, and she had an open platform, but she had the taste not to do it. Maclean’s: Are you politically active? Lemmon: I don’t feel that I am overly knowledgeable politically. Basically I am a Democrat and 1 have supported Democrats in recent years, but I have never been gung ho because I don’t feel I know that much to influence somebody else’s vote. Maclean’s: What are the issues on which you do feel strongly?

Lemmon: Anything on ecology, and I scream. I go like gang busters on ecology, because there I feel that I don’t have to be a scientist to tell you that there is a danger in overdeveloping nuclear energy before we really know what the hell we’re doing, or that there is a danger in the pollution count on any of 15 other major levels.

Maclean’s: How do you relax?

Lemmon: I find the piano a great outlet; sitting playing and composing for my own amusement, really. The song that I play in Tribute is one which I wrote, and I kept it deliberately simple. Alan Jay Lerner called me up; He’s fallen in love with it and written a lyric to it. I almost fell over! Maclean’s: You are reputed to be a very good pool player.

Lemmon: Pool I love, except when I’m playing with Peter Falk, who’s deadly. Deadly.

Maclean’s: Your latest film, due for release in the fall, is called Power, and stars Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas. What is it about?

Lemmon: It is not a so-called “message picture” at all. The marvelous thing is that it’s an exciting, bloody dramatic story about suppression of news. She [Fonda] is a member of a news team which gets a story on a malfunction in a nuclear reactor. The people who are running the reactor don’t want the story out. I play the guy who’s running the plant, who’s devoted his life to nuclear energy and believes totally and completely in it. It’s one of the best parts I’ve had in years.

Maclean’s: What will you do after Tribute has finished its run on Broadway?

Lemmon: This is all assumption; but assuming the play works, and is well received and so forth. I’ll play it a minimum of five months. Then I’d want to take a rest, a trip or something, and then do a movie, and then maybe play it [Tribute] in L.A. for a couple of months. I’d love that. Then sometime after that I’d like to pay it in London or Dublin. That'd be great^