Q&A: Jack Lemmon's Son on Growing Up With a Screen Icon

Jack Lemmon Returns Production Still - P 2014
Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

Jack Lemmon Returns Production Still - P 2014

Chris Lemmon, who is staging the play "Jack Lemmon Returns," tells THR about the night his father gave up drinking and his last words to him.

While Hollywood often seems to be a place of interfamilial strife, divorce, lawsuits and intergenerational alienation, that wasn't the case for Chris Lemmon, who had a healthy relationship with his father, legendary actor Jack Lemmon, who died in 2001 at the age of 76.

“He was my best friend,” Lemmon tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Losing your father really stinks.” But these days, Lemmon gets him back again for 90 minutes each night, and matinees on weekends, as he brings his new show, Jack Lemmon Returns, to the Laguna Playhouse through June 22.

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Based on Lemmon’s 2006 book, A Twist of Lemmon, the play is written and directed by Hershey Felder, a veteran of the one-man biographical genre, and features the younger Lemmon playing his father talking about his life with his son, an unseen member of the audience.

“Obviously, as his son I have a number of his personality traits, but I’ve worked extremely hard to find his voice and bring that out as opposed to just impersonating him,” says Lemmon about playing his dad.

Lemmon recently talked to THR about growing up with a screen icon, the night his father gave up drinking and the day he caught Marilyn Monroe and JFK canoodling in her pool.

The Hollywood Reporter: Is it true your father was born in an elevator?

Lemmon: He was born in an elevator because his mother, who called herself G.G., short for gorgeous grandma, was at a hot poker game when her water broke and refused to get up from the table.

How many times have you been asked what’s it like to be Jack Lemmon’s son?

It’s a difficult question to answer because there’s no basis for comparison. The day I finally realized who exactly my father was, I was a kid at Carlthorp School in Santa Monica. I was on the playground and this other kid comes running up to me he goes, ‘Hey, my father’s more famous than your father.’ I go, ‘What do you mean?’ He says, ‘My father is Jim West of The Wild, Wild West, he’s more famous than your dad.’ And I thought about it for second and I turned to him and said, ‘Well, sure he is. He’s Jim West of The Wild, Wild West.’ And as the kid was running away I thought to myself, 'I didn’t know Dad was famous. I thought he was just an actor.'

That was when you were a kid living a few doors down from Marilyn Monroe in Santa Monica.

I was walking by Marilyn’s house. We used to live at Harold Lloyd’s old house—my mom rented it from him—and sure enough there’s this helicopter in a low lazy circle and these guys in funny suits and funny glasses standing around watching Marilyn Monroe and JFK having a frolic in the pool. I was 6 or 7 years old and these guys went, ‘I think it’s time for you to leave,’ and they yanked me out of there.

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Was it a big deal for you living among so many icons?

I remember he took me back to his bachelor pad after he and my mother got divorced and he tucked me into my bed, gave me a kiss goodnight, sung me a lullaby and he goes out and invites some friends over. And the friends are Gregory Peck, Shirley MacLaine, Jimmy Cagney and Jimmy Stewart and on and on. I sneak my little head out and Cagney saw me and runs over and grabs me, ‘Oh, look who we have here!’ and throws me in the room. And my old man’s going, ‘Jimmy, what are you doing?’ Suddenly here I am in the middle of this incredible party with these gods of the silver screen and they’re all giving a concert for me, singing songs for me.

He spoke publicly about his alcoholism and I wonder if you remember the night he gave it up?

He had a final night where it got out of control with broken glass all over the floor. He’d fallen down, hit his head, cut it open, had a bloody dishtowel hanging off the side of his head and finally the maid couldn’t take it. She called me and said, ‘You need to come over and talk to your father.’ When I got there, I didn’t need to say a word. He said, ‘I know.’ That was it. He never had a drink after that.

What’s the one thing people would be surprised to find out about Jack Lemmon?

He was the worst friggin’ driver. He wrecked a magnificent sports car for pretty much every film he ever did. For How to Murder Your Wife, he wrecked an Aston Martin. During Tribute, he wrecked a vintage MG that he bought from Bill Bixby.

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Although your father won two Oscars, Billy Wilder said he was a ham that needed the fat trimmed away.

Billy Wilder was wonderful and he loved to poke fun at people who loved to poke fun right back. Billy was a very strict director. He did not shoot any excess footage. He only gave very specific takes to editors and had them glue them all together for him. That was him trimming fat off the ham. He wanted as much fat as he could get so he could do that trimming process and get exactly the performance he wanted.

There must be a million fond memories of Walter Matthau.

When they were doing Buddy, Buddy, Walter took a perilous fall and was knocked out. Pop ran over and folded up his coat and gently lifted Walter’s head and placed it underneath. Walter’s eyes fluttered open. He said, ‘Walt are you comfortable?’ Walt looked up at him and said, ‘I make a living.’

Do you remember his last words to you?

His father’s last words to him were, ‘Spread a little sunshine,’ and those were amongst the last words he said to me. He said, ‘You’re an actor. Don’t do anything half way. Give them the laughter and give them the heartache. But most of all you’re a father. Be there for your children because they need you. And for those times I wasn’t there for you I’m sorry, but I did the best I could.’