A Chat with Chris Lemmon, Chris Lemmon interview, "A Twist of Lemmon: A Tribute to My Father"

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First things first: yes, Chris Lemmon is the son of the late Jack Lemmon. But it’s highly possible that you know Chris’ work as an actor as well, given his stints on “Knots Landing,” “Thunder in Paradise” and the early Fox sitcom, “Duet.” In recent years, however, Chris has stepped back from the Hollywood lifestyle in favor of playing the role of family man, but when his father passed away, Chris found himself putting pen to paper and composing what would become “A Twist of Lemmon: A Tribute to My Father.” Bullz-Eye was fortunate enough to speak with Chris upon the publication of the softcover version of this exemplary look back at one of Hollywood’s finest and most respected actors, and in addition to discussing his father, we took the opportunity to ask Chris about a few of his own roles as well.

Bullz-Eye: Hey, Chris, this is Will Harris.

Chris Lemmon: Hey, Will, how are ya?

BE: I’m good. It’s a pleasure to speak with you.

CL: My pleasure.

BE: I just wanted to start by saying that I was really absorbed in your book. I sat down, started reading it, and I pretty much never put it down.

CL: (laughs) Aren’t you nice to say that?

BE: Well, I’m not just saying it. I loved it; it was great.

CL: Thank you. It’s just been wonderful, not just with the hardcover but especially this go ‘round with the paperback. The response has just been terrific.

BE: And I got it right after Father’s Day, and I’m a father myself, so I can only hope that I might someday inspire such a good book.

CL: Well, you’ll find out, won’t you?

BE: She’s only two right now, but I hope to find out gradually.

CL: That’s good. You don’t want to find out too soon!

BE: Exactly. Actually, I was just watching Season One of “Mad Men,” and I don’t know if you’ve seen the show…

CL: I haven’t.

BE: …but it’s on AMC, and it takes place in the early ‘60s. Anyway, I viewed it as fate that I just watched an episode where one character suggests to another that they go see your dad’s movie, “The Apartment.”

CL: Oh, terrific! Wow, now I’ll have to make it a point to check it out!

BE: It’s a great show, about the advertising world in the early ‘60s. But, anyway, what led you to write the book? Was it something you’d been considered for awhile?

CL: No, not at all. It was actually something that was directly from the heart. It was a byproduct of a search for catharsis while I was dealing with the loss of my father and best friend. I guess it started while I was at his bedside while he was dying of cancer, and he was there, but he wasn’t, and having gone through it with my mother, I looked for the only defense I could find, which was to sort of sit next to him, take his hand, and just remember all the things we’d done together, the good and the bad. And, y’know, after he left, just as sort of a sidebar, I feel that even in dysfunctional father-son relationships but certainly in functional ones, the son’s quest for approval for the father, and in turn, there’s kind of a quiet hand on the shoulder. And when the father goes, the hand is gone. And it hit me pretty hard afterwards. And I found that putting those memories down kind of helped. So I did. And as I did, more and more would occur to me, and the next thing I knew, I was starting to get sort of a narrative thread going, to kind of sew these memories together. And I realized I was sort of writing more of a story that was much deeper than just simply reminiscing. It really had to do with our unique yet universal father-son relationship…a father-son relationship in general, with finding one’s path in life, loss of innocence, and how introspective and yet universal that is. We all lose our innocence as we grow older, but is the world around us losing its innocence as well?

BE: Unfortunately, I’d say it is.

CL: Right, but, y’know, it’s a very subjective thing, and you know what I’m saying: no one can really tell. But a number of other things, sort of subtle explorations of life underneath. And the next thing I knew, I thought, y’know, maybe I’m writing something here that might be worthy of publication. And if so, then I kind of almost feel compelled to publish it, simply because I knew a side of Jack Lemmon that nobody else saw, and this man really was beloved worldwide, and I almost felt obligated to share these wonderful memories as well as those stories that seemed to be writing themselves. And that led me to finally go to my wife/mentor and say, “Sweetheart, this is what I’m thinking,” and all the things I just enumerated to you, I laid on her, and as any good, wise wife would do, she nodded her head and said, “Mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm,” and listened to the whole list, then turned to me and said, “Write the book, and make it funny.” And that was the key, you know? I suddenly realized, “Well, there it all is, isn’t it?” Because that’s what he was: he was just a human leprechaun. Jack Lemmon was so much fun to be around that, gee whiz, yeah, let’s see if we can make it funny! So all of the above ingredients, plus make it funny and a loving memoir. Hats off, by the way, to Algonquin for the original hardcover and to Applause for the softcover, who’ve done a sensational job, but kudos to both of them for having the guts to publish a loving story, because lord knows it’s not an easy sell in this marketplace. And I knew that, and so I said, “What I need to do is write this book.” So that’s what I did. Then I took it out and sold it. And, fortunately, it was received really well. We did have a bidding war when we went to marketplace, and it’s just been a wonderful experience. I mean, first in hardback it was a big hit, not one bad review across the board, and I had some pretty tough people take a look at it. And now with this wonderful release in paperback! And now it also looks like we’re going to move forward with another idea I had when we originally did the hardback, which is to do a collection of Pop’s films. I’m just trying to keep him out here as much as I can, and it’s going to be based on the concept and feel of the book, and we’re going to do it with Sony Entertainment. That’ll be out Father’s Day ’09. It’s been a very exciting and extremely rewarding ride, and for me, absolutely one of the most wonderful endeavors I’ve ever undertaken personally, and maybe the most rewarding I’ve ever taken professionally.

