ACTOR ENDEARING ON-SCREEN AND OFF’TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE’ WAS HIS LAST REAL ROLE

MITCHALBOM — He called me “kid,” which is not something I usually like people calling me. It seemed OK with him because, well, he was older and I was younger and besides, it was endearing when he said it. And no one — certainly no one in show business — was better at being endearing than Jack Lemmon.

From “Some Like It Hot” to “The Odd Couple” to “The Out-of-Towners” to
“Missing,” endearing was the word that came to mind. A straight man trapped in a crooked world. He made you care about him. He made it an art.

I was hardly the first person to make friends with Jack Lemmon, but I was likely among the last. By the time we crossed paths, he was already 74. He had been chosen to play Morrie Schwartz, my beloved but terminally ill college professor, in the TV film version of “Tuesdays with Morrie.” It would prove to be Lemmon’s last real role.

To be honest, at first, I didn’t think he was the right fit. Morrie, after all, had been short, Jewish, with a high, lilting voice, whereas Lemmon was prep school, Harvard University, ironic, sardonic, and decidedly nonethnic. A great actor, yes. A Morrie, no.

At least until we met. That day, he was dressed like my old professor, made-up with a false nose and crooked teeth to look like my old professor, and when we were introduced, he turned and hugged me and called me “kid” — which, come to think of it, was pretty much like my old professor, too.

His humanity overwhelmed me. My doubts were gone. By the time I saw the finished product, it was hard to imagine anyone else playing the role.

Two roles that touched him

Over time, in numerous conversations, we would talk about things, but never much about acting. Oh, I once asked him his funniest role (“Some Like It Hot,” he said. “It still makes me laugh, kid”) or his most intense role, which I guessed was the controversial alcoholic in “Days of Wine and Roses” (“Yeah, that was intense,” he quipped, “damn near drove me to drink.”)

I also asked about getting so deep into a character you couldn’t let go at the end of the day. He said that only happened twice in his career. The first was in 1973, “Save The Tiger,” a movie that earned him an Oscar. He played a garment industry man on the edge. Mr. Lemmon, whose own father was a doughnut salesman in Boston, got so into the role that one morning as he was driving into the set he began to weep. He became hysterical. A cop spotted him and pulled him over.

“Are you all right, Mr. Lemmon?” he asked.

“No,” Lemmon said. “I’m playing this part of a guy who’s cracking up, and I think it’s getting to me.”

The cop could have smirked. He could have issued him a ticket, or rolled his eyes at these crazy Hollywood types.

Instead, he personally escorted Lemmon back to his hotel. I’m not surprised. Beneath the whiskered face, the tight smile, the short hair, what Lemmon gave off most was an air of vulnerability. You wanted to take care of him.

“The only other time I got into a role like that,” he told me, “was playing Morrie.”

I had no idea how much he meant that. During the filming of that project, Mr. Lemmon was not a fit man. On most days, he needed to go home early. There were whispers about his health. We came to understand there was something potentially threatening going on, but such was your respect for Lemmon, that if he didn’t want to talk about it, you didn’t ask.

Still, when Lemmon asked me questions about Morrie’s approach to dying, about his courage battling a terminal illness, or his insistence on dying his own way, I began to sense that this was not acorn-gathering for a method actor.

Jack Lemmon died Wednesday night, from cancer, at 76, and now I know.

He had been asking for himself.

Favorite roles, favorite lines

“Death ends a life, but not a relationship.” That’s a line from “Tuesdays with Morrie,” and it was one of Lemmon’s favorites.

You think about the relationship Lemmon gave moviegoers in his nearly 50 years of film. He was your knee-slap funny man (“Mr. Roberts,” “Irma la Douce”), your controversial serious character (the drunk in “Days of Wine and Roses,” the frenzied nuclear plant manager in “The China Syndrome”) one half of arguably the funniest buddy team in movie history (“The Odd Couple,” “Grumpy Old Men,” “The Fortune Cookie,” “The Front Page,” all opposite Walter Matthau, his dear friend.) He even played an ex-president (“My Fellow Americans.”)

But beyond all that, Jack Lemon played salesmen. Nobody did them better. He seemed to understand the internal combustion that comes from having to be nice to people who don’t want you around.

His portrayal of the shameless, desperate real estate man in “Glengarry Glen Ross” is a brilliant piece of work, and, seeing him alongside Kevin Spacey, you realize how Jack Lemmon opened a huge door in Hollywood — he made it acceptable for funny actors like Spacey, Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey to play both comics and tortured souls.

In the end, Lemmon neither took nor wanted credit for this. Just as he wanted no attention to his disease. Quiet was just fine for him. No bad boy behavior. No wild parties. No 22-year-old trophy wives.

A straight man in a crooked world. Although I did not know him long, knowing him at all was an honor. He told me playing Morrie was “my greatest role ever” and that is sweet but clearly not true. His greatest role was Jack Lemmon. And I get a warm feeling remembering him hugging me, calling me “kid.” It was a term of endearment, and endearment was what he did best.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

STAR, FAMILY MAN

Two-time Oscar-winner Jack Lemmon died Wednesday night from complications related to cancer. His wife Felicia, his two children and a stepdaughter were at his bedside at the University of Southern California’s Norris Cancer Center in Los Angeles.

Born Feb. 8, 1925, in Newton, Mass., John Uhler Lemmon III was married from 1950 to 1956 to actress Cynthia Stone; they had a son, Chris. In 1962, he married actress Felicia Farr, with whom he had a daughter, Courtney. Plans for services have not been announced.

SLICES OF LEMMON

Jack Lemmon may have been best known for his comic portrayals of tightly wound fussbudgets: his Oscar-winning Ensign Pulver in “Mister Roberts”; his fastidious Felix Unger in the film version of Neil Simon’s stage hit “The Odd Couple.”

But his extensive filmography reveals an actor of versatility and great precision. Here are five very different slices of Lemmon, all available on tape or DVD.

“The Apartment” (1960). As C.C. Baxter, the corporate climber who compromises his principles by loaning his apartment to trysting superiors, Lemmon introduced quiet rage to his repertoire and introduced post-’50s cynicism to the American screen.

“Days of Wine and Roses” (1962). Lemmon’s most brutally realistic performance as a public-relations executive with a withering career and a loving wife (Lee Remick) whose attempt to sympathize leads to mutually destructive alcoholism. His hospitalization sequence is harrowing.

“The Out-of-Towners” (1970). Though “The Odd Couple” was the most beloved of Lemmon’s Simon-written comedies, both actor and writer are at their best in this film, with Lemmon as an Ohioan who takes wife Sandy Dennis along for a New York City job interview, only to find himself no match for the big bad city.

“Missing” (1982). Lemmon returned to serious drama in this based-on-fact story, playing an American businessman whose son disappears in South America. Lemmon’s transformation from conservative patriot to outraged father is heartbreakingly honest.

“Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992). Lemmon and profane playwright David Mamet may have seemed a truly odd couple, but the actor gave his last great screen performance as a cold-call real estate broker who just can’t close the sale in this adaptation of Mamet’s Pulitzer-winning drama.

By Terry Lawson, Free Press movie critic

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