Jack Lemmon is one of the few actors to master the genre called comedy- drama

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John Culhane, a writer and film historian, is the author of a book on movie special effects to be published by Ballantine this fall. By John Culhane ack Lemmon, in his temporary dressing room in a gas station in Agoura, Calif., demonstrated how he would deliver his first speech to Walter Matthau in the film ”Buddy Buddy” – if he could get away with it.

”Matthau is a hit man who pulls into the gas station to use the men’s room,” said Lemmon. ”But I’m already there, on my way to try to reconcile with my wife, who has abandoned me for the head of a sex clinic. Matthau rattles the knob, he knocks. Finally, I come out and say, ‘Sorry – I was throwing up. I have this nervous stomach.’ ”

For a brief moment, Lemmon seemed about to encore his act. ” ‘Tried everything. They say it’s psychosomatic – because of my wife.’ ”

Lemmon thought it over: ”I don’t know if I can get away with almost getting sick again, but I’m going to try.” Would he first ask Billy Wilder, at 75 still the dean of Hollywood’s directors? ”You don’t talk about acting – you do it,” Lemmon said. ”Don’t prepare the director by verbally giving him a mental image. He may not see your mental image the same way you do. Show him.”

On the first take of ”Buddy Buddy,” Lemmon showed Wilder his sudden attack of nausea. Wilder spoke quietly to Lemmon afterward and that was that. (”Lemmon can act a bad stomach without that,” said Wilder later. ”Less is more.”)

On the second take, Lemmon didn’t put his handkerchief away as he walked back to his car – and Wilder realized that Lemmon had saved perhaps a second and a half by keeping it in his hand. (”We evolve the simplest scene we can,” said Wilder afterward. ”The camera also sees Matthau, who is still looking at Lemmon, and Matthau is hung up there if Lemmon takes two seconds longer. So we’ll have him keep the handkerchief in his hand.” Why not a close-up of Lemmon, to release Matthau? ”Close-ups are trump cards,” said Wilder. ”Don’t play them too fast if it’s not necessary.”)

After take three, Lemmon talked quietly to Wilder, who talked quietly to I.A.L. Diamond, the scriptwriter. Diamond has collaborated with Wilder on all seven Jack Lemmon films that Wilder has directed. Diamond nodded to Wilder, Wilder nodded to Lemmon, and the words ”tried everything” disappeared from the script.

Diamond later explained, ”Jack felt that ‘tried everything’ interfered with the rhythm of his speech. When actors want to add words, I object. But the less words the better.” Wilder agreed: ”We show his taking Tums and Di-Gel. Saying ‘tried everything’ is redundant.”

On the fourth take, Lemmon’s expression shifted the emphasis of his speech from the fact that he had a nervous stomach to apologizing to Matthau for it. ”Lemmon has a good concept as to how to make a thought come off on the screen,” said Wilder. ”This is the character: He is the kind of guy who apologizes. He’s a man who would not impose on the next customer, as it were.” Wilder ordered the take held for possible printing.

On take five, Matthau matched the sincerity of Lemmon’s apology with a look of disdain for his excessive humility that would fry bacon.

”That’s the first print,” said Billy Wilder.

Jack Lemmon has been showing directors and audiences for more than 30 years, and they have usually believed him. ”He has that very fortunate Mr. Everyman face and it’s very difficult not to believe him,” said Stuart Rosenberg, who directed Lemmon in ”The April Fools.” ”He can keep it real, as opposed to theatrical. And he’s very comfortable with physical comedy. Jack is not an imposing, dramatic figure – when he does something silly, you say, ‘Aw, I did that myself.’ ”

The day after Lemmon finished ”Buddy Buddy,” he flew from Hawaii, where the last scenes were shot, to Mexico, where he made ”Missing,” a film directed by Constantin Costa-Gav- ras, who made ”Z.” In this drama, Lemmon plays an American father searching – with his hostile daughter-in-law – for his son, who has disappeared in a Latin American country during revolutionary turbulence. After that, he will get behind the camera to direct Jill Clayburgh and Susan Sarandon in ”A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking.”

Lemmon’s pace – ”Buddy Buddy,” to be released around Christmas, is his 37th picture in 28 years – is characteristic of one of Hollywood’s hardest-working, best-liked and most ”bankable” stars. He won attention in his first film role, with Judy Holliday in 1954, in ”It Should Happen to You.” He won an Oscar for best supporting actor in 1955 (as Ensign Pulver in ”Mr. Roberts”); he was the country’s top box-office attraction in the 1960’s and he won another Oscar as best actor in 1973 in a straight dramatic role (as Harry Stoner in ”Save the Tiger”) – the first actor to receive the top award in both categories. He received his seventh Academy Award nomination, for ”Tribute” (1980), hard on the heels of his sixth nomination for ”The China Syndrome” (1979).

