Jack Lemmon, who brought a jittery intensity to his roles as finicky Felix Unger in “The Odd Couple,” the boastful Ensign Pulver in “Mr. Roberts” and a cross-dressing musician in “Some Like It Hot,” has died. He was 76.
The two-time Oscar winner died at a hospital Wednesday night from complications related to cancer, spokesman Warren Cowan said.
Lemmon’s talents were so broad that of his seven lead-actor Oscar nominations, five were for dramas and two were for comedies.
Among his dramatic roles were the violently thirsty alcoholic in “Days of Wine and Roses,” the aging, past-his-prime salesman driven to theft in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” and a father desperately searching for his son in “Missing.”
“What a career. What range,” said John Davis, producer of “Grumpy Old Men,” “Grumpier Old Men” and “Out to Sea,” three of Lemmon’s last pairings with Walter Matthau. “He made some of the most memorable movies of our time. Jack was always changing gears.”
Throughout his career, and especially in films with Matthau, Lemmon was often cast as the well-meaning fellow, a trifle square, who is taken advantage of or beset by disaster.
The Harvard-trained actor started in films in the mid-1950s, shooting to stardom in 1955 as the mousy Pulver in the World War II comic drama “Mr. Roberts.” The role won him a supporting-actor Oscar.
In 1962, Lemmon switched from lighthearted comedies to intense drama, earning his first Academy Award nomination as a lead actor for “Days of Wine and Roses.”
Lemmon won a best-actor Oscar for 1973 with “Save the Tiger,” in which he played a dress manufacturer whose shady dealings are at odds with the idealism of his youth.
“I seldom think that I’m up for a good role,” he said in 1975. “I nearly walked out on ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ and ‘Some Like It Hot’ because I didn’t think I could handle the demands they made upon me as an actor. But if you think I’m insecure now, you should’ve seen me when I was first breaking in.”
Off-screen, the actor seemed sad, said Don Widener, who wrote the 1975 biography “Lemmon.”
“For all his persona on screen, he was one of the saddest men I’ve known,” Widener said Thursday. “You could see it in his eyes. The face would be laughing, but his eyes were sad. I never found out why that was.”
Last year, he won an Emmy for playing a dying professor in the TV adaptation of the best seller “Tuesdays With Morrie.” Also last year, he received a Golden Globe for best actor in a TV production of “Inherit the Wind.”
“Just watching Jack Lemmon made me want to get into this business,” said Hank Azaria, a co-star in “Tuesdays With Morrie.” “He could bring grace and dignity to his work even when he was playing ungraceful, undignified people.”
Lemmon was at the center of an unusual tribute in 1998, when Ving Rhames beat him out for a Golden Globe for best actor in a TV movie or miniseries. Rhames called Lemmon up on stage and gave him the trophy.
Rhames said Thursday it was a spur-of-the-moment gesture and that he had at that time only seen a couple of Lemmon’s films.
“God laid it on my heart to give him that award. I was just the vessel to show him the love that Hollywood has for this man,” said Rhames, who later had dinner with Lemmon. “I didn’t know him well, but I really feel the influence of Jack Lemmon on my life from that little moment, that little 20 seconds we had together.”
Much of Lemmon’s best-loved work resulted from collaborations with Matthau, who died last summer, and writer-director Billy Wilder.
Lemmon first teamed with Wilder for “Some Like It Hot,” the 1959 comedy in which he and Tony Curtis played musicians who dress in drag and join an all-girl band to hide out from mobsters.
A year later, Lemmon and Wilder were back with “The Apartment,” with the actor starring as a sad-sack loser at love who falls for his boss’ mistress, an elevator girl played by Shirley MacLaine.
“Anything I could say about this great human being and artist is not enough,” MacLaine said. “We have lost the profound master of emotional canvas painting. Name the feeling, he could paint it with himself as the brush.”
Wilder and Lemmon teamed up on five other films. Among them was “The Fortune Cookie,” the actor’s first film with Matthau.
Lemmon’s prim-and-proper persona and Matthau’s slovenly grouchiness made for a combination that stood alongside Bud Abbott and Lou Costello or Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as one of the great comic buddy duos.
Among their best-loved collaborations was “The Odd Couple” in 1968, with Lemmon’s Felix a fussy contrast to Matthau’s sloppy Oscar Madison in the comedy about two divorced men sharing an apartment. Thirty years later, they reprised those roles in an unsuccessful sequel.
Lemmon and Matthau had better results with the two “Grumpy Old Men” movies in the 1990s.
John Uhler Lemmon III was born Feb. 8, 1925, in a hospital elevator in Newton, Mass. He had a case of jaundice, prompting a nurse to comment, “My, look at the little yellow Lemmon.”
His father owned a bakery business, and he was brought up in comfortable circumstances. He made his acting debut at 4 in an amateur play. He also taught himself to play piano.
Lemmon was a sickly boy who required 13 operations before he was 13. To build himself up, he trained in the gym at Andover prep school and became a fleet runner.
When he returned from Navy service as an ensign in World War II, Lemmon told his father he wanted to act, saying, “I’ll have to try it or all my life I’ll wonder.”
With $300 from his father, Lemmon moved to New York, landing roles on radio, television and Broadway. When Lemmon got to Hollywood, studio boss Harry Cohn insisted on changing the actor’s name, arguing that critics would use it as a weapon by declaring him and his movie lemons. Lemmon stood his ground.
Lemmon returned to Broadway in 1985 for a well-received revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and had cameo roles in recent years in such movies as “JFK” and “The Player.”
Lemmon was married from 1950 to 1956 to actress Cynthia Stone, and they had a son, Chris. In 1962, he married actress Felicia Farr, with whom he had a daughter, Courtney.
Besides his wife and children, Lemmon is survived by a granddaughter and two grandsons. A private funeral is planned.