Actor Jack Lemmon, who died Wednesday at age 76 of complications related to cancer, turned from a comic wild card into a warm and crinkly Everyman, cushioning Walter Matthau's spikiness with his own testy sweetness in the "Grumpy Old Men" movies and dispensing life lessons as the dying academic in "Tuesdays With Morrie."
Forty-one years ago, in "The Apartment," when Lemmon played a young company man who lent his modest pad to bosses who needed a love nest, his doctor neighbor kept urging him to be "a mensch."
And that's what Lemmon became as his career narrowed and closed, taking Grand Old Man roles in "Inherit the Wind" and "12 Angry Men," both on TV.
When he was last on the big screen, it was in voice only, narrating "The Legend of Bagger Vance." No airbrushed picture of the past ever had more need of his emotional authenticity.
But to those of us who first saw Lemmon as the joyously conniving Ensign Pulver in "Mr. Roberts," or the euphoric bongo player who enjoys being a warlock in "Bell, Book and Candle," or as the bass player who poses as a female bass player while on the run from the Mob in "Some Like It Hot" - and falls in love with the pose - Lemmon will always be the opposite of a Grand Old Man or a platitude-spewing mensch.
To us he is forever the hell-raising boy, his eyes streaking like lasers as they seek every existential loophole that will win him more ecstasy or freedom. The curtain speech that fans like us imagine Lemmon delivering before the pearly gates is the one he gave as Ensign Pulver to his hated skipper: "Captain, it is I, Ensign Pulver, and I want you to know that I just threw your stinkin' palm tree overboard. Now what's all this crud about no movie tonight?"
At his best, he was comic anarchy incarnate. He expressed a whirlwind of earthly desires and romantic yearnings. His comic armaments seemed unlimited. He developed his own plastic-man body language, turning a trip up and down a ship's stairs into a comic gavotte in "Mister Roberts."
He mastered an elastic vocal style that could transform everything from exclamations to wheedlings into a jazz form of farce. And when the body and spoken language came together, the result was instant and enduring ecstasy.
Who can forget, in "Some Like it Hot," Lemmon's bass player Jerry, with a face like a child discovering ice cream, watching Marilyn Monroe walk and exploding, "Look at that! Look how she moves! That's just like Jell-O on springs! Must have some sort of built-in motor or something. I tell you, it's a whole different sex!"
Or, later, Lemmon's Jerry as "Daphne" shaking a pair of maracas while he proclaims to Tony Curtis' Joe (or "Josephine"), "Have I got things to tell you! I am engaged!" Joe, a little slow, asks, "Who is the lucky girl?" And Lemmon's Daphne, replies, half-jubilant and half-defiant, with another push of the maracas: "I am!"
Appetite and enthusiasm
When stars have careers as long and distinguished as Lemmon's, it's tempting to reward and remember them for the work that's most conventionally honorable - protest melodramas like "The China Syndrome" and "Missing," classics like "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (which he performed on stage and TV), the screen versions of contemporary milestones like "Glengarry Glen Ross," or the role for which he won his best actor Oscar - the dress manufacturer at the end of his rope in "Save the Tiger," an upper-middle-class, L.A. cousin to an Arthur Miller play. (He won his best supporting actor Oscar for Ensign Pulver in "Mister Roberts.")
Indeed, it was a mark of Lemmon's appetite and enthusiasm for acting that he kept taking on challenging roles until his health forbade it, finding new admirers and even proteges among the best actors of succeeding generations, with Kevin Spacey, in particular, speaking out as his biggest fan.
But Lemmon will go down in movie history as the exemplar of the performer who glows for a decade and a half with comedy's equivalent of English writer Walter Pater's "hard, gem-like flame," and by then develops enough technique and versatility to perform capably as a dramatic or comic actor after it fades.
That happens more frequently in TV - think of Sid Caesar or Dick Van Dyke. In Lemmon's case, the energy he expended in his run of virtuoso comic turns might have been the equal of what TV comics put out in five-season runs.
Where did that flame come from? As always with genius, nobody knows. The son of the president of a Boston doughnut company, he attended Harvard and dabbled in theatricals, he served as an ensign in the Navy, he played piano in saloons and went the New York actor route.
The great director George Cukor gave Lemmon his big-screen break in "It Should Happen to You," with Judy Holliday; perhaps Cukor could see an ember of the originality he had fanned in other favorite actors, such as Katharine Hepburn or Cary Grant.