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Interview with Jack Lemmon

Jack Lemmon in "Tribute"

Jack Lemmon has got to be kidding when he says he doesn't resemble Scottie Templeton. He exactly resembles Scottie Templeton. But here he is denying it:

"You never know how much you resemble a character. Really. I swear. It's a natural thing to ask, I suppose… but honest to god, I don't know where the character leaves off and I begin…"

All of this is said in the friendliest between-us-guys voice, as if Lemmon could see Scottie Templeton sneaking up behind us and didn't want to say anything to offend him.

Scottie Templeton is the character Jack Lemmon played on Broadway in "Tribute", and now plays again in a new movie, which opens Friday in Chicago and has won Lemmon an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Scottie is a Broadway press agent, a can man, a warm guy who's scared of intimacy, a guy with a million friends but don't ask him what he's thinking, he'll only kid about it.

In the movie, Scottie discovers that he's dying of cancer, and that he has a limited amount of time to establish human contact with a wife who has divorced him, a son who hates him and a city full of friends who love him as a sort of court jester. Scottie's a hell of a guy, addicted to grandiose plans, foolish romantic gestures and doing anything to avoid the horror of having to be home alone all evening.

That is Scottie Templeton. Why do I argue that Jack Lemmon resembles him so closely? I am going entirely on instinct. I don't know Lemmon well, but I somehow feel that I do every time I meet him. He is friendly, funny, warm and intelligent. He is the kind of guy you'd choose to have sitting in the next seat during a long flight or even an extended hijacking.

But there is… something reserved, in the midst of all the good cheer. Jack Lemmon is easier to meet, to talk with, to interview, to spend time with, than almost any other actor I've met, but I have always sensed a quiet zone somewhere inside of him. There are reserves of pain and hurt in there somewhere, and he can play the clown so well precisely because he is not the clown he sometimes likes to seem.

And that is precisely the kind of guy Scottie Templeton is in "Tribute". This is a movie that has received mixed reviews. I have a friend who snuffled and blew her nose for two days after seeing the movie, and was filled with remorseful memories of her father. I have another friend who thought the movie was a lot of sentimental rubbish. I know people who think it's just a collection of clichés from well-made Broadway plays, and another who felt chills during the scene where Scottie Templeton's son angrily asks his mother why he should love his father, and the mother fiercely replies, "Because he is dying."

Jack Lemmon came to Chicago to be interviewed about "Tribute" because, he said, he is proud of his work in the film. "I'm on a good roll here," he said one evening not long ago, sipping white wine in his suite at the Ritz Carlton. He looked as he often looks, tired and friendly and with the possibility of some mischief in reserve. "I've got two great movies in a row: "The China Syndrome" and "Tribute". Before that I made a movie named "Alex and Gypsy", which I liked, my wife liked and my agent liked, and my response is the only one of the three where I'm absolutely sure it wasn't a case of trying to make me feel better about it."

You can see the thought process at work in a statement like that: The pride in craft, and then the way Lemmon puts himself down and gets a laugh and comes out human instead of like an actor praising himself. Scottie Templeton would understand a line like that.

"I wanted to do "Tribute" on Broadway when I first read the play. I hadn't done a play in… jeez, how long was it? Eighteen years? It's tough to commit to a Broadway play. You have to move out of your home, and find another home, and move the kids to another school, and then you never know, whether the play's going to run forever, or fall on its ass. But with "Tribute", I responded so directly to this material that I told them I wanted to do it."

He rubbed his chin and then used his fingers to probe the skin on his temples. It's a Lemmon gesture you see all the time in his movies. It means he's about to say something that's a little hard for him to say.

"The play is about a father and a son getting to know each other. Well… I never got along with my father very well when I was a young man. I wanted to be an actor and jeeee zus! That was the last thing he had in mind for me. It wasn't until I had some stature in my profession that I was able to go back to him, secure in myself, and talk to him instead of resenting him. We patched it all up and got on pretty good terms. We took a long trip through Europe together, just the two of us. That was six months before he discovered he had cancer. He died about the time I was going into "Tribute" on Broadway. So… so, you can see. You can see what I mean."

What, was so good about that father-son relationship in the film, I said, was that you could see that the real problem between the father and the son wasn't dislike, or even misunderstanding. They understood each other pretty well. It was competitiveness.