“I thought, ‘Y’know, maybe I’m writing something here that might be worthy of publication. And if so, then I kind of almost feel compelled to publish it, simply because I knew a side of Jack Lemmon that nobody else saw.’”

BE: Well, I don’t know if it’s a testament to your writing or my knowledge of your dad, but there’s not a line in the book that I can’t hear in my head as coming out of his mouth.

CL: Well, you know, I really made…once I decided that, yes, we’re going to do this, I really wanted to honor him and really find his voice. And I think I did. You know, I’m so much like him that that part maybe came a little naturally, too. But I knew him so well and we had these wonderful experiences together, so it was there, and I think I did…or at least other people have told me I did…I found his voice. That was very important to me. And, also, properly paying tribute and properly paying respect to him and trying to emulate within the book those things I most admired about him: his ability to raise the bar wherever he went, his ability to be without a doubt the most emotionally generous man I’ve ever met. Yet, at the same time, staying true to the story and letting you know the fallibilities we all have: the fact that this man did have difficulty with close emotional commitment and did tend to guard himself and probably was emotionally his freest when he was on stage and could…not hide behind but not have the risk of opening up too much and getting hurt, because he was a character. And, also, the father-son relationship which, so many times, the father can’t tell the son how proud he is or what his deep feeling are. And so many times the son ends up hearing that through other sources and not from the horse’s mouth. And so many others. I’m just taking two out of a mountain of them. But, again, I guess overall, really, the most important thing I didn’t want to do was write yet another star’s kid, “oh, poor me,” filled-with-coat-hangers tell-all. As I’ve said in a few other interviews, our sons and daughters are overseas risking their lives for our country, and the last thing they want to do is come home and hear a star’s kid saying, “Oh, poor me.” So that’s basically the potpourri of all of that.

BE: And I think you succeeded in that. You indicate that it wasn’t all wine and roses, but at the same time you didn’t do it in a way that made it sound like you were complaining. It was just a “this is how it was” situation. It wasn’t spectacular 100 percent of the time, but what is?

CL: And I had to do that. I couldn’t just go traipsing down the rosy road. This was a tribute, not anything else. It was a memoir mixed with bit of biography and autobiography. It was a heartfelt exploration of a unique yet universal relationship, but for those reasons, it also had to, without hitting the nail on the head, attempt to tell the truth. And the truth is, no relationship is perfect. Of course not. We had our rocky roads and our ups and downs. Do I want to point fingers at anybody or place blame? No, I tried very hard to tell the truth without doing that.

BE: Just a couple of highlights from the book for me. The image of James Coburn standing in his picture window, glowering before you and your dad as you chased a pair of poodles through his yard, had to have been seared into your mind even if you hadn’t had to remember it for the book.

CL: It’s one of the great pictures. And I’ve gotta say, I give myself a little pat on the back because the screenwriter in me was coming out, and I think I painted it just right, especially the quick run-by of the two poodles behind us while he’s staring at us, right before we pointed at each other and said, “It’s his fault!”

“The most important thing I didn’t want to do was write yet another star’s kid, ‘oh, poor me,’ filled-with-coat-hangers tell-all.’”

BE: And even better, in my mind, the picture of Coburn is that of him in his later years, when he always seemed to be looking particularly gruff. It just adds to it in my imagination.

CL: He was just such a…it’s wonderful, because you always love these personas that actors develop, but he was just one of the biggest teddy bears you’d ever want to meet on the face of the earth.

BE: And the idea of having Walter Matthau as a surrogate uncle is somehow both really cool and slightly worrisome.

