By Tammy Scileppi
For over half a century, Chris Lemmon’s beloved dad was a “human leprechaun” who could make ‘em laugh while breaking their hearts.
“Pops was my very best friend,” said the actor, 63, the only son of Hollywood legend Jack Lemmon, who died of cancer in 2001 at age 76.
Chris Lemmon spoke at length about their special relationship during a phone conversation with TimesLedger, while en route to a lecture he was giving in Connecticut, where he lives with his wife Tina. The father of three just finished teaching a course titled, “The Golden Age of Hollywood” at New Haven University.
If you’re a person of a certain age, you probably remember Jack Lemmon’s moving performance in Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning 1960 comedy-drama, “The Apartment,” and in the 1959 gender-bending classic, “Some Like It Hot,” with Marilyn Monroe.
The two-time Oscar winner (“Mister Roberts,” “Save the Tiger”) played an everyman in other classics as well: “Missing,” “The Fortune Cookie,” and “Short Cuts.” But in his varied roles, which were quite poignant and complex, he was anything but ordinary.
Lemmon also starred in dramas like “Days of Wine and Roses,” but he’s probably best known for the memorable comedies he starred in with pal Walter Matthau, including 1968’s “The Odd Couple,” 1993’s “Grumpy Old Men” and 1995’s “Grumpier Old Men.”
Chris Lemmon, appeared with his father in three films, including “That’s Life!” in 1986, and said it was “a wonderful experience” that he cherishes to this day.
An acclaimed memoir about all the great and not-so-great times spent with his father was published several years after Jack’s death, followed by a tribute show based on delicious stories that Chris shares in the book.
Continuing its successful three-year run, “A Twist of Lemmon” has been described as an incredible performance piece in which Chris Lemmon tells heartwarming family stories, recounts intimate father-son conversations, and interesting anecdotes from and about his dad.
On March 11, the show came to the Queensboro Performing Arts Center in Bayside, after wowing audiences from Australia to London and all across America. Chris, who said it was “a hoot, and lots of fun,” played to a packed house and got a standing ovation.
As he channels his father, he believes Jack is always there in spirit, watching him sing and play the piano — he’s a classically trained pianist. He also does a tip of the hat to a number of his dad’s films, actually re-enacting scenes from them. He incorporates a great deal of all that wonderful music from the golden age of Hollywood, which he arranged. There’s a large multimedia presentation that goes along with the show, which his wife runs.
“Fortune Cookie” begins a section devoted to his father’s friendship with Matthau section, as it’s where the two actors first met. As an example of their unique bond, Jack presented his buddy Walter with a funny gift one Christmas: a blown-up photo of himself lying naked, belly down, on a bear skin rug.
“The whole thing [book and show] started as a search for catharsis after my father died. I found it very healing to write down our memories and experiences together. I wanted my kids to know him too, as an incredibly generous person both emotionally and as an artist,” Chris Lemmon explained. “And then one day, a sentence came to me: The father-son relationship is enigmatic to say the least. Loving yet competitive, caring yet judgmental. And I thought, ‘Oh I might have something here.’”
After the book came out, the concept for his show blossomed.
“I think spiritually, it’s the most rewarding. Because it’s a story about the fact that we humans are flawed, and our relationships can be flawed. If we understand that about each other we can rise above that and create wonderful bonds where there might not have been,” Chris said. “My father and I had a great relationship and he was also one of the most brilliant actors on the face of the earth. His profession came first, which caused a great deal of problems. But we all have problems in our relationships, and my father and I both grew to understand that and superseded that, and we ended up becoming, over the course of 30 years, the best of friends.”
That is, indeed, the heartbeat of the show.
“It’s also full of beans and lots of fun; there are so many great characters, all of whom make ‘appearances.’ So, it’s got the ability to make you laugh and make you cry at the same time, which is what my father strove for in his performances and as an artist. And it’s my duty as a narrator to tell that story. And from what I’ve been told, I’m successful,” he added.
The LA Times said, “It’s hard to believe it’s Chris and not Jack on stage,” in its review of Chris’ performance.
Chris Lemmon grew up in and around Hollywood before moving to Miami, Fla., after his mom — actress Cynthia Stone — remarried. He said that after his parents divorced when he was just two, his father took a bachelor pad up in the Hills.
“And he’d come over when he could and grab me and bring me up for a visit. And there was one particular night when he tucked me into bed and called up a few friends and got the party started.” Six-year-old Chris heard all the ruckus as he lay half asleep holding his “security blankie,” when suddenly someone came down the hallway. It was none other than Jimmy Cagney!
“He spied me, grabbed me and pulled me out to the party and said [in his unmistakable voice]: ‘Take a look here everybody, it’s a little Lemmon; he wants to have a little fun here too, see?’” Chris said. “So, Cagney and Gregory Peck basically paraded me around all evening long, with the likes of Billy Wilder, Shirley MacLaine, and Jimmy Stewart. And there I was at just six, wading through a sea of some of the greatest actors of all time, and they loved it and I had a ball. I remember it absolutely crystal clear to this day,”
For 20 years, the father and son duo took annual fishing trips together in Alaska, then played golf for another 10 years until Jack passed away.
These days, the actor still stays in touch with all his siblings, who are steps and halves, he says, and is trying hard to put together an Off-Broadway run for his show, hoping to make it happen, perhaps in time for Father’s Day. But first, he needs investors.
Talking about his dad’s famous mantra, Chris Lemmon remembered that he would whisper, “magic time” before filming a scene or going on stage.
“And I say that, too, before I perform,” he said. “In my book, Kevin Spacey wrote the forward, and he says he felt those words were more than just a calling to Jack’s muse; that it was a statement to his character because being with Jack was magical… and every moment with him was magic time. I agree with that assessment.”