Chris Lemmon channels his famous dad in a two-week run of shows at the Apollo Theatre.
"Death ends a life, not a relationship." So proclaimed Jack Lemmon in Tuesdays with Morrie, the 1999 film adaptation of Mitch Albom’s bestseller, in a role that landed him an Emmy award. Less than two years later, the world mourned as the beloved icon lost a battle with cancer—but his spirit lives on in more than 60 films, from Some Like It Hot and The Apartment to The Odd Couple and Grumpy Old Men.
On Father’s Day in 2006, Chris Lemmon proved the adage true with the publication of A Twist of Lemmon, a memoir chronicling his relationship with his famous dad. The unique, yet universal story struck a chord with readers, prompting him to turn his book into a performance piece, and ultimately, a one-man theater show, which he brings to Peoria’s Apollo Theatre in September.
For Chris Lemmon, it’s a homecoming of sorts—a large part of his childhood was spent right here in Peoria. His mother, actress Cynthia Stone, was a Peoria native who met a young Jack Lemmon at the Actors Studio in New York and went on to costar with him in four different TV series. The couple married in 1950 at what is now known as the Pettengill-Morron House—a museum maintained by the Peoria Historical Society—but was then the home of Chris Lemmon’s grandfather, John Boyd Stone, chairman of the First National Bank of Peoria and a pillar of the community.
Told entirely in the voice of his father, the 85-minute play was written, directed, scored and produced by Chris Lemmon, a classically-trained musician and actor whose career spans more than four decades. It’s an emotional tale filled with stories from the Golden Age of Hollywood, songs from the Great American Songbook, and the universal truths of humanity. Art & Society caught up with Lemmon in between tour dates to talk about the upcoming show.
So, tell us about your Peoria connection.
It’s a wonderful coincidence that my tour brings me to the town where my mother and grandfather were born. I really love Peoria for the memories it’s given me. I grew up there… I was hanging around on Grandview [Drive] in the Heights, going to the pool at the country club, riding down the mountain with my family. Those were wonderful times.
My uncle Bill and my grandfather, John Boyd Stone, were kind of the legacy of the First National Bank of Peoria [now Commerce Bank]. My grandfather, if I have it correctly, was responsible for… giving those original loans to Caterpillar that helped them become what they are today. He was an amazing man. And he owned and lived in the Pettengill house, which has gone on to become this wonderful museum. They were always very involved in the community. My grandfather, in particular, did everything he could to help anyone on any level—that’s what he was all about.
Describe your relationship with your parents in those early years. How old were you when they divorced?
I was all of two years old. Of course, I went with my mother. Mothers are the ones who apply the bandages and hugs… and fathers are the ones who come through the door with “guilt gifts” under their arms. The son is usually kind of left behind in the second marriage, and that happened to me. There’s also the pressure the Hollywood system put on my father to place his career first. He had to. And he actually admitted that—as I do, on stage, as him.
Jack Lemmon and Cynthia Stone cut their wedding cake at the Pettengill-Morron House in 1950. Photo courtesy of the Peoria Historical Society Collection.
But the image that stayed with me was… an empty chair at the dinner table where the father was supposed to go, pretty much through my entire adolescence. I swore that would never happen to my kids, and it didn’t: I’ve been married to my wife for 27 years, and we have three beautiful children—all three in college at the same time, so the show better be a hit!
What led you and your father to reconcile?
We both realized—after 15, 20 years of separation—[that] we didn’t want this. Yes, he loved me very much, but his career came first—above me—and that was very painful. But he chose to do something about it. He made a special event once a year for us, which was originally to start fly-fishing in Alaska. After I realized he loved golfing, I took up golfing, too; that turned into Pebble Beach—the golf tournament. I was doing a very popular show at the time called Duet for the Fox television network, and we suddenly realized that we really enjoyed each other’s company. So we kept doing it, and we actually became the best of friends.
But in the end, it was really music. He was the one who taught me to play the piano at the age of five. And we’d kind of do nightly jam sessions together, and it was just wonderful. That was the final glue that bound us back together: the best of friends, against all odds. And then, at the age of 76, he died.
