Jack Lemmon was more than a dad to his only son, Chris.
"He was my best friend," said Chris Lemmon, 59, an actor who appeared with his father in three films, including 1986's "That's Life!"
Five years after his beloved Pops' death in 2001 at age 76, Lemmon published a book, "A Twist of Lemmon," about their relationship.
The book tour was well received, Lemmon said, so he came up with the idea of a performance piece based on the stories in the memoir about the beloved two-time Oscar winner ("Mister Roberts," "Save the Tiger"), who starred in such classics as "Some Like It Hot," "The Apartment," "Missing" and "Short Cuts."
Though the evening of reminiscing about his dad was successful, said Lemmon, "I thought this could be more than me telling stories."
A friend, director Joel Zwick, introduced Lemmon to Hershey Felder, who has had success creating and starring in such one-man biographical shows with music as "George Gershwin Alone," which Zwick directed.
After Felder met with Lemmon and attended a performance of his show, the two began to collaborate on transforming what was ostensibly a cabaret act into a play.
"Jack Lemmon Returns," which Felder wrote and directed, opened last month in Chicago. On Wednesday, it opens at the Laguna Beach Playhouse, where it will play through June 22. (The show will also visit Los Angeles' Broad Stage in January.)
In this new incarnation, Lemmon plays his father talking about his life to an unseen Chris in the audience.
"Hershey came up with the idea of doing it in his voice," Lemmon said over the phone from Chicago. "Now it's a performance, now I am acting. It's exciting."
To Felder, the son is telling a sentimental, haunting and difficult story.
"I think what I love about Chris is he's OK being his father's son," Felder noted. "Not only OK but honored to be that great man's son. There is something very sweet about that. Chris is a lot like his father — instantly likable."
Lemmon, who bears an amazing resemblance to his dad, says he doesn't try to imitate Jack Lemmon. "I kind of channel him."
Lemmon has a little routine before each performance. "I say, 'Come on, Pops, here we go. It's that time."' And then Lemmon repeats the phrase his father would say before he would do a scene or he'd go onstage: "It's magic time."
Jack Lemmon created cinema magic for more than half a century, playing an Everyman in comedies and dramas. Early in his career, said his son, Lemmon was typecast as a comedic artist, especially after winning an Oscar for "Mister Roberts" and receiving an Academy Award nomination for his groundbreaking gender-bender performance in Billy Wilder's 1959 classic "Some Like It Hot."
Chris Lemmon said his father admired French actor Jean-Louis Barrault, who is best known for his role as the mime Baptiste in Marcel Carné's 1945's "Children of Paradise," because of his "ability to make them laugh and break their hearts at the same time — that is what he wanted to do."
Lemmon got his chance in Wilder's Oscar-winning 1960 dramedy "The Apartment," as a young man working for an insurance company who is eager to climb the corporate ladder, in a performance that is both funny and poignant.
For the next four decades, Lemmon starred in comedies (1965's "The Great Race) and dramas (1962's "Days of Wine and Roses"). He's perhaps best known for the comedies he made with his good friend Walter Matthau, including 1968's "The Odd Couple," 1993's "Grumpy Old Men" and 1995's "Grumpier Old Men."
Two years after Chris Lemmon was born, his dad and his mother, actress Cynthia Stone, divorced. Jack Lemmon married actress Felicia Farr in 1962, and his half sister, singer Courtney Lemmon, was born in 1966.
After the divorce, his father spent quality time with Chris — they fished, golfed and shared a love of music.
"It was a lot of giving on both of us," said Lemmon, who graduated from the California Institute of the Arts with degrees in classical piano and composition and theater.
"The father-and-son relationship is enigmatic, to say the least, loving yet competitive, caring but judgmental," said Lemmon, who has been married for 26 years and has three children.
"He and I worked on our relationship. That is what this story is about — our relationship, which was unique but universal. There are bumps in the road, and it's my job to uncover the bumps."
One of those bumps was his father's drinking. Jack Lemmon revealed his battle with alcoholism and how he stopped drinking on an episode of "Inside the Actors Studio" with James Lipton.
"I tell the story of what it was like for me to go through that with him," Chris Lemmon said. "I am not the one who tells it, he tells it. It's done with love, respect and dignity."
Music is an important element in "Jack Lemmon Returns," with George and Ira Gershwin's "Love is Here to Stay" being the thematic tune in the piece. Another song Lemmon loves to perform is the Gershwins' "'S Wonderful," because the standard evokes a special evening Lemmon spent at his father's bachelor pad up in the hills.
"One night, he put me to sleep and had a few friends over for a party — Shirley MacLaine, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Cagney and Jimmy Stewart and so on. Cagney had gone back to use the bathroom and saw me sticking my head out of my bedroom door. He snagged me and brought me into the middle of the party. So we re-create that party — me at 6 staring around and Gregory Peck trying to sing ''S Wonderful.'"