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A movie star who didn't fit the image

by ALAN MAASS | July 20, 2001 | Page 11

JACK LEMMON, who died at the end of June at the age of 76, didn't fit the classic image of a movie star. His close to 70 film appearances--plus eight Oscar nominations--qualified him as one.

But the characters he played weren't dashing or daring or suave. Lemmon is best known for portraying ordinary people, warts and all–and showing them driven half-crazy by the world around them.

That was the core of Lemmon's frantic characters in the 1950s and 1960s comedies that made him famous–like The Apartment, The Odd Couple or The Out-of-Towners.

But though these films made his career, Lemmon bucked the Hollywood system to make other dramatic movies that will be remembered far longer.

In the 1970s, U.S. filmmakers--reflecting the social upheavals of the time--made movies like The Godfather, Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon that broke the mold from what came before.

Lemmon made an important contribution to this trend with the 1973 film Save the Tiger--which only got made because Lemmon went to bat for the movie when studio bosses wanted to shut it down. Save the Tiger portrays a small businessman in the process of a breakdown--a fantastic film that's a commentary on both the dog-eat-dog logic of capitalism and the horrors of war.

In 1979, Lemmon starred in The China Syndrome, playing the strait-laced manager of a nuclear power plant who learns that the industry he's championed is putting the future of the planet at risk.

A few years later, Lemmon was the main character in Missing, where he portrayed the conservative, Christian Scientist father of a radical American journalist killed in Chile during the 1973 coup orchestrated by Gen. Augusto Pinochet and his friends in the CIA.

These movies are a testament not only to Lemmon's skill as an actor but to his commitment to political causes--a commitment that lasted to the end of his life. In the late 1990s, despite health problems, he starred in HBO remakes of several classic liberal movies, including the antiracist drama Twelve Angry Men and Inherit the Wind, a broadside against religious bigotry.

Most of these films can be found at any video store--and there's no better way to celebrate the life of this great actor than to have your own personal Jack Lemmon film festival.

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