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Oscar winner Jack Lemmon dead at 76

Career spanned 50 years, more than 50 films

Jack Lemmon, a fearless actor who mixed film, stage and TV work ranging from high drama to low comedy, died Wednesday. He was 76.

He had been suffering from cancer.

Lemmon won two Oscars, appearing in more than 50 films over a career that spanned 50 years.

From the cross-dressing musician in Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot” to the cynical apparel manufacturer in “Save the Tiger” to his final star turn in “Oprah Winfrey Presents: Tuesdays With Morrie,” Lemmon adroitly and memorably played the average American male who finds himself bemused and befuddled by life.

While his stammering and fuming sometimes threatened to become self-parody in such films as “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” and “Airport ’77” Lemmon could turn right around and deliver an unmannered performance, such as his work in the film adaptation of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” or on stage in “A Long Day’s Journey into Night.”

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He had few dry spells as a major Hollywood film actor, and he mixed his work with returns to the stage (“Long Day’s Journey,” “Tribute”) or TV, as with “Morrie” and an Emmy-nominated Americanization of John Osborne’s “The Entertainer.”

His work brought him eight Oscar nominations including two wins, five Emmy noms (including a win for “Morrie”), and other accolades such as the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award and a similar prize from the Lincoln Center Film Society.

He was a favorite of Billy Wilder, appearing in seven of the director’s films: “Some Like it Hot,” “The Apartment” (1960), “Irma La Douce” (1963), “The Fortune Cookie” (’66), “Avanti!” (’72), “The Front Page (’74) and the helmer’s final film, “Buddy Buddy” (1981).

He also worked several times with Blake Edwards (“The Days of Wine and Roses,” “The Great Race,” “That’s Life”).

And he acted with an impressively diverse list of directors, including George Cukor (“It Should Happen to You,” 1953), John Ford and Josh Logan (“Mr. Roberts,” 1955), Costa-Gavras (“Missing”), Oliver Stone (“JFK,” 1991), Robert Altman (“Short Cuts”), Kenneth Branagh (“Hamlet,” 1996) and William Friedkin (TV’s “Twelve Angry Men,” 1997), and writers such as Neil Simon, David Mamet, John Osborne, Eugene O’Neill and Shakespeare.

Privileged background

Like Gary Cooper, another actor who came to typify the typical American male, Lemmon hailed from a prosperous background and was also well educated. John Uhler Lemmon III was born Feb. 8, 1925, in Boston’s Back Bay. His father would eventually become president of the Doughnut Corp. of America.

Lemmon was educated at prestigious prep schools before going to Harvard, where he became president of its famed dramatic society, the Hasty Pudding Club.

But in 1943 his professional career as an actor was stymied when he was fired during the pre-Broadway tryout of a Bert Lahr vehicle, “Burlesque.”

During WWII, he served as an ensign in the Naval Reserve and as a communications officers on the USS Lake Champlain. Afterward, he returned to Harvard and picked up his B.A. and B.S. while working in stock in Massachusetts.

In late-1940s New York, however, his acting ambitions were roadblocked again, and Lemmon worked for a time as a piano player at the Old Knick saloon. At last, in 1947, he made his Off Broadway debut in Uta Hagen’s production of Tolstoy’s “The Power of Darkness,” billed as John Uhler.

Summer stock, radio and television (about 400 programs he once estimated) followed. He appeared in such series as “I Remember Mama,” “That Wonderful Guy” (opposite Cynthia Stone, his first wife and mother of his son, actor-director Christopher Lemmon), “The Ad-Libbers,” and as emcee on CBS’ “Toni Twin Time.” His Broadway debut in 1953 was in an ill-fated revival of “Room Service.”

Long-term contract

Max Arnow, head of talent at Columbia saw Lemmon on television in a “Robert Montgomery Presents” segment called “Dinah, Kip and Mr. Barlow” and recommended him for the lead in the Judy Holiday film “It Should Happen to You.” He got the role, a long-term contract at the studio and, almost, a name change when Columbia boss Harry Cohn wanted to redub him Jack Lennon, but that was too close to the Russian autocrat Lenin for the actor’s taste.

