Jack Lemmon, the master of understatement, dies aged 76

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America bade a fond farewell yesterday to Jack Lemmon, one of its most acclaimed screen actors who, over a long and fruitful career, proved himself uniquely able to raise the neuroses and quirks of everyday life to the level of high tragicomic art.

Lemmon, who was 76, died in a Los Angeles hospital on Wednesday. He had been suffering from cancer for six months.

"He is one of the greatest actors in the history of the business," his longtime spokesman, Warren Cowan, said yesterday. "To say one word about him would be to say he's a beautiful person. It's an opinion that is shared by everybody who knew him."

Lemmon turned in some of the great understated performances of American cinema, from his quintessential turn as the put-upon corporate employee in The Apartment (1960), to his portrayal, in Missing (1982), of a Republican politician questioning his own deeply held convictions after the disappearance of his son in Pinochet's Chile.

Lemmon's moon face, capable of registering complex emotions with a single unassuming gesture, and his awkward gait, the result of frequent childhood illnesses, were the raw physical material on which he built his art. Often he gave the impression that he was not acting at all, a feat that won him particular admiration from his fellow performers on stage and screen. His technique, at its best, was not only flawless, it was flawlessly hidden.

Two collaborations proved particularly fruitful. The first was with Billy Wilder, who directed him in seven films including Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Irma La Douce, The Fortune Cookie and The Front Page.

The second was with his fellow actor and lifelong friend Walter Matthau, whose hangdog grouch was the perfect foil for Lemmon's over-trusting, neurotic on-screen persona.

Their partnership began with The Fortune Cookie in 1966, in which Matthau played a scurrilous lawyer talking Lemmon into an insurance scam, and was immortalised two years later by The Odd Couple, their unforgettable portrayal of two New York bachelors sparring and bantering over a long, hot summer in the city.

Much later, the two were reunited for the Grumpy Old Men films of the 1990s.

Lemmon was a performer of great versatility, whether he was dancing the tango in drag (in Some Like It Hot) or playing a self-destructive alcoholic (Days of Wine and Roses in 1962). Although the quality of roles he was offered waned as he got older, his powers as an actor did not. He was terrific as an anxiety-stricken salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross, the 1992 film of the David Mamet play, and almost stole the show from the bravura cast of Robert Altman's Short Cuts the following year with a long, hilariously inappropriate monologue delivered by his character, a no-good long-lost uncle who preys on his relatives in hospital as their child is dying.

The sheer affection that many directors and actors had for Lemmon was demonstrated at last year's Oscars ceremony, when Kevin Spacey, accepting the Best Actor award for American Beauty, hailed him as a role model and father figure.

Spacey described his performance as C C Baxter in The Apartment as "one of the finest we've ever had".

Lemmon himself won two Best Actor Oscars, for Mister Roberts in 1955 and for Save The Tiger in 1973, and was nominated on five other occasions. He also won acting prizes at the Cannes festival for The China Syndrome (1978) and for Missing, and countless accolades for his overall body of work.

The only child of a Boston doughnut factory boss, Lemmon had an accident-prone upbringing right from his birth in a lift at the hospital where he was supposed to be delivered.

As a child he developed a passion both for drama and for music (he was an adept pianist), both of which had to be put on hold during a stint in the US Navy in the Second World War.

He worked his way into acting via radio and off-Broadway shows in New York before being discovered by Harry Cohn, the tyrannical boss of Columbia pictures, and cast in a succession of Judy Holliday comedies.

Despite his assured on-screen appearance, he was often a bundle of nerves inside and confessed in later interviews that he was close to "a basket case" when confronting his more challenging roles. He was a chain smoker at one point and drank enough to be able to draw on his own experience for Days of Wine and Roses.

In later life, he returned both to the theatre (notably in a 1985 Broadway production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night) and to television, where he won more acting prizes for such productions as Tuesdays With Morrie (1999). His last role was the voiceover in Robert Redford's nostalgic golf feature The Legend of Bagger Vance.