By Rita J. Egan
The question, “What was it like to be Jack Lemmon’s son,” sent actor Chris Lemmon on a life-long journey to discover the ultimate answer.
“It’s an enormous question,” Lemmon said in a recent telephone interview. His retrospective journey produced a 2006 memoir “A Twist of Lemmon: A Tribute to My Father,” which in turn inspired the multimedia production “Twist of Lemmon,” where he acts, sings, plays piano and shares his personal photos.
On July 28, Long Islanders will get a taste of Lemmon’s heartbreaking as well as heartwarming memories when he presents a new and revised version of “Twist of Lemmon” at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington. The actor, who appeared in television shows such as “Duet” and “Knots Landing,” as well as numerous stage productions, said after the book’s publication, he realized he needed to do more with the story about his Academy-Award-winning actor father.
“The book turned into kind of a performance piece that was really touching and moving people, and I thought: Gosh, I would love to take this to the next step, and the next step, I don’t think it’s film or TV, I think it’s theater,” the actor said. “And the only way this can be a piece of theater is if I’m playing a character, and obviously the character has got be Jack.” The last year and a half, Lemmon has performed the one-man show, where he narrates the story from his father’s perspective, at small venues. He said he was “purposely flying under the radar” preparing for a big opening. “I was going with my little bag, my little show in a bag, from theater to theater. That’s what I would do, because it’s the only place you learn,” he said.
Last month at the St. James Theatre in London’s West End, a reworked “Twist of Lemmon,” directed by Hugh Wooldridge, premiered. After a successful three-week run abroad, Lemmon said the revised show, which includes added material, is now “ready for the trail” in the states. He has also increased the pace of the play by riding into the laughs, as his father would have done, instead of waiting for them to stop. The play centers around how Lemmon and his father, who passed away in 2001, mended their estrangement that occurred after the older Lemmon divorced Chris’s mom, Cynthia Stone. With yearly visits to Alaska that began when he was 11 years old, the father and son slowly repaired their relationship. In later years, they also shared a love of golf, which included participating in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am Tournament, where in his first year, the younger Lemmon made the final cut, something his father dreamed of doing for 35 years.
When it comes to his father’s shortcomings, including a battle with alcoholism, Lemmon is candid. “It’s my duty as a narrator to show everything, every bump in the road, to explore his alcoholism, to explore his fallacies and foibles and his faults as a human being as well as my own. Every single one of them,” he said. However, the tale isn’t an accusatory one. Lemmon said his father actively pursued a relationship with his son and handled his alcoholism “in the most gallant possible manner.”
Not only did he get help for his problem but he also admitted his struggle on the television show “Inside the Actor’s Studio.” “That takes guts, man. Back then, it wasn’t vogue. It was tantamount to career suicide. So it gives me great pleasure to tell those stories,” Lemmon said. His advice to those who are estranged from family members is to do the work to repair the relationship. During one of the show’s monologues, Lemmon delivers the lines: “We’re all human. We all make mistakes. If we can understand that about each other, accept it, instead of resenting it, then we can rise above.”
Lemmon is grateful he did all of the above when it came to the relationship with his dad. “He was not just my father; he was my very best friend. I miss everything about him. I still have dreams two or three times a week that he’s back, and we’re fishing or golfing or just doing whatever, driving around and crunching the gears in every exotic car ever made,” he said. “He was just so much fun to be with. I don’t play golf anymore. I don’t fish either. I can’t do it. It’s just not the same.” The actor also treats the audience to a taste of the golden age of Hollywood by playing “Jack” imitating celebrated celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Walter Matthau and more. Also among the photos appearing on a screen are Jack’s movie roles and co-stars.
Lemmon hopes to keep not only his father’s but also all of these legendary actors’ memories alive. “These people were not just iconic as celebrities they were really iconic as human beings,” he said. After the play, Lemmon said he will definitely have the energy for the postshow Q-and-A with the audience. “People say this must take such an emotional toll on you, because it is a very deeply, somewhat tragic in its core, father-son story, but, of course, it’s couched in the golden age of Hollywood so there’s all that shenanigans and fun,” Lemmon said. “And, he was just such a human leprechaun himself, full of so much energy. Actually, for me, because I miss him so damn much, it’s really emotionally rewarding.”
At the end of the play, Lemmon said his ultimate goal is to make audiences both laugh and cry. “Because that’s what pop always believed acting should be about — make them laugh and make them cry.”
Jud Newborn, curator of special programs at the Cinema Arts Centre, is looking forward to the “Twist of Lemmon” event. He said Steinway & Sons, Long Island is sponsoring the evening, which will begin with a demonstration of the company’s new high-resolution player piano, the Spirio. A 15-minute screen presentation will feature several pianists but without any sound as the Spirio simultaneously plays what’s displayed on the screen. Lemmon, who is an accomplished pianist, will also be playing the Spirio live during his performance. Newborn said the play will be followed by an audience Q-and-A with the actor as well as a reception in the Sky Room featuring jazz guitarist Mike Soloway.
The Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington, will present “Twist of Lemmon” on Thursday, July 28 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $46, $38 for members. For more information, call 631-423-7610 or visit www.cinemaartscentre.org.