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A Legend Who Defied Time, Type

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jack Lemmon, who died Wednesday at age 76 after a long, brave siege with cancer, remembered a few years ago that “I would wake up in the morning and say, ‘Kiddo, today you’re going to be working with Bill Powell, Hank Fonda, Jimmy Cagney and John Ford.’ ”

That was from his days as Ensign Pulver in “Mister Roberts,” a young actor’s dream of a role in a dream company of Hollywood’s starriest and even then legendary names. Lemmon was reminded of those days because he had just--some 37 years later--finished shooting a vastly different role in David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

“Every day,” he said in an amazed echo of the earlier experience, “I would say, ‘Kiddo, today you’re going to be working with Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey and Jonathan Pryce.’ ” The latter-day litany named a different company of actors, prestigious talents at the top of their profession, although in a time when legends are harder to create than they used to be.

The legend then was Jack himself, confirming his enduring powers and his unmatched range from the brash and youthful verve of Pulver to the defiant desperation of a real estate seller trying to survive in a ruthless organization and, in the end, failing. The two roles measured the long way Lemmon and the movies had come. What linked the two was the tremendous appeal Lemmon had in every role he undertook: the light comic protagonists he made amusing, the flawed--often gravely flawed--men he made comprehensible. In all his guises he was, as everyone said, an American Everyman, the man who lived if not next door then on the next street--someone you felt you knew, part of our American experience.

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I think because of that unabated drive to do good work, Jack never thought of himself as being “there"--on top, a star who need only wave to his friends. He was the enthusiastic hopeful, eternally youthful, as excited about enacting the horrors of “Glengarry” as the antics of Pulver.

It is astonishing how many of Lemmon’s performances remain indelibly in mind stretching back a half-century, a rare expanse of career time for an actor in a medium known for its blithe and spendthrift discarding of talent. He managed that difficult feat of moving up through the years, finding at every age roles that seemed tailor-made for him.

He was the perfect light comedian (in “Some Like It Hot,” of course), the perfect tragic hero (in “The China Syndrome,” unforgettably), somehow always Jack Lemmon and yet not Jack Lemmon. When he played failing businessman Harry Stoner in “Save the Tiger” (one of his two Oscar-winning roles along with Pulver in “Mr. Roberts”), he brought a sense of his own innate decency while giving us a sense of Stoner’s flailing failures.

Actor Kept Aspiring to Challenging Roles

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The key to Lemmon’s success was surely that he lived with a kind of permanent aspiration to tackle ever more challenging roles. Salary was no object, as with “Save the Tiger,” which he made possible by working for scale. He told me once long ago that he didn’t mind aging, even welcomed it, “because that’s where the great roles are.”

Thirty years later, he confessed wryly that his enthusiasm had been premature. There was only one great role out there and it was King Lear, one role that he saw was beyond even his gifts. But he came close in emotional intensity with his stage performance as the elder Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s lacerating “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

Although Lemmon had begun on stage, from summer stock to Broadway, his image was as a movie star, and nothing is more perilous than for a film person to dare the scrutiny of drama critics. Those marvelous screen partners Lemmon and Walter Matthau were thoroughly lambasted for their appearances in Los Angeles in “Juno and the Paycock.” Matthau, also stage-trained, swore he would never act on stage again, and so far as I know he never did. Lemmon won the admiration of the critics in New York and London as well in “Long Day’s Journey.”

If Jack transcended time as an actor, he also moved between comedy and high drama easily, the two ends of the actor’s spectrum finally informing each other. The desperation of a man facing intolerable problems, like Stoner in Steve Shagan’s brilliant script for “Save the Tiger,” was often undercut with sometimes sardonic humor, as when Stoner plays a name game with a young hitchhiker he has picked up and who knows the Beatles but none of the old Brooklyn Dodgers.

Jack and I were classmates at Harvard, although we didn’t then know each other because he was there in a Navy program. I used to kid him about disturbing my sleep because the sailors used to march to class very early in the morning singing “Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie” in cadence.

Our friendship began in Hollywood and I grew to admire deeply the man as well as the actor. This is, in fact, a homage I had hoped I would never have to write, because capturing adequately the warmth and talent of Jack Lemmon, actor, public citizen and friend, seems beyond the power of words, mine or anybody else’s.

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Charles Champlin is the former film critic, arts editor and critic at large columnist for The Times.

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