Jack Lemmon, 1925-2001: Farewell, Ensign Pulver

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Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the 1968 movie "The Odd Couple"

Jack Lemmon's blander eulogists were calling it his "unique comedy style," but let's call it like we saw it: In the vast majority of 69 films, 23 TV appearances and a few frets upon the stage, Lemmon, who died Wednesday at 76 of complications from cancer, was pathetic — magnificently pathetic.

An insufferable nebbish. An underdog so far under, so beset with frailties, neuroses and beta-male tics he made it difficult to root for him on-screen, even on those rare occasions when he got the girl or achieved some other cinematic redemption.

He was exquisite at it. The Harvard-educated Lemmon returned from his stint as a Navy ensign in WWII and told his father he was trying acting full-time. His father loaned him $300 and Lemmon (his real name, though Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn tried to make him change it for his first Hollywood role, the lead opposite Judy Holliday in the musical comedy "It Should Happen to You.") was off.

Lemmon the successful and award-winning actor made alpha male in 1962's alcoholic drama "Days of Wine and Roses," and the performance, opposite Lee Remick as his led-down-the-drain wife, is legendary. But the man was a born foil, whose career spiked in two collaborations. One was with Billy Wilder, who directed Lemmon in "Some Like It Hot" and "The Apartment," two of the best films of the century thanks in no small part to Lemmon, and after that, "Irma La Douce," "The Fortune Cookie," "Avanti!" "The Front Page" and "Buddy Buddy."

The other was with Walter Matthau. Lemmon was his longtime buddy's Costello in 1966's "The Fortune Cookie," as the hapless cameraman trampled by a runaway football player and browbeaten into filing a false insurance claim by his ambulance-chasing brother-in-law. In 1968's "The Odd Couple," Lemmon was the surrealistically fastidious Felix Unger to Matthau's slovenly Oscar Madison — a movie whose comedic bliss is occasionally spoiled by the discomfort brought on by the sheer force of Lemmon's unrelenting loserishness. That success led the pair to a lifelong partnership that extended to co-starring in six more films (plus 1971's "Kotch," in which Lemmon directed Matthau to an Oscar nomination), a string that ended with the hits "Grumpy Old Men" and "Grumpier Old Men" and the tragically stale finale to the relationship, "The Odd Couple II."

That Lemmon took this sort of role to new, even painful heights is of course proof of his actorly genius, which certainly seemed to spring from some deep sense of haplessness in the man himself. Lemmon liked to tell the story of the night he won his first Oscar, for Best Supporting Actor as the unforgettable Ensign Pulver in 1955's "Mister Roberts":

"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 a railing," Lemmon recalled. "Only after I finished did I see a sign that said 'Fresh Paint.'"

Yet Lemmon had his "serious actor" side, which he pursued rather more hotly as his career went on. Of his seven Oscar nominations for lead actor, two were for comedies; five were for dramas.

"Save the Tiger," in which he played a dress manufacturer who lets his youthful ethics slip away, won him the Oscar for best actor of 1973. The project was rejected by studios until Paramount agreed to make it on a $1 million budget — Lemmon cut his salary to the Guild minimum of $165 a week to make the picture's ends meet.

Lemmon was the broken-willed heart of David Mamet's classic sucked-dry-salesmen ensemble talker "Glengarry Glen Ross" (a performance that not only gave the picture its due dose of pathos but inspired a "Simpsons" character, the recurring sad-sack salesman "Gil"). In his later years, television gave Lemmon his senior-circuit thespianic showcase, appearing in acclaimed versions of "Inherit the Wind" and "12 Angry Men" with George C. Scott, and winning an Emmy as the dying professor in the 2000 TV adaptation of the best seller "Tuesdays with Morrie."

By the end of his life, Lemmon became one of American cinema's grand old men, almost by default — all his first bananas had long since left us. And as those small yet bottomless eyes became beveled-off with crinkled skin, that look — plaintive, pleading, pathetic — never left them. His biographer was convinced he knew why.

"For all his persona on screen, he was one of the saddest men I've known," Don Widener, who penned the 1975 biography "Lemmon," told the Associated Press 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."

"I seldom think that I'm up for a good role," Lemmon said in a 1975 interview. "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."

One of the saddest things about Lemmon's passing now is that Matthau, who died last July 1, is not around to remind us how lucky Matthau — and the American moviegoer — was that Lemmon found the courage, so many times, to make us all wince.