Jack Lemmon with his son Chris Lemmon
A close relationship despite divorce. Chris Lemmon performs “Jack Lemmon Returns” at The Broad Stage

CULTURE WATCH – Back in the 1970s, I worked in the 16mm film rental division of Universal Pictures. Driving through Beverly Hills one day I looked in my rearview mirror and saw a familiar face in a Rolls Royce.

Jack Lemmon was behind the wheel.

It’s the only time I’ve ever been grateful for traffic. I found a blank sheet and wrote in large block letters, “I Love You” ‚Äì and held it out my driver’s window facing him. He squinted at first, then broke into that famous wry smile, waved and mouthed the words “Thank you.”

Lemmon is the Academy Award-winning chameleon-like everyman who cross-dressed with Tony Curtis to get close to Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like It Hot,” who epitomized the original neurotic neat freak Felix to Walter Matthau’s sports slob Oscar in the “The Odd Couple,” and who broke ground in a complex comedy/drama as a man who hopes to curry corporate favor, loaning his pad to company executives for their romantic trysts in “The Apartment.”

He also cut it close in “The Days of Wine and Roses,” about an ad man who becomes an alcoholic and survives his addiction to tell the tragic tale. Lemmon, too, had a serious drinking problem but got sober.

That’s just part of the story that Chris Lemmon, Jack’s son, shares in his one-man show, “Jack Lemmon Returns,” opening Friday, Jan. 9, and continuing through Feb. 1 at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

Chris, who trained as a classical pianist and studied theater, acted with Jack in three of his films and wrote the 2006 memoir “A Twist of Lemmon,” about his relationship with his “Pop,” who divorced his mom when Chris was only 2 years old.

In a telephone interview Chris told me, “At its core, it’s a tragic father-son story, a unique but universal one. It just happens to be couched in the lore of the Golden Age of Hollywood.”

Chris grew up among movie stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Gregory Peck, James Cagney, Jimmy Stewart, and Shirley MacLaine, who passed through the Lemmons’ home in the Hollywood Hills. But it wasn’t until the son of a TV star said to him, “My dad’s a bigger star than yours” that Chris realized exactly how big a celebrity “Pop” really was.

In “Jack Lemmon Returns,” Chris says, “I get a chance to share, with people who adored him and miss him but also people who don’t know him, not only his professional side but even more deeply his personal side, the one that only I knew.”

Based on the memoir Chris adapted the show in collaboration with producer/pianist Hershey Felder, who’s renowned for his musical-biographical productions about such figures as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin.

Chris tried to enact the memoir but says, “It was good in my voice, but it wasn’t theatre. That’s when Hershey and I sat down and said it has to be Jack, so we put it in Pop’s voice and bang, I knew we had it.”

“It’s not a question of impersonating him,” Chris continued. “It’s like a channeling thing that happens to me; I feel him with me for those 90 minutes on stage. He was my very best friend and I missed him so much after he left. It’s enormously rewarding for me personally. I also feel it’s the best work I’ve ever done as an actor, so it’s equally rewarding for me professionally.”

As a child of divorce, Chris Lemmon recognizes that, “Any child of divorce has tragedy in their lives. It happens across all strata but the end result is devastating, for both the parent and the child but especially for the child. Because it’s not supposed to be that way.”

It was doubly tragic that after working hard together to maintain a close relationship, Jack died too young of cancer.

While the life may seem enviable, the child of a Hollywood divorce faces unique challenges. Chris now lives in Connecticut with his wife of 29 years, where they raised their three children.

“I made the decision exactly because of being a child of divorce, and a child of Hollywood, nothing against Hollywood. I have wonderful friends, had a wonderful career and wonderful times there, but I really wanted to have a different upbringing for my children. I wanted them to be raised in a smaller town, where everybody knew everybody, and where they’d walk down the little road to the school bus with all their buddies, and ride in a school bus, not a limo or a Ferrari, and go to public school together.”

And, he says, it’s turned out well. “I’m very proud to say all three of my children are now in college, my youngest one right here in Hartford at Trinity College, my middle one in Newton, Massachusetts where their grandfather (Jack) was born, and the oldest one doing her master’s study at Yale.”

That’s not all he’s proud of, says Chris Lemmon. “I loved writing my memoir and I love this show. If the end of my days is tomorrow, thank God I can look back at these two things and say, ‘I did that.'”

Is Lemmon really the family name? “We’re Scots-Irish-German on Dad’s side,” Chris explained, “and my grandfather was called ‘Lilac Lemmon,’ because if he didn’t know the answer to a question, he’d “Lie like Lemmon” and make it up.

“My Dad had a little Lilac in him, too. One day he tried to convince me we were named after a river in Scotland called Loch Lemmon. I was entranced and had knightly visions of walking along the banks, until I realized there was no such river and that Lochs are not rivers, they’re lakes!”

Visit www.thebroadstage.com or call (310) 434-3200.

Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.

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