"Oh, yeah. Scottie has to one-up everybody. Not to put them down, but just to stay in the game." What was the hardest thing about playing the character? Was it thinking about parallels between the play and…

"My life? No, when I'm playing a role, I'm playing a role. What was most difficult was a technical thing. The way Bernard Slade wrote Scottie (and I loved the way he wrote Scottie), he was a guy who had everything going on underneath. The way he's built, he doesn't walk around revealing all of his feelings all of the time. He's a, poker player. He can be tearing apart inside, and making with the wise cracks on the outside. So there were sudden changes of direction in his emotions. No buildups or transitions. He's totally unpredictable. There are moments when he's throwing out one-liners, doing a stand-up routine in his own living room, and then suddenly he turns, and you can see the hurt and anger inside.

"The problem there is a technical one. An actor can't show the anger building. And yet at the same time an actor can't simply switch from one-liners to rage and expect the audi ence to follow. So the anger has to be there underneath. And yet Scottie is too good of an actor himself to allow himself to project what the writers call 'barely concealed anger. ' So there is a very fine line to be walked there… and it was a challenge, and a lot of fun, to try to find that line and walk it."

This is out of left field, I said. What are the three things to look for in a good screen performance?

"Why three? "


"Okay, three. No. l: The best screen actor to me, without any frigging question, was not even Spencer Tracy, but Robert Donat. And what made him so good was that he always seemed to be acting in the first take of a scene. You have the feeling he has never said those particular words before. No. 2: You should have the feeling that the film was shot in sequence, even if it wasn't. You should believe that the scenes were acted in chronological order, with no embarrassing little jarring dis crepancies of emotion. No. 3: Robert Donat had that, too – the wonderment that made us think those things were really happening to him.

"If I have a model among actors, however, It would not be because of their style - everyone has his own style - but because of his attitude. It's a profession, and I admire the professionals. Look at Olivier, still cooking and wailing away. Look at Hank Fonda, about to do a play at 75. He thrives on it. I don't see any retirement for me, until I'm run over by a truck, or a producer. I'll just keep going.

"Why? I don't know. I've never been psychoanalyzed. I don't trust people who have been. If people really understand why they behave… how can you believe that's why they're behaving that way? Whatever reason I have for acting goes beyond enjoyment. It's a need to function in my craft. And then every two years I say, hot damn! I got enough loot! And I go fishing for three weeks up in Alaska. Three weeks is all I can stand."

Is it something like that with Walter Matthau? I asked. You've worked more with him than with any other actor.

"And I'm working with him again, our next picture. It's "Buddy-Buddy", it's being directed by Billy Wilder, with a screenplay by I. A. L. Diamond. The old team is back in business. But what makes Matthau run? Walter's worried about getting enough money to go to the track. In this new film I play the CBS network censor, and Walter's a professional hit man. My wife works for '60 Minutes, ' she has gone off to one of those California sex therapy things with foot-rubs and tubs of butter, and she has never come back. So I'm going crazy and I call the doc, then Walter can't have any attention brought to the hotel, so he's going to kill me… "

He saved your life once, didn't he?


With the Heimlich Maneuver? When you were choking to death?

"He didn't know the Heimlich Maneuver from a hole in the ground. We were both touring some manor on the campus at Brigham Young University, with a bunch of drama students, and somebody gave me one of those old-fashioned horehound drops, and I choked on it. It stuck in my throat. Walter was being funny, making with the one-liners. I was turning blue. I got down on my knees. Walter said, 'All right, all right, I'll stop. We'll leave. We'll go have dinner.' I'm dying. I got up and pointed to my throat. He laughed. I got down on my knees again. I was blacking out. Then the horehound drop dissolved and I could breathe again. Walter will goddamn well know about the Heimlich Maneuver the next time that happens. Saved my life!"

Did your life flash in front of your eyes?

"No, only the urge to kick Walter in the nuts."

Jack Lemmon grinned and poured himself a little more white wine. "It always comes down," he said, "to acting, and death. Other things too, of course, but those two. Actors are all morbid. Let me tell you a story." He sipped his wine and leaned forward, into the circle of light above the table.

"Edmund Gwenn was a great actor. He won an Oscar for 'Miracle on 34th Street'." George Seaton directed that picture. In his old age, Gwenn became a very proud man and would not go to the old actor's home. He had no family. Seaton was the best friend he had in the world. He disappeared, and Seaton finally found him in a cold-water flat in Brighton, England. He was sick. Seaton got him into the old actor's home at last, and one day he was summoned to the bedside. Teddy - they called him Teddy Gwenn - was dying. Seaton approached the bedside.

"George, is that you?" Gwenn asked.

"Yes, Teddy."

"I'm afraid I'm going to die, George."

"I know, Teddy."

"I must tell you, George, I do not like it. I detest it. There is no possibility of anything wonderful for me. It's terrible and I hate it."

"I know, Teddy. I guess that dying can be very bad."

"Yes, George, it is. But not as bad as playing comedy."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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