On Theater: Celebrating 'a guy you're gonna like'

In my personal pantheon of Hollywood superstars, three names rise noticeably above the rest — those of Jimmy Stewart, Gene Kelly and the actor whose life and career are being celebrated by his son at the Laguna Playhouse in a one-man show titled "Jack Lemmon Returns."

Chris Lemmon not only bears a physical resemblance to his father, but also brings Jack's giddy laugh and comedic stammer to a rich and robust performance that stands as a deserved tribute to one of our greatest movie actors. It's a memorable achievement that, regrettably, closes Sunday after an all-too-brief two-weekend engagement.

Jack Lemmon won two Oscars, for "Mister Roberts" and "Save the Tiger," and probably should have won at least four more — for "Days of Wine and Roses," "Missing," "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "Tribute." He was nominated a half-dozen times, and his talent in his half-century career reached stratospheric heights.

In the Laguna tribute — written and directed by Hershey Felder, no stranger to one-man shows at the playhouse — Chris Lemmon slips into his father's persona as he recounts a remarkable cinematic career. Like his dad (and his director), he's a superb pianist, and he accompanies himself on a number of tunes, the centerpiece being Gershwin's "Our Love Is Here to Stay" (also among my personal favorites).

John Uhler Lemmon III ("Jackie" in his younger days) was born Feb. 8, 1925, in a hospital elevator in Newton, Mass. His mother was having a winning streak at a casino when her water broke and didn't want to leave, the younger Lemmon explains with that nervous giggle that endears him to his audience.

Chris Lemmon details his dad's early days lovingly, with emphasis on his attraction to the theater and film. As Jack, he fondly recalls his first starring movie role, opposite Judy Holliday in "It Should Happen to You." (As a teenage usher back in Corry, Pa., I remember the preview announcing "Introducing Jack Lemmon, a guy you're gonna like." Prophetic.)

How he got the chance to win his first Oscar is another special moment. Lemmon recalls his father meeting a "grimy old grip" on a movie set and telling him how, as a Navy vet, he coveted the role of Ensign Pulver. After listening to the young man's enthusiasm, the old fellow said, "I'm [John] Ford and you're Pulver. See you on the set Monday."

Jack Lemmon was equally adept at screwball comedy and deadly serious drama, excelling in both genres. His comic turns with his good friend Tony Curtis ("Some Like It Hot," "The Great Race") were legendary, as were the half-dozen flicks he made with another good buddy, Walter Matthau.

In what, in my estimation, was his greatest performance, as Joe Clay in "Days of Wine and Roses," the actor had a special understanding of the character, since he too was ruled by booze, a surprising admission he made to America 35 years later on "Inside the Actors Studio."

Of Jack's relationship with his son, whom he called "the hotshot," Chris Lemmon turns intensely personal, describing his deep love tempered by long absences — from the father's point of view. Most deeply affecting is the occasion when Jack saved Chris from drowning.

Special attention is reserved for Matthau, his close personal friend and co-star in many movie comedies, most notably "The Odd Couple" and the "Grumpy Old Men" flicks. When Matthau died, just a year before Lemmon's passing, Jack was devastated.

While less famous than his superstar father, Chris Lemmon has enjoyed a long career as an actor, musician and writer (his book "A Twist of Lemmon" was published eight years ago). With "Jack Lemmon Returns," he displays an inherited natural talent that deserves wider attention than the brief Laguna run, which hopefully is only the beginning of this remarkable tribute (make that "Tribute" with a capital T as in one of Jack's greatest performances).

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Jack Lemmon Returns"

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: Closing performances at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $30 to $45

Information: (949) 497-2787 or http://www.lagunaplayhouse.com

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