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Laramie Movie Scope:
Goodbye, Tony and Jack

Two screen legends fade to black

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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July 23, 2001 -- Two actors of legendary stature recently passed away after long, spectacularly successful careers, Anthony Quinn and Jack Lemmon. They were very different people, but shared a passion for acting. Anthony Quinn died on June 3, 2001, at the age of 86. Lemmon died June 27, 2001, at the age of 76.

Quinn was one of my very favorite actors. Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1915 to a Mexican mother and a Mexican-Irish father, he was the all-purpose ethnic actor. He played such diverse characters as an Arab ("Lawrence of Arabia") to a polish-born pope ("Shoes of the Fisherman") to, of course, that most famous of all ethnic icons, "Zorba the Greek." He also played a Basque, he played Native Americans, Spaniards, Portugese, Arabs, Jews, Italians and others. He played Gauguin, Kublai Khan, Quasimodo and the god Zeus. He was an actor who had a knack for portraying strong, earthy, heroic characters with a passion for life, yet he was quite versatile. He was also a producer and director and appeared on Broadway.

His role as the fierce desert warrior Auda abu Tayi in David Lean's masterpiece "Lawrence of Arabia" was a key character in that classic film, arguably the best ever made. His defining role, however, was the title character in "Zorba the Greek." He will always be remembered for that role, as a man wise in the ways of the world, strong, passionate and brave. It is hard to imagine anyone playing that role better than Quinn.

One of my favorite Quinn performances was his role as the title character in "Barabbas." As Barabbas, Quinn showed a man tortured by doubt and guilt, capable of great violence and evil. He showed us a solitary, brooding, haunted character, the opposite of the exuberant, talkative Zorba. He was a thief, murderer, slave and gladiator in this epic film. Quinn's combat scenes with Jack Palance in the Roman Coliseum were also memorable, reminiscent of "Gladiator." Quinn shows us another of his diverse bag of characters in "Shoes of the Fisherman," a film where he plays a man who very uneasily assumes the mantle of power and becomes pope. He does a great job of showing the difficulties a man has to face in coming to terms with so much responsibility. The same year "Barabbas" was released saw the release of two other classic films starring Anthony Quinn, "Requiem for a Heavyweight" and "Lawrence of Arabia." The year before that, Quinn starred in the action adventure classic, "The Guns of Navarone."

The decade of the 1960s saw Quinn in some of his best films. In addition to those mentioned above, he was also in "The 25th Hour" ("La Vingt-cinquième heure"), an epic story, like "Europa, Europa," about a simple man caught up in the horrors of World War II. Quinn's career began in 1936 in a film called "The Milky Way" and he was still going strong 60 years later, although he labored in relative obscurity from 1936 until 1954. He gave a very fine performance in "A Walk in the Clouds" in 1995. His last film, "Avenging Angelo," is a 2001 release. He appeared in such diverse films as "The Ox Bow Incident," "Sinbad the Sailor," "Viva Zapata" (for which he won one of his two Academy Awards for best supporting actor), "Lust for Life" (for which he won the other Oscar) and "La Strada." He also appeared frequently in made for TV movies and did a number of guest appearances on TV. Quinn worked in a variety of odd jobs, including taxi driver and prize fighter. He worked his way up from the bottom, starting as an extra.

If Anthony Quinn was known as a man's man, Jack Lemmon was an actor's actor. While Quinn could play a rugged, brutish strongman ("La Strada"), or ultra-masculine gladiator, Lemmon was the opposite, smaller than Quinn, frail, quirky and urbane. Lemmon was silky smooth in any role, but was especially good at portraying nervous, sometimes weak, figity characters loaded with vulnerability. A good example was his classic portrayal of Felix Unger in "The Odd Couple," one of several successful collaborations with his friend, the late Walter Matthau. One of my favorite movies starring Lemmon was "The Apartment." It is not easy to equal the great Shirley McLaine on the screen, but Lemmon did it. Comedy is tougher than drama, but Jack was adept at both, and this movie is both comic and sentimental as well as being cynical. Jack helped to hold this great movie together. Of course, it didn't hurt having the legendary Billy Wilder as the director. He played a man who has trouble expressing himself, and who has trouble standing up to people. In the end, he has enough spine to do the right thing. It is a classic Lemmon performance. It shows his skill in non-verbal communication and how great he is in reacting to the actions of others.

Lemmon started his career in radio and television, but soon switched to movies before returning to TV again. He was also active on Broadway. He came from an upper middle class family and had a Harvard education. He also achieved stardom early in his career. One of his early film efforts was portraying Ensign Frank T. Pulver in "Mister Roberts." He won an Academy Award for that supporting role. Four years later, in 1959, he appeared in the comedy classic "Some Like It Hot" with Marilyn Monroe. This film (also directed by Wilder) was ranked as the best comic film of all time by the American Film Institute. It was a difficult role for Lemmon, who thought about quitting, but he handled the role perfectly.

Lemmon went on to star in such classics as "The Days of Wine and Roses," "The China Syndrome," "Save the Tiger" (for which Lemmon won a best-actor Oscar), "Missing," and "Glengarry Glen Ross." On TV, he starred in such classics as "Inherit the Wind," "12 Angry Men," and "A Long Day's Journey into Night," which Lemmon also performed on Broadway. Lemmon won an Emmy for his starring role in "Tuesdays with Morrie" last year. He also appeared in a number of popular comedies, such as "It Should Happen to You," "The Out-of-Towners," "Bell, Book and Candle," "The Fortune Cookie," "Irma La Douce," "The Front Page," "Grumpy Old Men," and others.

Lemmon's career lasted over 50 years, and he achieved excellence in acting from beginning to end. He is universally respected among his peers. Although he often played the clown, there was a sadness in his eyes, perhaps borne of his deep-seated insecurities, which also fueled his nervous energy. Don Widener, who wrote the 1975 biography "Lemmon," was quoted in an Associated Press article, "For all his persona on screen, he was one of the saddest men I've known. You could see it in his eyes. The face would be laughing, but his eyes were sad. I never found out why that was."

I Guess the thing I liked most about Lemmon was that innate quality of decency he always seemed to have. Even when he played unscrupulous people ("Save the Tiger," "Glengarry, Glen Ross"), he always seemed to be doing bad things as a last, desperate resort. His persona was always that of a basically good-hearted everyman, often beset by tragedy and overwhelming problems. He was never really a villain. Of course, somebody has to play the villain and Anthony Quinn could and did play that role, but Lemmon found his niche elsewhere. Quinn and Lemon, giants in film. They will be missed.

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Copyright © 2001 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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