BY CARY GINELL
After last Sunday’s matinee performance of Jack Lemmon Returns, we met his son Chris Lemmon in the green room at the Rubicon Theatre Company to talk about the show, his father, and his memories of growing up with a legend. This is the first of a two-part article.
VCOS: Can you tell me about the origins of Jack Lemmon Returns?
CHRIS: The show has gone through a number of iterations. It started with my book, which was published by – God bless them, I love them so much – Algonquin Publishing House, back in 2006. That’s really where the whole thing started. A couple of years after I finished the book, I was doing the book tour, and that led to a lot of stuff because of the reactions I was getting from people. It seemed like I was doing for them what I had searched for in writing the book for myself, in order to replace that enormous loss that I felt after my father left. So I started thinking about turning it into a piece. I took the book and I translated it into, I guess, for the lack of a better term, a performance piece. And that, of course, went through its different iterations. Being a Lemmon, my first performance, I believe, was two hours and twenty minutes. I realized that that was a bit long, so we honed it down, and over the course of a year or two, that kind of came of age, to the point where I thought, you know, now I really do have an “entity.” But I knew I could take it to the next level and out of the “performance piece” arena and bring it in as a piece of theater.
At this point, after being so close to it, I realized that I was not the person to do that. And there was really only one person who could and that was Hershey Felder, the undisputed maestro of the one-man show with music. So I stalked him, and finally got him to come see a performance about a year, year-and-a-half back at the Friars Club, and he liked what he saw. So Hershey and I hooked up.
And then it went through another totally evolutionary process. It went through performances, rewrites, performances, rewrites, and then really came of age. So, that was a typically long Lemmon answer to your question, but it went through an enormous growing period, just like any worthwhile piece of – if I may be so bold to say – theater does. It really came of age this year.
VCOS: Are you aware of any similar kinds of one-man shows where the subject is so close to the performer?
CHRIS: No. I haven’t heard of one. There aren’t a lot of one-man shows like this, period. At least that I’ve ever seen. I had the incredible pleasure of watching Lily Tomlin’s show last night, her one-person show, and was just blown out of the water. I’ve never really seen a show like that. I think that may be true of the really good, worthwhile, one-person shows out there. I know I met Tom Dugan the other night, who is just a fabulous performer.
VCOS: He did Robert E. Lee.
CHRIS: Yeah, I’ve never seen anybody do stuff like that before, either. The one-man show is all about the one man, isn’t it? And you need to infuse it with you. And we are all unique individuals. So that I think it takes on the persona of the performer, whether that is through a character that they are playing – well, it has to be through a character they’re playing if it’s going to be a piece of theater. Lily was doing all of her wonderful characters last night. I do this in the voice of my father, along with fifty others.
VCOS: Had you been doing your father before?
CHRIS: No. This isn’t an impression. Trust me. And I don’t mean to sound arrogant, I certainly hope I’m not, but I would hope that I am channeling him.
VCOS: But had you done things in his voice before? Or did it start with this show?
CHRIS: Well, I’ve always been his kid. My illegitimate brother, Kevin Spacey – who I adore and who is like a brother to me and was like a son to my father – he and I have been doing “Dueling Jack Lemmons” for years. I just went down to do a thing for his foundation and we ended up doing Jack Lemmons together. But it wasn’t until I made the conscious decision to turn it from a performance piece into a piece of theater when I realized that I couldn’t do this as myself. And that’s because no matter how well I do it, if I’m doing it myself, it’s still a performance piece. I’m not performing. I’m not acting. I’m not playing a part. It had to be my father.
VCOS: Is there any percentage of it that’s you?
CHRIS: That’s actually a really good question. There are three very key moments in the show where, even though it’s his voice, it’s me talking about what the impact of what I’m saying had on me and on my life. Of course, I start the show and I end the show as me, because you have to hear what it means to me. But the discerning listener will know. I could tell that today’s crowd was a very smart audience, and that they could really hear it.
VCOS: Was one the part where he talks about his alcoholism?
CHRIS: No. The alcoholism was him. That was him looking at me and realizing what was happening, because it was such a courageous thing he did [saying he was going to the Betty Ford Clinic]. I witnessed it. But it was one of the most courageous things I’ve ever seen in my life, as he walked down the stairs and told us that he’d called the program, and there was a smile on his face. It wasn’t shame. He was not a self-piteous man. He was way above that stuff. He raised the bar wherever he went. And that’s my mission in this show, to raise the bar, just like he did.
But one of the moments is when we went fishing and he falls in the stream. And he comes up and looks at his kid and says, “I’ll always be here for you.” That’s me saying that to him. I understood that he couldn’t be here for me and that there were things that ripped us apart. That’s the tragic part of this story. We were a father and son, ripped apart at the seams at a very early age, stayed that way for decades, and then came back together and became the very best of friends against all odds. And then he died at the age of 76.
My visit with Chris Lemmon will continue next week. Jack Lemmon Returns plays through March 29 at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura. For dates, showtimes, and directions to the theater, see the VC On Stage Calendar.