My career has been full of remarkable coincidences that have nothing to do with me
Director Billy Wilder once said: “Happiness is working with Jack Lemmon.”
And Wilder would have known. He directed the actor a total of seven times and in some of his best films, including Some Like It Hot, which famously paired Lemmon with Tony Curtis as two musicians forced to dress as women while on the run from gangsters. Wilder’s The Apartment was another triumph for the actor and director.
Working elsewhere, Lemmon enjoyed great onscreen chemistry with Walter Matthau as badly suited flatmates in The Odd Couple (Matthau’s character a slob, Lemmon’s obsessively tidy) and again, much later in two Grumpy Old Men films.
Lemmon always claimed that he had been born in a lift – at the Ritz Carlton hotel – as his bridge-mad mum Mildred had been reluctant to finish a game until the very last moment. His dad was a salesman who rose to head the Doughnut Corporation of America and young Jack enjoyed a private education, winning a college place at Harvard.
After three years in the Navy, he took a number of jobs, including waiting tables, as a career on Broadway burgeoned and he also began to find success on radio and TV. Hi television work caught the eye of a movie director, who cast him in his first film, It Should Happen to You. There was no looking back from there.
Loved for reducing audiences to helpless fits of laughter in his comedy roles, as old age approached Lemmon increasingly appeared in more serious roles. He was an engineer in the timely nuclear power station thriller, The China Syndrome, won an Oscar for Save the Tiger and was moving both as a desperate clapped out salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross and as bereft father figures in both Missing and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts.
Hailed as one of the greatest actors of his time when he died aged 76, Lemmon said he’d been privileged to enjoy a career he’d always been passionate about.