When you stop to consider Jack Lemmon’s five-decade screen career, one word comes to mind: versatility. Whatever the character—hapless cross-dresser, fussy roommate, wretched alcoholic, compassionate naval officer, desperate salesman (whether live-action or animated)—Lemmon could be counted on to make them unforgettable.
Urban legend has it that Lemmon (1925–2001) was born in an elevator at the Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Massachusetts. This unusual arrival seems to complement what his son Chris Lemmon notes as his father’s “bumbling bewilderment and vulnerability.” Lemmon was a legacy at Harvard, where in 1943 he postponed his studies to enter the United States Navy. With his military service completed at the rank of Ensign, Lemmon graduated from Harvard in 1947 as president of the Hasty Pudding Club—where he may have first performed in drag! Lemmon soon moved to New York, picking up odd jobs as an actor and working as a piano player until his Broadway break in the short-lived 1953 revival of Room Service.
The 1954 comedy It Should Happen to You, costarring comedian Judy Holliday, launched Lemmon’s Hollywood screen career. He reteamed with Holliday in 1954 for Phffft!, followed by a string of memorable films such as Mister Roberts (1955) and perennial favorite Some Like It Hot (1959). Lemmon received a Best Supporting Oscar for his role in Mister Roberts, and won Best Actor in 1973 for Save the Tiger. His longtime friendship with actor Walter Matthau yielded numerous memorable onscreen partnerships, including The Fortune Cookie (1966), The Odd Couple (1968), The Front Page (1974), Buddy Buddy (1981), and Lemmon’s only directorial effort, Kotch (1971).
Organized by Anne Morra, Associate Curator, Department of Film.