The Secret Musical Life Of Jack Lemmon

Jun 10, 2011

It's been almost 10 years since the death of Jack Lemmon. The actor had a special gift for playing what critic Judith Crist called the "harassed man — outflanked, outranked and outmaneuvered." But he had an additional talent that wasn't heralded in quite the same way as his acting: As it turns out, he was a devoted piano player and singer.

Every so often, a movie made use of Lemmon's musical skills, however briefly. His first film as a leading man, in 1954, was It Should Happen To You! — and in it he sat at a piano in a bar and sang with Judy Holliday. He once said that there were two things he could do well and get attention for: acting and music. And music came first.

Lemmon started playing piano when he was a kid. As he told reporter James Carter in a 1993 interview, his first job in New York after deciding to pursue an acting career was playing piano, in a club run by another Harvard grad.

"I used to play at the Old Knick Music Hall on Second Avenue in New York, way back in the '40s when I first started," Lemmon said. "Some weeks, we didn't get paid, because there wouldn't be enough people in there to give us anything. Sometimes you'd get maybe five bucks. We'd split whatever was left on Saturday night. But you got a piece of chicken and French fries every night. You got a meal."

It helped sustain Lemmon while he waited for acting jobs, and later, the piano helped him survive Hollywood. His son, Chris Lemmon, is an actor and writer who says music helped his father survive Hollywood.

"Hollywood is an enormously invasive thing, especially when you reach a level of stardom that my father did," Chris Lemmon says. "Hollywood owns you, basically — puts you in a headlock. And is a very jealous mistress when you reach that kind of stardom, especially back then. It's a little less now. So [music] was his escape."

Chris Lemmon's memoir of Hollywood life — and life with his dad — is called A Twist of Lemmon. It's a borrowed title, from his dad's 1959 album of pop standards and jazz. He says that behind the scenes — even between takes on movie sound stages — his father was forever noodling on any piano he could find, even when the movie did not involve music. Sometimes the studio would provide a piano; after all, a happy actor gives a happy performance.

"Pop was the kind of guy who could take his coat off after every take," Chris Lemmon says. "He was one of those people that effortlessly slipped in and out of character and scenes. And in between scenes, he was him. And [he] loved to play the piano."

Throughout his life, Jack Lemmon said he was never far from a piano.

"I play the piano every day," he told James Carter. "I could sit and play for an hour, and Felicia [Farr, Lemmon's wife from the early '60s until his death] would come in and say, 'How long are we going to hold dinner?' And I'd say, 'Well, I've been here five minutes.' And she'll say, 'Five minutes? It's been an hour and a half.' "

Still, Lemmon was always modest about his abilities, and was quick to mention that double-threat performers are far from rare.

"If there's a talent, there's at least a half another talent going along," he said. "A lot of actors are good writers. A lot of actors will paint, too. It's an outlet."

Music was Jack Lemmon's outlet — a kind of "soulful cleansing," as his son puts it, from the rigors of Hollywood.

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