So Lemmon he remained, and in 1955, in the supporting role of Ensign Pulver, he picked up an Oscar for “Mr. Roberts.” Henry Fonda, who hated the film version of the play he’d starred in, said the pic’s only saving grace was Lemmon. “I had never been more impressed. Lemmon gave Pulver another dimension, something more,” Fonda related.

Lemmon also starred with Betty Grable in “Three for the Show” and again with Holiday in “Pffft.” And comedy, for better or worse, became his bailiwick, in such pics as. “My Sister Eileen,” “Operation Mad Ball,” “The Notorious Landlady” and “The Wackiest Ship in the Army.”

Fortunately, Wilder cast him back-to-back in “Some Like it Hot” and “The Apartment,” two of the director’s best films. Both brought Lemmon Oscar nominations. And the latter revealed an ability to tackle drama, which he furthered with “The Days of Wine and Roses” in 1962, which brought a fourth Oscar nomination.

A terrific partnership

But his contract at Columbia shackled him to more blah swinging-’60s comedies such as “Under the Yum Tree” and “Good Neighbor Sam” with extracurricular projects like “Irma La Douce” keeping him viable at the box office.

After pairing successfully with Holiday, Shirley MacLaine and Kim Novak, Lemmon’s next filmmate led to his most successful partnership: Walter Matthau.

Starting with “The Fortune Cookie” (which won Matthau a supporting-actor Oscar), the duo scored in the ’67 film version of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” as well as (to lesser degrees sometimes) “The Front Page,” “Buddy, Buddy,” the surprise success “Grumpy Old Men” in 1993 and its ’95 sequel “Grumpier Old Men” as well as “The Grass Harp.”

Lemmon directed Matthau in the 1971 “Kotch,” and the two appeared (in separate scenes) in 1991’s “JFK.” In 1997, they paired yet again for “Out to Sea,” plus their 11th screen pairing, the valedictory “The Odd Couple II” (’98).

Second Oscar

In 1973, Lemmon won his second Oscar, for “Save the Tiger” — becoming the second thesp (after Helen Hayes) to win in a supporting and leading role. His career, however, began to veer from being seen as the sprightly naif to the whining victim. But Lemmon took care of that with “The Entertainer” on television, for which he received an Emmy nomination, followed by “Tribute” in 1978 onstage and later screen, garnering him a Tony nomination as well as a sixth Oscar nomination.

Two additional nominated performances, for “The China Syndrome,” (1979) and “Missing” (1980), erased any boundaries that had been put on Lemmon’s career.

He was praised for his James Tyrone interp in “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” which he essayed onstage in London, Los Angeles and New York. He also did well by Mamet’s “A Life in the Theater” the variety show ” ‘S Wonderful, ‘S Marvelous, ‘S Gershwin,” both on television, and “Juno and the Paycock” (with Matthau) on the L.A. stage.

Whole-body workout

“I tried to do stage work every couple of years or so because films are seductive and you can fall into bad habits and start only working from the neck up,” Lemmon once told the Los Angeles Times.

It also brought him the strength to occasionally be better than his material in films during the ’80s like “That’s Life” and “Dad.” And he soared in Oliver Stone’s 1991 “JFK,” “Glengarry Glen Ross” and Altman’s “Short Cuts.”

By then it had became clear there was little than Lemmon couldn’t do. In 1988 the AFI recognized his achievements; soon after Lincoln Center joined in the chorus.

His most recent prestigious work was for television (including five Emmy noms all told), including “Inherit the Wind” (1999), “12 Angry Men” (1998), the aforementioned “Entertainer” (1976) and “The Murder of Mary Phagan” (1988).

Lemmon also narrated in 2000’s “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”

In 1962, after divorcing Stone, Lemmon married actress Felicia Farr by whom he had a daughter Courtney Noel.

Survivors include his wife Felicia, son Christopher and daughter Courtney.

Services were pending.

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