CL: Sure, Uncle Walt, you never know what’s going to come out of that mouth. (laughs) This man was just as much of a pistol off-screen as Pop was, and that’s why I really had to bend my editor’s arm…and, by the way, hats off to Chuck Adams as well, who was my editor on this and just did a wonderful job on this…and as he promised, he didn’t change any of the structure. He just helped me tighten it and make it more universal, and he did a wonderful job with that. But, yeah, that’s why I had to tell that story about the horse race.

BE: Oh, that’s great. I was telling someone that the other day.

CL: Oh, yeah, it’s a classic story. There were a few that Chuck reluctantly let me put in there just because, quite honestly, they were too funny to leave out. He wanted to make it as much about Pop as possible. But that was one of my favorite stories, and so was “Last of the Schtarkers.” We loved that story, and it’s a famous tale at Hillcrest, and it took some thinking to figure out just the right way to write it, and whether to write it as Milton saying it or whether to write it in the third person, as we finally ended up doing. Those are a couple of great ones, but there’s a few that didn’t make it in there. There’s one that’s one of my favorite stories, called “Fore!” It’s actually about me, and it was a round of golf I played in Peter Jacobson’s tournament, the Fred Meyer Challenge. Actually, it was in its first year. The celebrities were thin that year, so Pop played with somebody else and I played with Paul Azinger, who you know is a Connecticut boy like me. And just to give you a synopsis, in the course of 18 holes, I managed to hit three different spectators. And Paul, his ability…he ended up shooting nine under par in 18 holes, yet still comforted me as I was going through the travails of basically assaulting the spectators on pretty much every hole. And that was one I really wanted to sneak into the Pebble Beach part, too, but Chuck put his foot down and said, “No.” So maybe one of these days I’ll write it up for a golf magazine.

BE: Ironically, I was just getting ready to ask you how your golf game was these days.

CL: Well, you know, it just…isn’t. I mean, ever since Pop left, I’ve made a faint attempt at continuing to play, but my heart just isn’t in it. It was just a personal thing between him and I. I get out there because they do a bunch of events for the Cancer Society, so I get out there for golf tournaments, and I get out there with my good buddy Rick Edelson…Dr. Richard Edelson, who’s the head of the Yale Cancer Research Center. Actually, he just stepped down from that post. But he may be our next Nobel laureate. He’s come up with some really impressive stuff that you’ll be hearing about shortly, including a cancer vaccine. But he’s a great guy and a very dear friend, so he and I will toss on the Bermuda shorts and walk around a little bit and have almost as much fun as Pop and I did. But my heart just isn’t in it anymore.

BE: Is there any film of your dad’s that…

(At this point, my power suddenly went out with absolutely no warning. This was positively heart-stopping, as (a) it knocked out the portable phone I’d been talking on, (b) it turned off my computer, and (c) worst of all, it closed Microsoft Outlook unexpectedly, which meant that it was going to take the better part of 15 minutes for the system to check for errors and come back up. Why was this so awful? Because I had Chris Lemmon’s phone number in an e-mail! Fortunately, Chris called back when he hadn’t heard back from me after a few minutes, and after I explained what had happened, he immediately suggested that I consider switching over to a Mac…and I was half-tempted to follow through right then and there!)

BE: Well, what I was going to ask before we were so rudely interrupted was, is there any film of your dad’s that you think doesn’t necessarily get the love that it deserves?

CL: Well, you know the story I told about…oh, what was the film? He did it with Genevieve Bujold, and he brought Matthau along with him as a security blanket, and Matthau’s famous line was, “Get out of it!” “Alex & The Gypsy,” that was it. He didn’t make too many boo-boos, though. It’s one of those things…it’s been awhile since I wrote the book, so I don’t know if I actually said it out loud, but…yes, I think I did. But, anyway, if there’s one thing he was brilliant at, maybe even more brilliant than most, it was his ability to choose projects. Not just as an artist making the choices for how he would play the part, but literally which project to do and which one to not. I told the great story about Paul Newman and how Dad ended up producing “Cool Hand Luke,” but he turned down the role because he knew that Newman was better for the part than he was. That’s pretty wily, you know? That takes some pretty good business sense to be able to come up with something like that. Even Cliff Robertson referenced it when he referred to Pop as Teflon in his reminiscence of him. But he really could make these incredible choices. As far as his favorite films, it was “Missing,” of course, because it was so personal for him, but also “The Great Race.” We both loved that film. I mention in the book that Blake (Edwards) had come up to us on the set of “That’s Life” and pitched the idea of “Great Race 2,” and we were psyched, but unfortunately he couldn’t wrest the rights away from Columbia. But I adored “The Great Race,” because I had so much fun on the set at 11 years old, fencing with Tony Curtis and riding in the Fate-mobile and all that. So there you go.