How did you get involved in show business?
I was Jack Lemmon’s son! (laughs) There wasn’t much choice. The crazy thing is: you’re thrust into it, and then you’re judged. I did everything I could to fight against it. I tried to become the next Franz Liszt. I studied classical piano and composition, and wanted to be a great pianist who traveled the world, but there was this little voice inside saying, it’s just not what you’re supposed to do. So I remain a pretty good pianist, but I’m an actor. I always have been, always will be.
When did you start doing impressions of your father?
That’s a tough one for me, because I don’t do impressions of my father. I really, truly believe that I channel him in the course of this show. It’s not an impression—it’s theater—and the most perilous form of theater: the one-person show. It’s a 24-page, word-for-word monologue of a very important story, strictly told. I don’t become him—he becomes me. And I am him—on stage for 90 minutes while I tell the story. I also inhabit 60 other bodies: Jimmy Cagney, Walter Matthau, Gregory Peck, Marilyn Monroe. I “do” all of them too, but it’s not me “doing” them—it’s my father.
When did you first work with your dad?
It was in Airport ‘77, and I was horrible, just terrible. I played this radio control guy… I was on the set, and the actor who was supposed to play the part didn’t show up that day. I was so terrified at the age of 22 in front of a 300-person crew that they actually had to paste my lines on the oscilloscope, and I read them off as best I could. But it got me my SAG [Screen Actors Guild] card (laughs).
But in that scene, I didn’t [work with him]. I actually didn’t work with my father until the Blake Edwards film, That’s Life! And then, it was delightful—it was marvelous.
Did you ever work with your mother?
No, but she was a good actress—she was nominated for an Emmy award. I didn’t work with her, but she was always my mother. She was the one who was there, applying hugs and bandages. She was a marvelous, distinguished, courageous, beautiful woman who gave to everyone around her at all times. I am equally as proud of my mother as I am of my father.
What motivated you to write the memoir?
A search for catharsis—I wanted to get over losing my father. So I wrote down my memories, and I kept writing, and suddenly it became a story about a father and son. During the book tour, people told me the story I was telling was important, so I felt maybe I could take it to the next level. I turned the book into a performance piece, and then I thought I could make it theater. But how could I make it theater? Because in the performance piece, I was doing it in my own voice. The obvious answer was: I had to play a character, and of course, that character had to be my father.
Unlike many Hollywood memoirs, it’s not a tell-all—it’s not controversial…
I have no patience for stars’ kids doing tell-alls. This is not a tell-all. It is a complete story of my relationship with my father that includes all the bumps in the roads that we traveled. But it also includes the fact that he was a wonderful, charming, magnificent man with a lot of faults. We’re two people who chose to come together despite our faults, and I think that’s the epitome of a father/son relationship.
How do you define a relationship with a parent? It’s the most complex thing there is. Or a relationship with a wife, or a child? These are the greatest gifts we’re given in life. These are the reasons that we examine ourselves and choose to make ourselves better, or worse.
The memoir, the subsequent book tour, the performance piece, and ultimately, this show... It was originally a search for catharsis that became a search into myself—and it turned out to be the most rewarding thing I’ve done as an artist.
Have you ever been to the Apollo Theatre?
No, but I’ve seen it online, and it looks like a lovely space. I love intimate theaters [where I can] look straight into your eyes… and tell you the story. I’m really very excited.
What’s the takeaway that you want to leave with the audience?
Go to those people you love, tell them you love them and give them a hug. Because you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. a&s
A Twist of Lemmon comes to the Apollo Theatre in Peoria in September. Shows run Wednesday, September 16th, through Sunday, September 20th, and again September 23rd to 27th. To purchase tickets or for more information, visit jaytv.com/events/a-twist-of-lemmon.
This beautiful interview truly capsulates your life and your journey. Divorce is never sweet, but relationships develop with our parents and somehow forgiveness and love come together making the union loving and sometime bitter-sweet. But, for you to express yourself as you do, I know your heart has channeled the best of the best! And, thank goodness you are sharing your love and passion.