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Jack Lemmon on TV: How His Star Power Went Beyond the Big Screen

Image: Jack Lemmon on TV: How His Star Power Went Beyond the Big Screen
Photo of Cass Elliot, Diahann Carroll and Jack Lemmon from a 1973 television special. (wikimedia/commons)

By    |   Wednesday, 01 Apr 2015 05:52 PM

Jack Lemmon was a movie star through and through with plenty of Oscars, Golden Globes, and Emmys to prove it, yet over his 50-plus years as an actor, Lemmon never avoided TV roles.

His television career started with “The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse” in 1949. However, his small-screen star power was strongest toward the end of his career, with several Golden Globe and Emmy wins for his last performances.

The Guardian noted that “the decade he turned 70, was the busiest of his life, with nearly 30 television and screen appearances,” referring to the 1990s.

Here are three of Lemmon’s most well-known TV roles:

1. “Inherit the Wind” (1999)

In this film, Lemmon plays Henry Drummond, a lawyer who is tasked with defending an educator for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. The role was no doubt a challenge considering it had been remade several times.

As TV critic David Bianculli wrote, “The reason to watch Showtime’s adaptation of ‘Inherit the Wind’… is as persuasive as it is obvious: to see George C. Scott and Jack Lemmon tackle the leading roles in a classic play. Or, to put it another way, to watch some old pros tackle some old prose.”

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And tackle it Lemmon did, winning a Golden Globe and being nominated for an Emmy for this interpretation. The two were also friends in real life, playing more than one round of golf together off-screen.

2. “Tuesdays with Morrie” (1999)

The same year Lemmon won a Golden Globe for reprising the role of Drummond in “Inherit the Wind,” he was also nominated for this adaptation of “Tuesdays with Morrie” on ABC.

In this TV movie, Lemmon played Morrie Schwartz, a wheelchair-bound college professor dealing with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Ray Richmond, of Variety, wrote in praise of the actor's performance, “Lemmon plays up to his best work here in his ability simultaneously to inspire both empathy and awe.”

Lemmon shared on "Larry King Live," his opinion of the late-career role.

“I just remember saying to myself, somebody’s going to get a hell of a part here, it’s not going to be me because they’ll never think of me for this part. I don’t know why, but when they did call me, I jumped like a bunny for that one, I’ll tell you.”

3. “12 Angry Men” (1997)

Another Golden Globe nomination came Lemmon’s way for his portrayal of Juror No. 8 in the remake of “12 Angry Men.” Lemmon’s character is tasked with convincing the other murder trial jurors the defendant is not guilty.

Complex wrote of the remake: “Television movies, outside of the ones made for, and by, HBO, are often looked down upon, but occasionally, a few great ones emerge … much like its superior predecessor, Friedkin’s ‘12 Angry Men’ is a nearly flawless acting showcase, with a range of personalities and performance strengths congealing into an electrifying morality tale.”

The role earned Lemmon four nominations from the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Online Film and Television Association, the Television Academy, and the Golden Globes.

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Jack Lemmon was a movie star through and through with plenty of Oscars, Golden Globes, and Emmys to prove it, yet over his 50-plus years as an actor, Lemmon never avoided TV roles. Here are three of Lemmon’s most well-known TV roles:
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