BE: It wasn’t actually mentioned in the book, but do you remember if your dad enjoyed doing his appearance on “The Simpsons?”

CL: That’s right, I forgot about that! I totally forgot! Oh, of course he had a great time! You know, “The Simpsons” was actually born right next door to me, when I was shooting “Duet.” We were one of the first Fox shows together. Tracey (Ullman) was right next door to us. We were on Stage 32, the old “King Kong” stage, and Tracey was right next door on Stage 31, and that’s where Matt (Groening) started doing “The Simpsons.” Right there. So we’d jump back and forth between the sets and make fun of them while we were working. So I kind of feel of a kinship with them. But, yeah, I’d forgotten that Pop had done a “Simpsons,” but of course he had a good time.

BE: And, actually, I had been going to ask you about some of your acting work as well, including “Duet,” which I remember watching back in the early days of Fox.

CL: Well, that was one of my…I’ve had some that were really, really fun to do, and that was way up at the top of the pack. We became very, very close friends, the cast of “Duet.” Matt Laurance, myself, Mary Page (Keller), and her husband, Thomas Ian Griffith, who’s also a wonderful actor. We especially became quite close, and still are to this day. It was really very disappointing when Barry Diller took over Fox and decided to go a whole different way that he didn’t bring us along with him. And he tried to metamorphosize the show into that abomination.

BE: Yeah, it’s been so long, but I thought I remembered that it was “retooled,” as they say.

“Hanging out with Hulk (Hogan) for a few years and working at Disney-MGM Studios is about as much fun as I’ve ever had standing up. As Walter (Matthau) was to Pop, Hulk was like the big brother I never had, and we just had a ball.”

CL: Yeah, well, we still had the same producers, so there was still that wonderful touch of class from Susan Seeger and Ruth Bennett, and Judd Pillot and John Peaslee, the great writers who went on to work with my buddy Craig Nelson in “Coach.” They were just terrific writers, and it was just such a good, classy show, and Diller…y’know, with all due respect, he just is not one of the classiest guys on the face of the earth, and he just never saw it. And that’s probably why his tenure at Fox didn’t last very long, either. Obviously, Fox did quite well by itself, and it’s continuing to do so…but all that aside, we had a wonderful run. We did three and a half years, plus another half year as that abomination. And when I say “abomination,” I mean, we had some really talented people come join us, like Danny Gans and Ellen DeGeneres in her first show ever, so we had a ball, and they became part of our little league of fun, and we’ve all remained good friends since then. But, y’know, there are a few shows that I’ve done that I’ve had wonderful memories of. Maybe one of the ones that I had the most fun on was “Thunder in Paradise,” which is not exactly in the same category as “Duet,” but…

BE: Maybe not high art, but it seemed like a lot of fun.

CL: Hey, I’ll tell ya, hanging out with Hulk for a few years and working at Disney-MGM Studios is about as much fun as I’ve ever had standing up. As Walter was to Pop, Hulk was like the big brother I never had, and we just had a ball. I’m so sorry to see him going through some tough times right now. I know Nicky, and he’s a good kid, so I guess he’s just made some mistakes, but it’s just a shame because nobody deserves that in their lives, including the poor young man that it happened to. But what are you going to do? Unfortunately, that can be life sometimes. But my heart goes out to Terry, because he really is a brother. But, yeah, “Duet” was definitely one of those shows that I was very proud to be a part of. And I had a great time on “Knots Landing,” too. That’s a raucous crew over there! (laughs) I was on there for about a year and a half. So it’s been great. We’ve had a good run, and I wanted to take some time off, as you read in the book. I mean, I don’t want to keep repeating myself, but I wanted to take some time off to give my kids what I never had, and we have. My daughter’s off at college now and starting as a freshman next year, and the boys are moving up to high school and junior high, so we’ve done what we needed to do here, and now we’re investigating getting back into it a little more strongly. The writing and producing are coming along nicely. The book’s doing well, and we’re still pushing the movie “Publicity Stunt.” Joel Zwick is directing that, and “Publicity Stunt” has a lot of the same overtones as “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” So we’re shooting for this fall, because the funding just looked a little iffy, and you obviously don’t want to jump into something unless it’s solid. We had to reluctantly pull the plug on that, and now we’re trying to put the pieces back together, so we’re hopeful for this fall.

BE: You know, there’s one other acting job of yours, and I was surprised it wasn’t mentioned in the book because I feel sure it came about because of your dad, since he was in the film, but IMDb has you listed as having played a radioman in “Airport ’77.”

