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A man 'passionate' about acting

Actor Jack Lemmon dead at 76


LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Two-time Oscar winner Jack Lemmon, a versatile actor who starred in films that ranged from intense dramas to screwball comedies, died Wednesday night at age 76.

In an acting career that spanned more than 50 years, Lemmon played memorable roles in beloved films.

He was the neat, fastidious Felix Unger in the movie version of Neil Simon's play "The Odd Couple" in 1968, one of eight films he made with actor Walter Matthau.

And Lemmon -- who happened to be an accomplished pianist -- played one of two musicians who hid out from mobsters dressed as women in director Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot" in 1959, which also starred Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis.

CNN's Paul Vercammen has a look back at the career of Jack Lemmon (June 28)

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Jack Lemmon

Born: February 8, 1925, in an elevator in Boston, Massachusetts

Education: Graduated from Harvard with degree in War Service Sciences


• Oscar: Won two Oscars, for best supporting actor in "Mister Roberts" (1955) and best actor in "Save the Tiger" (1973). He was nominated eight times
• Emmy: Won for lead actor in miniseries/movie for "Tuesdays with Morrie" (1999). He was nominated four times
• Other: Two-time best actor winner at Cannes; American Film Institute Life Achievement Award; nominated for 19 Golden Globes (won five)


• First film: "It Should Happen To You" (1954)
• Last film: Voice-over on "The Legend of Bagger Vance" (2000)
• Directed one film: "Kotch" (1971)
• Performed harmonica theme for "Fire Down Below" (1957)

Lemmon won Oscars for best actor in the 1973 film "Save the Tiger," in which he portrayed a desperate businessman, and best supporting actor for 1955's "Mister Roberts," in which he portrayed the comical Ensign Pulver. Overall, he was nominated for eight Academy Awards. His other six nominations were for "Some Like It Hot," "The Apartment" (1960) "Days of Wine and Roses" (1962), "The China Syndrome" (1979), "Tribute" (1980) and "Missing" (1982).

He also won the Cannes Film Festival's best actor award for "The China Syndrome" and "Missing." In 1988, he received the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award.

"He was an absolutely beautiful person," said Lemmon spokesman Warren Cowan. "Everybody who knew him said that."

Billy Wilder has been quoted as saying: "Happiness is working with Jack Lemmon."

Lemmon once said he picked scripts that made him happy as well.

"You can get material that has a point of view, like a 'Missing' or a 'China Syndrome' or 'Wine and Roses,' whatever it might be, 'Save the Tiger.' You don't have to agree with the point of view that the author had, but if it makes you think, then it has moved you, and made you do something you wouldn't do if you had not seen it," Lemmon said.

Cowan said Lemmon passed away at 9:11 p.m. Wednesday (12:11 a.m. Thursday EDT) in USC/Norris Cancer Center with his wife, Felicia Farr, his son, Chris, his daughter, Courtney, and a stepdaughter at his bedside. Cowan said funeral arrangements have not been made, but he added any services will be private.

Going to the top

Born in an elevator in Boston on February 8, 1925, John Uhler Lemmon III grew up in comfortable circumstances. His father, who did not approve of acting as a career, was president of a doughnut company.

Lemmon attended prep schools and graduated from Harvard University with a degree in War Service Sciences, but also was a member of the drama club. He later served as an ensign in the U.S. Navy.

On his way to Hollywood, Lemmon worked in radio, theater and television.

His movie debut was in 1954 with Judy Holliday in "It Should Happen To You" and was a popular mainstay on the American screen from then on, a perfect fit for a wide range of parts, from serious roles such as "Missing" and "The China Syndrome" to comedy such as "The Odd Couple" and "Grumpy Old Men."

"I think whatever you do, if you are going to do it well or even if you don't do it well, you have to have a passion for it, and I am passionate about it. I love it. I respect it and it gets me. I get off on acting," Lemmon once said.

He tried his hand at directing with "Kotch" in 1971. He admitted to once having a drinking problem, a reason why he looked back on his performance as Harry Stoner in "Save the Tiger" as one of the most gratifying, emotionally fulfilling performances of his career.

Lemmon is best known by many for his eight films with Matthau. Though they were the closest of friends offscreen, they were constantly at odds in their films. Matthau died July 1, 2000.

They include: "The Fortune Cookie" in 1966, "The Odd Couple" in 1968, "The Front Page" in 1974, "Buddy, Buddy" in 1981, "Grumpy Old Men" in 1993, "Grumpier Old Men" in 1995, "Out To Sea" in 1997, and "The Odd Couple II" in 1998.

"Where Walter was irascible and funny and mean and challenging, Jack was just always laughing at Walter's jokes and being sweet and lovable," producer John Davis, who worked with Matthau and Lemmon in "Grumpy Old Men" and other films, told The Associated Press.

Taking risks

The Internet Movie Database biography of Lemmon said that "at a time when other actors might play it safe, Lemmon, in his 50s and 60s, took more risks than ever" on stage and screen.

Along with his performances in "The China Syndrome," "Tribute" and "Missing," he "headlined an impressive Broadway production of Eugene O'Neill's 'Long Day's Journey Into Night,' took an intriguing cameo part in Oliver Stone's 'JFK' in 1991 and got some of the best reviews of his career for a powerhouse performance in "Glengarry Glen Ross' in 1992," the Internet Movie Database said.

Lemmon was probably happiest when working. Off-screen, the actor seemed sad, says Don Widener, who penned the 1975 biography "Lemmon."

"For all his persona on screen, he was one of the saddest men I've known," Widener told the AP in an interview 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."

But he was beloved by many in Hollywood, and received the respect of younger actors. At the 1998 Golden Globes, Ving Rhames, who had just won best actor in a TV movie for "Don King: Only In America," called Lemmon -- who was also nominated in the category for "Twelve Angry Men" -- to the stage, gave him a hug and handed him the award.

"I feel that being an artist is about giving, and I'd like to give this to you, Mr. Jack Lemmon," a tearful Rhames said at the time.

A surprised Lemmon responded: "This is one of the nicest, sweetest moments I've ever known in my life."

• E! Online - Fact Sheet - Jack Lemmon
• MGM - Jack Lemmon

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