Actor Jack Lemmon’s son embodies his famous father in a new one-man show at The Broad Stage
By Jenny Lower
When Academy Award-winning actor Jack Lemmon died from cancer at age 76 in 2001, he was widely remembered in the press as both a silver screen everyman and a fundamentally decent human being. The star of “Mister Roberts” and “The Apartment” earned fame as an incurable ham and muse of director Billy Wilder, who cast Lemmon as a cross-dressing musician trying to escape the mob (and bed Marilyn Monroe) in “Some Like It Hot.” Lemmon eventually transitioned into more serious fare, earning kudos as the head of a failing clothing factory in “Save the Tiger” and a father who travels to Chile to search for his journalist son in “Missing.”
Chris Lemmon, the only child of Jack Lemmon’s first marriage to actress Cynthia Stone, remembers the actor as father, best friend and “human leprechaun.” An actor himself who also earned a BFA from Cal Arts in classical piano and composition, Chris published a memoir about his dad in 2006. “A Twist of Lemmon” charts the early separation of father and son due to divorce and their eventual reunion, recounting annual trips to Alaska and later years spent playing golf at Pebble Beach.
Now Lemmon has adapted his book for the stage, with a one-man show that opens Friday in The Edye theater at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Written and directed by Hershey Felder, “Jack Lemmon Returns” presents the veteran actor as embodied through his son’s eyes, with reenacted clips from a dozen of his greatest movies and a suite of Gershwin tunes.
“Jack Lemmon raised the bar wherever he went,” his son says. “That was the thing about him that I tried my best to emulate, and that’s exactly what we do in this show.”
Chris Lemmon spoke to the Argonaut about channeling his dad, growing up in Hollywood’s Golden Age, and reliving life’s most poignant moments onstage.
What vintage of Jack Lemmon are we seeing onstage?
The Jack Lemmon that you see in this show starts at adolescence and goes all the way through his final days. He’s gotten some rotten news, and it’s time to tell his kid. Before he does, he wants his kid to know where he came from. And he tells his life story.
How did you prepare to play your dad?
Obviously, I’m my father’s son. I have a number of his inherited traits. But I don’t “do” my father. I channel him. The twist is that of the 50 characters I become during the course of the show, it’s not me becoming them, it’s my father. When I’m doing Marilyn Monroe or Jimmy Cagney, it’s me as Jack Lemmon as Jimmy Cagney. It’s been a wonderful, delicious challenge.
What kinds of moments do we get to see onstage?
When I was 6 or 7, he’d bring me up to this little bachelor pad up Beverly Glen Canyon. He’d tuck me into my bed and turn off the lights. And then he’d call up a few friends and get the party started. One night things started to get a little volume. Jimmy Cagney suddenly looks over and sees me peeking my head around the corner, and he grabs me and brings me into the room. And so there is Shirley MacLaine, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart and Billy Wilder singing the Gershwin tune, “’S Wonderful,” and all of them are taking turns. You see that scene through my eyes. It’s one of my favorite moments in the show.
How did you two relate when you were a kid?
It was really music. We both adored the piano. We could sit together literally for hours and just play the blues.
How old were you when you became estranged?
It was after the divorce. [My mother and I] moved down and lived in Harold Lloyd’s old beach house [in Santa Monica]. He would visit me once in a while, but that’s when it started to taper off. We stayed that way for about 10 years. I think I was 13 or 12 when we started Alaska. In my 20s, I started to really find my personality and sense of humor. Suddenly we just looked at each other and said, “You know, you’re a hell of a lot of fun to be with.” But it was really the decision he made much earlier than that, because if he was going to be seen with me it had to be away from Hollywood. All these voices in his ears were saying, “Hey Jack, the boy is holding you back.”
Holding him back at the studio?
It was the whole thing that I was of the old family. He needed to move on and do his thing and be seen, and be seen to be doing. He made a conscious decision one day that began the process of bringing us together. And after a few years, once I had come of age, that’s when it took off. We spent another 10 years in Alaska, and then I was married and started having kids, and we had those last 10 years at Pebble together. God, they were a ball. Golf and music were our thing. We were together almost every day when one of the two of us wasn’t working. Right when we were at the apex of our relationship, he got sick at a tragically early age. He passed away a year later.
In your book, you describe the father-son relationship as “loving yet competitive, caring yet judgmental.” In what ways did you feel judgmental about your father as a child that you have more perspective on as an adult?
The fact that he wasn’t there. The fact that my mother and him divorced when I was 3, and that he married another person and had his other family and his career. As an adult, of course I can understand that — that’s life. But as a kid, you’re staring at the empty chair at the dinner table. That was tough.
Later on in life, there were things that I was judgmental about but that he ended up fixing, and that I had enormous respect for in the end. One of those things was his very candid admission of his alcoholism. He admitted it publicly, which was really tantamount to career suicide. He had the guts to do it. I showed up on one particularly important day, where he’d had a hell of a night the night before. The maid called me and said, “You need to come over here.” He met me at the door, and said, “I know. I’ve just gotten off the phone with the folks at the program.” He never had another drink after that. I’m so very, very proud of him for that. It’s all in the show. I’ve got to tell the story properly. But at the bottom of it all, this is a son who had nothing but love and respect for his father.
You’re tapping into pretty difficult emotional territory for this production. Is it difficult to go through that onstage in front of other people?
Yes, and at the same time it’s absolutely wonderful and magical. Once a day for 90 minutes I get to be with my father again. I can’t tell you how much I miss him. I don’t play golf anymore. I don’t fly fish. It’s just not the same without him. But yeah, of course — I’m reliving the most poignant moments of my life with the most important person in my life, aside from my wife and kids and my mother, every night. But that’s what makes it worth watching.
“Jack Lemmon Returns” opens at 8 p.m. Friday and continues Tuesdays through Sundays through Feb. 1 in The Edye at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $75 for opening night and $55 thereafter. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.com.