CL: Yeah, that’s, uh, one of those weird things where I was literally on the set one day. I’d come in because I really wanted to meet Jimmy Stewart, because I love “It’s A Wonderful Life.” It’s always been one of my favorite films. And all of a sudden, the director, Jerry Jameson, goes over and says to Pop, “Jack, can Chris play this part? Because we don’t have the actor for this part right now. We were just going to stick an extra in there, but we can write him a couple of extra lines.” So they threw me in there to say something like, “Captain, we’ve got an emergency beacon,” or something horrendous like that. And to this day, I refuse to watch it. (laughs)

BE: Well, I’ve got the four-film “Airport” pack, I don’t mind telling you.

CL: Yeah, but I don’t even want to see it. I just…I choose not to watch that particular performance. (laughs)

BE: (laughs) So were there any stories where, after you went to press, you remembered them and went, “Oh, man, I can’t believe I forgot about that one?”

CL: Yeah, there are a bunch of them! And I joke with friends and say, “How the hell would I ever write the sequel?” I mean, the boat has kind of left the dock, hasn’t it? But I’ve got a ton of stories, and a bunch of them that just wouldn’t fit. But what am I going to do, have Pop come down from Heaven and say, “Hey, schmuck, you forgot this one?” There was a wonderful one that I really always wanted to put in the end, and obviously the end of the book…well, the whole structure of the book was very musical, but especially the ending, with the whole “I love you, Pop” and the flashbacks and everything. But there was one that just…it was one of the few tussles that my editor Chuck and my agent Mitchell Waters, who was such a creative part of it all, had. It was a wonderful memory I had of being in Cuba together, and Pop and I were at Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s house, which is kind of a “wow” right there, but let alone the fact that Castro ended up showing up and talking…he showed up at 11 p.m. and talked until 3 or 4 in the morning solely about buffalo mozzarella cheese. He did a five-hour diatribe about buffalo mozzarella fucking cheese, pardon my language. And Pop finally grabbed me by the arm, pulls me out on the balcony, turns to me, and said, “Is that the most boring thing that has ever happened to you in your entire life, or is it just me?” (laughs) And I just thought it was such a wonderful memory, and it happened to write itself out of me very nicely, and the words just fit really nicely so it was a real knee slapper. And, obviously, as Pop was so good at doing in his films and what I really tried my hardest to do, was to have you laugh hysterically and then suddenly be in tears. Or the other way around. It was a device I wanted to put in there as an homage to Pop. And I think I succeeded in a number of areas, and that was one of them, but Chuck said, “You can’t put it in there, because all of these other things were things we talked about during the course of the book, and that’s kind of a flat out-of-the-blue.” And I said, “Aw, Chuck, so what?” But, anyways, there’s that one, and “Fore!” was another one of the stories I really wish he would’ve let me include in there. So, yes, there are stories that didn’t make it in there.

BE: See, you should just start a blog, and you could post a story every couple of weeks.

CL: (laughs) Well, I’ve got a ton of them! And they’re not just about Pop! I mean, I’m a raconteur, I love to tell stories, obviously, and so I’ve got a ton of them. As a matter of fact, I was over at a couple of buddies’ houses, and one of the things we do are tell jokes when we get together for dinner. And I said, “We need to write a book, and we need to call it ‘Really Naughty Stories.’” ‘Cause it’s not like “1,001 Jokes.” These are really classic, great, really terrible jokes, much along the lines of the joke in the book: “Two Irish guys walk out of a bar. Hey, it could happen!” Y’know? That was one of Pop’s favorites. I’m talking about the great ones, and they’re totally naughty. In fact, I could go off the record…

BE: Go for it!

CL: Ah, but I can’t, really. I mean, there are these great story jokes, and they require a great tell, and you’ve gotta be there to see the facial expressions. But I still think it would be marvelous if you did it in a book and interspersed it with life stories, about how they come out of life, and maybe investigate a little bit how a particular joke came into being. Like, say, the famous Scotsman sleeping drunkenly on the side of the road, and a little girl comes across him, looks under the kilt, goes, “Woo!” Then she takes a ribbon, a blue ribbon, out of her hair and ties it around his pecker and goes skipping on down the road. About half an hour, the Scotsman wakes up, looks down, finds the ribbon, and says, “I dinnae know where ye’ve been, but ye’ve won First Prize!” (laughs) See, it’s hard to even do it over the phone, because you’ve got to make like the Scotsman looking down at his kilt and seeing it. Describing it just doesn’t do it justice.

BE: Well, look, I appreciate your time, and I really appreciate you calling back…especially since Outlook is still loading!

CL: You just need to go ahead and buy a new computer! (laughs) Well, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you, and if you need anything else for the article or you have any other questions, just give me a ring!

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