05/18/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
Of all the many golf balls Jack Lemmon has hit in his day, none was more memorable than the hotel-in-one he sliced off the first tee at Pebble Beach about 17 years ago. The ball shot past the Bing Crosby celebrity tournament crowd toward Lemmon's first floor room at the Lodge. "When I walked over, there was Felicia, my wife, in her bathrobe, waving," Lemmon says. "She held up the ball and said, 'Good going!' The damn ball went right into my room. I'm not kidding."
Lemmon's golf shots might go astray, but his acting—more than 60 films in almost 50 years—usually hits the mark. As the hapless Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts (1955), the role that put him on the Hollywood map; as a ladder-climbing corporate functionary in The Apartment (1960); and even as the beleaguered tourist in The Out-of-Towners (1970), he is us up there on the screen: the flustered, frustrated, overlooked guy trying to cope with the daily disappointments of life. Should the frustration turn to anger, as it does for Lemmon's nuclear-power-plant manager in The China Syndrome (1979) or the noble dad he portrays in Missing (1982), watch out: When this average Joe blows, Schwarzenegger better run. And when the likeable Lemmon plays a manipulative alcoholic in Days of Wine and Roses (1962), a desperate dressmaker in Save the Tiger (1973) or a failed salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), the darkness is unnerving.
From eager young men to Grumpy Old Men, Lemmon, 73, has done it all. "As the years go on, you really get to appreciate someone like him, not only for the quality of his work but just for the quality of the person that he is too," says Michael Douglas, an occasional golfing partner who costarred with Lemmon in The China Syndrome. "His acting has the same effortless quality. You don't see the homework, although it's all there. I love him as an actor but really admire him as a human being."
Only somewhat less admirable is the character Lemmon reprises in his latest film, The Odd Couple II, the famously fussy Felix Ungar. The movie marks the 10th time Lemmon has shared the screen with his old pal Walter Matthau, who boasts a nose for talent: "The main thing I like about Jack is that he bathes every day, so I don't have to worry about being assaulted odoriferously," jokes Matthau, whom Lemmon directed to an Oscar nomination in 197l's Kotch. Hygiene aside, Felicia Lemmon, 65, says the star has more than a little Felix in him. "When we're packing to come home from a trip, he has his laundry sent out the day before," she says "If he can't have it cleaned, then he'll fold it before he packs it. Now, I don't know many people who do that. It's very important that things be exactly in place."
Among those things are two Oscars—for Best Supporting Actor in Mister Roberts and Best Actor in Save the Tiger—that he keeps in a dark wood bookcase in his cozy, memorabilia-filled two-room office in Beverly Hills (which he uses mainly for schmoozing with pals on the phone and paying his bills). Also in the bookcase are his four Golden Globes, though he won only three. The most recent is the TV drama award Ving Rhames got (for Don King: Only in America) but gave to fellow nominee (for 12 Angry Men) Lemmon after calling the veteran onstage, stunned and disbelieving, at the ceremony last January. "The only thing I remember is, when I passed Jack Nicholson, he said, 'Give it to me! Give it to me!' " says Lemmon between sips of coffee. "I didn't know what in the hell he was talking about." Lemmon and Rhames (who has since been given a replacement statue of his own) have become friends, and they're not as odd a couple as they might appear. Lemmon says both men often remind themselves not to "think you're so fancy-pantsy because you're in a film and you gave a performance."
No one would ever accuse Lemmon of thinking, or acting, fancy. "There's no proscenium around him," says his Apartment and Irma La Douce costar Shirley MacLaine. Friends and neighbors say Lemmon is as regular as a guy can be—especially considering that the neighborhood happens to be Beverly Hills. Just ask Jay Leno, who lives two houses away from Lemmon's three-bedroom, art-filled, Normandy-style home: "I saw him just the other day walking the dog, and he still has that kid-like enthusiasm, telling me about all the work he's doing. He's not a guy who has to tell anybody he's a star."
Perhaps because this star learned early in life not to confuse privilege with happiness. John Uhler Lemmon III grew up in posh Brookline, Mass., the only child of a top executive with the Doughnut Corporation of America and his homemaker wife, Mildred. By the time Jack was 10, his parents' marriage was falling apart and the sickly boy had undergone three painful ear surgeries, causing him to miss nearly a year of school. To keep from "withering away," he says, Lemmon began a vigorous exercise program that included lots of running; by age 12 he was robustly healthy and by 15 he had broken the New England record for two miles. He went on to become a cross-country star at Massachusetts' elite Phillips Academy in Andover.
