One of the great things about being a reporter is that you get to meet so many interesting people you would otherwise never have a chance to know.
One of the great things about being a reporter is that you get to meet so many interesting people you would otherwise never have a chance to know. In the 1970s, my job with The Philadelphia Tribune included, among other things, doing movie reviews and interviews with movie stars who came to Philadelphia to promote their films.
Among others I got to meet and interview were Harry Belafonte and Richard Roundtree, both recently deceased, Dudley Moore, Bo Derek, Sidney Poitier and Gordon Parks, the first Black director of a major big-budget movie, “Shaft.” All were charming, but my favorite movie star interview by far was with two-time Academy Award winner Jack Lemmon.
I interviewed Lemmon in the Latham Hotel downtown in 1973 when he was on a national tour promoting his small film, “Save the Tiger,” which had been earning rave reviews but little box office gold. He later won a Best Actor Oscar for his role in the small-budget drama and said it was the best role of his life – so much so that he agreed to work for “scale” (Actors Equity minimum) and even donated that fee to charity. (If you Google “Save the Tiger,” you can see a superb six-minute clip from the movie.)
We talked for almost three hours, and it was more like a conversation with a friend from school you haven't seen in years than a celebrity interview. The one thing that shocked me was that Jack Lemmon actually asked me several questions about my personal life, my job, my education and childhood, and he seemed truly interested in my answers. That had never happened during any of my other celebrity interviews. It was almost as if he were interviewing me instead of the other way around.
Lemmon's comments about his movie roles were introspective, even mesmerizing. For example, he said his character in “Save the Tiger” completely took over his life.
“That's a very bad thing for an actor,” he said. “One day when I was driving home from the set, a cop pulled me over. I was sobbing uncontrollably in the car, and the cop thought I was drunk, so he checked my breath and made me walk a straight line down the highway.
“My character in 'Save the Tiger' was having a nervous breakdown, and I was having a nervous breakdown in real life because the character had completely inhabited me when it should be the other way around,” he continued. “The police stop was a wakeup call for me to get my act together, and I did.”
Lemmon also had insightful comments about other Hollywood icons. Regarding Marilyn Monroe, for example, with whom he worked in “Some Like It Hot” (“the best comedy script I ever read”), Jack remarked, “She was a very nice person, but she had been terribly abused as a child and teenager and was horribly exploited by the movie industry. Her stunning physical beauty turned out to be a curse. It was tragic.” (Monroe died of a drug overdose in 1962 at age 36.)
Since I was impressed by his candor, I asked if negative reviews ever bothered him. Most stars will say “No.”
Lemmon replied that when he was an accounting major at Harvard University in 1944, a reviewer for the school newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, trashed his performance in a school performance of “Desire Under the Elms,” by Eugene O'Neill. Then he pulled a yellow, wrinkled, faded tearsheet from 1944 out of his wallet.
“Whenever I am tempted to get too full of myself because of fan mail or the fame and fortune I have been lucky enough to achieve,” he said, “I pull out this old review from the Harvard Crimson saying I stunk. It said, 'Sophomore Jackie Lemmon would do the acting profession a favor if he would stick to accounting.' It brings me back down to earth every time.
“And if any actor tells you that negative reviews do not bother him, he is lying,” Lemmon continued. “No matter what you achieve, deep down you are still that insecure kid who wants to hear he has done a good job.”
He was also very aware of his luck.
“There are lots of actors you've never heard of who could do what I have done if they had gotten the same breaks I did,” he told me.
A few weeks after the interview, I received a handwritten note from Lemmon thanking me for my article and telling me how much he enjoyed our conversation. I never received a similar note from any other celebrity I interviewed.
And now, 50 years after that interview, I still remember what a class act Jack Lemmon was.
When Lemmon died June 27, 2001, at age 76, The Guardian called him “the most successful tragic comedian of his age.” At the time, I was reminded of Horatio's comment upon learning of the death of Hamlet: “Good night, sweet prince; may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
You can reach Len Lear at firstname.lastname@example.org