“You know, I used to live like Robinson Crusoe; I mean, shipwrecked among eight million people. And then, one day, I saw a footprint in the sand, and there you were. “ –Jack Lemmon, The Apartment
Some actors are brilliant in comedies alone. Other actors are definitively dramatic. And then there’s Jack Lemmon.
As an actor, Lemmon brought a quirky charm to each of his films—a charm that was completely unique to his onscreen image. What’s more, his range of roles was nothing short of immense. With the magic of a Billy Wilder script, Lemmon could break hearts with the lonely woes of C.C. Baxter in The Apartment, then be the primary cause of sidesplitting laughter with the likes of Some Like it Hot.
Though his versatility as an actor was remarkable, I constantly remind myself that for every incredible talent we see an actor project on screen, there are usually a few other talents at work at the same time. Though Lemmon certainly made his mark as an actor, music was the one thing that remained constant in his life.
This hometown visit is a little different from the others, because I can’t point you to a quiet home as Lemmon’s birthplace. True to his peculiar form, Lemmon was actually born in an elevator at the Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Newton, Massachusetts, which is a suburb of Boston. As the story goes, the elevator was, naturally, going down. In the chaos of the moment, Jack’s mother told her husband, “That’s it! Never again!”
Did I mention Jack was an only child?
Jack’s parents were Mildred Burgess LaRue, and John Uhler Lemmon, Jr., who worked as an executive in a bakery company—the Donut Corporation of America. But there was never any pressure to enter the family business. Jack knew he wanted to be an actor since he was eight years old, specifically on the stage. Prior to this epiphany that he wanted to pursue acting, Jack was often teased on the playground, since his middle name was Uhler, which prompted kids to shout, “Jack, U Lemmon!” Even on the day he was born, Jack entered the world with a case of jaundice, causing the nurse to say, “What a yellow Lemmon.” But participating in a school play gave him a refreshing feeling of acceptance from his peers, to the point of them asking him to tell them more stories for their amusement. As a result, Jack would make up tall tales between classes, and his fellow students would gather around his desk to listen to him. By the time he reached his teens, he knew that he loved to entertain an audience, and could do so with ease.
But theatrical and film roles did not happen right away for young Jack. He was a sickly boy who required thirteen operations before he even turned thirteen. Some credit those experiences as the cause of his unusual posture in his films. To build himself up, he trained at the gym at Andover prep school and became a fleet runner. Then, he attended Harvard University, where his grades were modest in every subject, save for drama. After attending Harvard and being an active member of its many drama clubs, Lemmon joined the Navy, receiving V-12 training, and serving as an ensign. Upon being discharged, he took up acting professionally, working on radio, television and Broadway.
Before he left for New York to try and find an agent and begin auditioning for roles, Jack borrowed a few hundred dollars from his father. According to an interview by Ability Magazine, the exchange went something like this:
“You really want to give this a shot, huh?”
To which Jack replied, “Yeah, I’ve got to find out. Otherwise I’ll never really know whether I could have done it or not.”
“You’ve done similar stuff, and you’ve done enough to know that you love it?”
“I love it.”
“Great. Because the day I don’t find romance in a loaf of bread, I’m going to quit.”
What a marvelous line.
At this point, Jack’s love for music really came into play. Since he was a child, Jack loved to play the piano, and learned how to play it on his own. In addition, he could also play the harmonica, guitar, organ, and double bass. Jack’s first job in New York was playing piano in a club run by another Harvard graduate.
In a 1993 interview, Jack recounted:
“I used to play at the Old Knick Music Hall on Second Avenue in New York, way back in the ‘40s when I first started. Some weeks, we didn’t get paid, because there wouldn’t be enough people in there to give us anything. Sometimes you’d maybe get five bucks. We’d split whatever was left on Saturday night. But you got a piece of chicken and French fries every night. You got a meal. “
Finally, Jack’s first break was a role in a radio soap opera, entitled, The Brighter Day. After a few television roles, Jack starred in a Broadway revival of Room Service, but the show only ran for two weeks. However, it did land him a ticket to Hollywood. A Columbia Pictures scout recommended him for the lead role in It Should Happen to You, opposite Judy Holliday, and studio boss Harry Cohn agreed.
Jack’s comedic portrayal of a photographer received a great deal of positive criticism, which led to a host of many memorable film roles. Jack continued to act well into his later years, until his death from cancer.
Jack was not only quick to admit that acting brought him a great deal of joy, but also that his own life seemed to be a series of faux pas, such as when he won his first Oscar. He recalled:
“Naturally I was thrilled, and I arrived at the Pantages Theater in my best tuxedo. I walked up a ramp to a platform for an interview, and I leaned against the railing. Only after I finished did I see a sign that said ‘Fresh Paint.’”
But, behind the scenes, Jack’s real love was for music. It was the perfect escape from the pressures of stardom. Between takes, Jack was forever playing any piano he could find, even if the film did not call for music. Sometimes the studio would provide a piano for him, believing that a happy actor gives a happy performance. Throughout his life, Jack was simply never far from a piano.
In an interview, Jack recalled: “‘I play the piano every day. I could sit and play for an hour, and Felicia [his wife] would come in and say, ‘How long are we going to hold dinner?’ And I’d say, ‘Well I’ve been here five minutes.’ And she’ll say, ‘Five minutes? It’s been an hour and a half.’”
On occasion, this knack for music can be glimpsed in some of his films. In It Should Happen to You, Lemmon and Holliday sing part of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s “Let’s Fall in Love” with Lemmon at the piano. In another instance, Lemmon and Betty Grable sing “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” by George and Ira Gershwin—the former being Lemmon’s favorite composer—in the1955 film Three for the Show.
In 1958, Lemmon recorded an album while filming Some Like it Hot. Twelve jazz tracks were created for Lemmon and another twelve were added. Lemmon played the piano and recorded his own renditions of some of the songs Marilyn Monroe sang in the film. The album was released in 1959 as Some Like it Hot/A Twist of Lemmon.
Although Lemmon had to leave his hometown of Newton, Massachusetts to begin to further his career, he remembered his home and childhood with and almost Norman Rockwell-esque nostalgia. Lemmon vividly recalled the addresses of his early years at Bartlett Terrace, his home in the 1940s at 3 Ivanhoe Street, and a residence on Waverly Street. He happily remembered being able to jump on his bike and go just about anywhere he wanted. He lived very close to Ward Elementary School, the school he attended as a young boy, which was just a ten-minute walk through a couple of fields.
The Newton Free Library’s special collections files indicate that after Jack attended the Ward Elementary School, he then studied at the Rivers Country Day School at the age of nine. The Rivers School is a private school that was located in Brookline at the time, but is now in Weston. Finally, he attended high school at Phillips Andover Academy, a boarding school, before enrolling at Harvard.
While some interviews with Jack state that the Newton-Wellesley Hospital placed a plaque next to the elevator in which Jack was born, unfortunately, no such plaque exists today.
Looking back at Jack’s own life, it almost reads as a culmination of the many characters he portrayed. His drive, ambition, humble nature, and beginnings in a small town make him incredibly human and relatable. And yet, there is a touch of comedy sprinkled throughout his life. From being born in an elevator on his mother’s routine trip to a doctor’s appointment, to getting fresh paint on his suit at the Oscars, Jack positively dealt with just about as many mishaps as the next person, if not more so.
After all, nobody’s perfect.