But by then, Lemmon had found something he liked even better than track: the spotlight. At age 9 he had replaced another boy at the last minute in a school play at Rivers Country Day School. "I had to do a monologue, and the kids kept laughing because I kept forgetting my lines," he recalls with a chuckle. Despite his fumbles, Lemmon says he loved the attention: "It had nothing to do with talent. What it really had to do with was being accepted by my peers, and every kid wants that."
At Andover, Lemmon's newfound love of the piano, which he learned to play by ear, took precedence over his interest in acting until the two talents dovetailed in his senior year Class Day musical, which he helped write and direct as well as starred in. Enrolling at Harvard in 1943, Lemmon, a less than stellar student, became a drummer in the college band and president of the university's famed theatrical group, the Hasty Pudding Club. After graduating in 1947 (with time out for stateside Naval service in 1945 and 1946), he borrowed $300 from his father and rented a fifth-floor walkup on Manhattan's Upper West Side for $2 a week. "When my dad came to visit," Lemmon recalls, "he took a look around the room and said, 'Harvard? For this?' "
The bachelor didn't pad around the walkup for long. Within a year, Lemmon had met his first wife, a blonde actress named Cynthia Stone, while doing an Off Off Broadway play; they married in 1950. Four years later a talent scout for Columbia Pictures cast him opposite Judy Holliday in the well-received It Should Happen to You. Joining Lemmon in L.A., Cynthia gave birth that same year to a son, Chris, but just two years later she and Lemmon divorced (she went on to marry actor Cliff Robertson). Though his career skyrocketed after the success of Mister Roberts, Lemmon insists his marriage wasn't a casualty of Hollywood success. "We really had more of a brother-and-sister relationship than a good, solid marriage," says Lemmon.
Chris, 44, never lived with his father after his parents divorced but has only love and admiration for him, because of the effort Jack made to spend time with him, including an annual fishing trip with friends to Alaska. On one such outing in the late '60s, Jack was smoking a cigar and fishing with an expensive handmade bamboo fishing rod when a Big One pulled him right into the stream. "We just all freaked and went running over," recalls Chris, now an actor, writer and producer. "All we saw going down the stream was this hand sticking out of the water holding the cigar high and dry. Forget the rod and the reel—it was the cigar. I admire a man with priorities like that."
By the mid-1970s, Lemmon had developed a reputation as a man who enjoyed a cocktail or two or more. "It caught up with me," he recalls, "and I realized, 'Hey, listen, if you're not careful, this is going to affect you, your social and your professional life. My whole family agreed. I would classify myself as an alcoholic. I went to AA, and it was terrific."
And he had Felicia to lean on. They first met on the Columbia Pictures lot in the mid-'50s, where Felicia was appearing in such films as Timetable (1956), Jubal (1956) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957). "I found an ingrained sense of decency about him that's very attractive and masculine," says Felicia, who had married young, had a daughter (Denise Gordon, now 48) and divorced at 20. "He's not petty about anything or anyone." Suppressing their mutual fear of commitment, they married in Paris in 1962, where Lemmon was making Irma La Douce, with director Billy Wilder as best man. Daughter Courtney, now 32, was born four years later.
If son Chris carries on his dad's acting legacy, Courtney has inherited his do-good activism. Lemmon recently endowed a charitable foundation, which Courtney runs, that will make donations to worthy educational, artistic and ecological causes. He has also hosted numerous antipollution television specials.
Though his career bogged down in the mid-to late '80s—there was considerable down time between stinkers like Macaroni and Dad—the '90s have been almost too good to Lemmon, who's finally taking a break after 15 films in eight years. Which means he'll have more time to play the piano, putter around the garden of his Malibu beach house and, of course, work on his golf game. And next month he and Felicia will travel to Botswana with 10 friends for an elephant-riding safari. But don't get the idea that Lemmon is about to cash in his 401 (k) anytime soon. He's in talks with cable's Showtime to star with George C. Scott in a remake of Inherit the Wind. "I don't think I'll ever retire totally," Lemmon says. "I mean, they may retire me, but, as far as I'm concerned, I'm ready. I love acting more all the time."