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Mr. Presidents

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two of Hollywood’s great comedic talents, Jack Lemmon and James Garner, team up for the first time in the raucous political satire “My Fellow Americans,” opening Friday. Sort of a “Grumpy Old Presidents,” the comedy finds Lemmon and Garner as two feuding former chief executives who are thrown together in the heart of “real” America after an impending White House scandal threatens to implicate them both.

As they set out to get to the bottom of the scheme and try to keep one step ahead of the operatives out to quiet them, the two ex-presidents learn a lot about themselves and the country. Lauren Bacall and Dan Aykroyd also star in the farce, which was directed by Peter Segal (“Tommy Boy”).

The winner of the 1955 best supporting Oscar for “Mr. Roberts” and the 1973 best actor for “Save the Tiger,” the 71-year-old Lemmon is one of cinema’s most acclaimed, versatile performers. Over the past four decades, he’s starred in such Billy Wilder comedy classics as “Some Like It Hot,” “The Apartment” and “The Fortune Cookie,” and in such dramas as “The Days of Wine and Roses,” “The China Syndrome” and “Missing.”

A recipient this year of the Kennedy Center Honors, Lemmon’s box-office clout got a big boost when he and frequent co-star Walter Matthau teamed up for the 1993 and 1995 “Grumpy Old Men” comedies. Besides “My Fellow Americans,” Lemmon also appears this month in Kenneth’s Branagh’s “Hamlet.”

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Garner, 68, came to fame on TV in the late 1950s as the charming western hero “Maverick,” and even appeared as Maverick’s father in the 1994 hit movie version. An Emmy winner for “The Rockford Files,” Garner received a best actor Oscar nomination for 1985’s “Murphy’s Romance” and has also starred in such hit films as “Grand Prix,” “The Great Escape,” “The Thrill of It All” and “Support Your Local Sheriff.”

Lemmon and Garner discussed “My Fellow Americans,” the status today of comedy and of Hollywood in general.

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Question: “My Fellow Americans” serves up a very cynical look at politics and especially the presidency. Is that one of the reasons why you both were drawn to the project?

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James Garner: I don’t think that attracted me to the script. I thought the script was well-written and this [pointing to Lemmon] is another big part of it--Jack. I knew Jack was going to do it.

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Jack Lemmon: What finally confirmed me was when I learned Jim was going to join us. I felt, like Jim, it was a good script and there was a certain cynicism in it which I thought was right. I thought it was a very good combination of adventure, so to speak, like a good chase film with comedy.

Q: Did you know each other before making “My Fellow Americans”?

J.G.: We knew each other through golf. I think where we met each other was at the Crosby Tournament [in the 1960s]. He plays a good game. He’s going to make his birdies and his pars and he’s going to make some bogeys just like I did yesterday. I played badly yesterday. My back was out yesterday and when it gets that way I can’t turn.

Q: Was there a lot of improvisation on the set?

J.L.: Between us there was [laughs].

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J.G.: [Director] Peter [Segal] had his own ideas and we had ours [laughs]. Jack and I would do a scene together and I knew where I was going and he knew where I was going and Peter was going in a different direction. Jack and I see things pretty much the same way, I hope. That’s the way you do a piece like this. It’s the same way with Jack and Walter. They know where they are going.

J.L.: There’s a comfort factor. Walter has always been the most comfortable actor for me to work with and Jim was exactly the same way.

Q: With the success of both “Grumpy Old Men” movies and “The First Wives Club,” don’t you think Hollywood has realized audiences will go to movies starring actors over 50?

J.G.: Definitely. You’ve got a bunch of 29-year-old producers and anybody over 30 is ancient to them. They forget there’s an audience out there who knows these people and likes these people.

J.L.: And all the baby boomers are grown and they have got kids who are looking at their grandparents [in these movies]. There’s no question that there’s a huge audience out there.

Q: Did the success of the “Grumpy” movies take you by surprise?

J.L.: Totally. Walter and I did not expect anything. We did them and we thought, the first one especially, the script is not so hot. But we will fix it. We did fix it a little, the two of us, and the thing went out and went through the roof. We could never figure out why and then we did the second one and we felt the same way. This thing is never going to work and boom--bigger than the first.

J.G.: We are hoping this one does [the same].

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J.L.: This could easily be a sequel. I’ll bet you all the tea in China, if this does as well as they hope, they’ll try for a sequel.

Q: Have you both found that comedy has changed over the past four decades?

J.L.: Oh sure. Yeah. I think some of it to the good and some of it to the bad. Some of it has gone into just plain sketch comedy.

J.G.: That’s the influence of TV, don’t you think? It’s that quick [snaps fingers several times] mentality.

J.L.: There’s lot of one-liners and sight gags and every scene seems to have a button on it. That sort of thing. It’s not really growth of character at all.

Q: Peter Segal, though, is one of the new breed of directors. What was it like working with him?

J.G.: He’s 34 years old. He’s half my age. He has that quick flash mentality, too, of television. You got to let things build in certain areas. Peter did “Tommy Boy” and “Naked Gun 33 1/3,” so he’s just gag, gag, gag. He needs a little more experience of playing the scene, don’t you think?

J.L.: Yeah.

J.G.: But he’s going to make it. He’s good, but he’s very young and he doesn’t realize it.

Q: Both of you started in films near the end of the contract studio system. Is Hollywood better off now?

J.G.: I left the system because I wanted to choose my own scripts. However, it was good in many ways and bad in other ways. You did more variety then. Right now, these producers and directors, they cast you for what they know. They don’t have much vision.

J.L.: I think the biggest difference in many ways is the fact that like them or not [studio heads] Sam Goldwyn, Jack Warner and Harry Cohn, they were bastards. . . .

J.G.: Oh, boy. . . .

J.L.: And they could be cruel and mean and anything else, but they did know something about movies. Whereas today, you got a committee of kids at every studio--agents and lawyers who have become heads of studios all too often who are making creative decisions who are not equipped to make creative decisions.

J.G.: They don’t have the talent for it. They have talent for business, not for creative art.

Q: What do you feel about $20-million salaries actors are getting?

J.G.: It’s just ridiculous, but it’s the same principle we were just talking about. People have no sense of what they are doing. They give somebody like [Jim] Carrey $20 million and it’s outrageous. Once they go broke a few times they’ll understand. Not only does it hurt them, it hurts everybody else because there are egos involved: “He got $20 million; I want $20 million.” That’s not the way it works. I made $500 when I started on “Maverick” and $600 the second year--no residuals, of course.

Q: You’ve both worked with some legendary directors. Which director influenced you most as an actor?

J.L.: I guess overall Billy Wilder. He’s a terribly bright guy. He was also a teacher--for me, anyway.

J.G.: Willy Wyler. [William Wyler directed Garner in 1961’s “The Children’s Hour.”] That little man was so powerful. You respected him so much. You didn’t know what he wanted and he wouldn’t tell you, but eventually you would get on a wavelength. He was a sweet man. I would have loved to have worked with John Ford.

Q: Jack, you worked with Ford on “Mr. Roberts.”

J.L.: He was a real character. He was the admiral. He really cracked that whip. He had a sound man who was deaf. The sound man would always be saying, “I can’t hear these damned actors. No one speaks anymore.” In the meantime, we were screaming in his ear. Somehow it worked.


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