These days, Jack Lemmon is clearly basking in the prime of Mr. Everyman. His life is an energetic, disciplined round of acting, golf, annual Alaskan fishing trips with his son, Chris, and some friends, beach-house days with his wife, Felicia, and his daughter, Courtney, frequent dining out with close friends and neighbors like the Wilders and the Matthaus – and ever more acting.

Lemmon, indeed, is a man who can only stay at peace if he is trying to top himself in the future. For example, Samuel Beckett, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, recently asked Lemmon to do a one-man stage performance of Beckett’s existential tragicomedies. Although Lemmon has not set a date, he has announced ”my total intent to do it, though it petrifies me.” Lemmon added, ”I’ve never been more flattered in my entire professional life. And I am petrified. But that’s good. When you’re scared to death, you can’t turn it down.”

Jack Lemmon is one of the few actors to master the genre called comedy- drama. As such, Lemmon is a clown for the Age of Anxiety. The falls his characters fear most are in the estimation of others. Harold Lloyd, the great silent-screen personification of comic optimism, saw Lemmon as his successor. But the optimism of Lemmon’s characters is tested by problems more wrenching than Lloyd’s standard get-the-jobwin-the-girl plots. In ”The Odd Couple,” Lemmon faced divorce with a titanic sinus attack; in ”The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” he got fired – and had a nervous breakdo.

I.A.L. Diamond calls him ”a prototypical American – he’s Penrod, Peck’s bad boy – and immensely likable. When he gets in trouble – let’s say as an alcoholic in ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ – we’re rooting for him to get cured. If he does something crooked in ‘Save the Tiger,’ or something off-color in ‘The Apartment’ or ‘The Fortune Cookie,’ people are rooting for him to straighten out, because of their tremendous identification with him.” In ”Buddy Buddy,” he contemplated suicide – and was reminded at the sex clinic that ”premature ejaculation means always having to say you’re sorry.”

Where does a notably pleasant actor, who is rich, famous and well liked in real life, get his understanding of the other reality – inadequacy, failure, anguish, insecurity, sadness and desperation – which he portrays?

When Lemmon told the story of his life – in interviews on location for ”Buddy Buddy” and in his office and at his home – he told it as comedy, but his eyes were always acting a sadder script. ”I was born at the Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Newton, Mass., -in the elevator,” he began. His mother had been playing bridge and had ignored the labor pains too long. It was Feb. 8, 1925. ”I was born two months premature, with a testicle that refused to drop and acute jaundice – and the nurse quipped, ‘My, look at the yellow Lemmon.’ At least, that’s what my mother told me.”

Comic touch or no, Lemmon believes his mother was so appalled by his undignified entrance into the world that it made final her inclination not to have any more children.

His ”acting” career began with a MAGAZINE part 2 snoring routine that he did in the living room for company when he was about 7: ”I came up with about 25 different snores, including the freight-train snore,” and he illustrated this with a snore that sounded like an interminable freight train rumbling past a crossing.

Funny stuff – except that young Jack Lemmon devised this routine about the time that his parents began sleeping in separate bedrooms. Mildred Lemmon explained to her son that his father was sleeping apart from her because he kept her awake with his snoring. His childish attempt to make snoring seem funny and appealing would not be his last attempt to relieve anxiety with comedy.

”I had a happy childhood, but it was tempered with an acute awareness of the pain,” Lemmon admitted as we sat in the bar of his mansion in exclusive Beverly Hills, and he sipped Tab.

To this day, friends in Hollywood talk about Lemmon’s deep love for both his parents, and his involvement with them until his father’s death from cancer in 1962, and his mother’s death in 1967. His father was a supersalesman. His mother, the party-loving, wisecracking Mildred Noel Lemmon, lived apart from her husband for 20 years, and loved him till the day she died.

”Never sell your product,” his father taught John Uhler (Jack) Lemmon 3d, ”sell yourself.” The elder Lemmon got a commission in the Navy during World War I, but never went to college. In compensation, he sent his only son to three exclusive schools in the East -Rivers Country Day, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and Harvard -while he rose to become vice president of sales for the Doughnut Corporation of America. He is credited with securing heavily rationed sugar during World War II to keep the doughnuts rolling, and with creating an American doughnut market in Europe after the war.

Business trips took Jack’s father away for longer and longer periods of time, and Millie Lemmon, characterized by her son as ”a free spirit,” began spending more and more time in the bar of Boston’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Lemmon’s parents never quarreled in front of him, but once, listening at a bedroom door, he heard his mother threaten to live at the Ritz-Carlton. ”My parents should have split when I was 10 or 11, whether it hurt me or not,” Lemmon now believes. ”Sometimes people stay together, thinking maybe they’re doing the kids a favor – and they’re not. Because, unless the kids are total dumbbells, they know. They know. And it’s worse.”

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