Acting Legend Jack Lemmon Shares Some Insight on Acting in 'Glengarry Glen Ross' Commentary

Jack LemmonActor Jack Lemmon offered his talent in some of the most iconic comedies in cinematic history, including Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and of course, The Odd Couple. Needless to say, he acquired a wealth of wisdom in a career that spanned over half a century, and now thanks to filmschoolthrucommentaries, we get to listen in as Lemmon shares some great insight into one of his most compelling, dramatic roles, Shelley Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross, as well as what it was like working with the film's writer, David Mamet.

The videos shared by filmschoolthrucommentaries were pulled from the commentaries from Glengarry Glen Ross, in which Lemmon talks at length about acting, performing dialog written by Mamet, as well as the very complicated intricacies of his character, Shelley, in the film. These pieces of advice, as well as Lemmon's musings, are not only helpful to actors (even those who work in the theater), but those whose work focuses on actors -- directors.

For instance, in the second video about a minute and a half in, Lemmon talks about generosity, saying that the best of actors are "helpful, and wonderful, and generous," and ending with, "If a scene really works, everybody smells like a rose -- let's put it that way." Working with people, not even just actors, that are generous and helpful in their own way, doing what they can to make other's shine, makes for a pleasant on-set experience for everyone.

Another point Lemmon makes is how the quality of writing in a film can limit an actor (around 6:20), saying that "the greater the part -- the bigger problem in playing it," whereas poorly written characters require actors to infuse something interesting where the writer failed to do so, but there's a general understanding that one can really only do so much with a bad part. However, screenwriter David Mamet wrote an exceptional screenplay when he adapted Glengarry Glen Ross, and the part of Shelley is one that Lemmon was able to really sink his teeth into. He breaks down the part piece by piece, analyzing Shelley's character and how he tried to make him both pitiful and unsympathetic -- which was a challenge for Lemmon.

You'll only need about 20 minutes or so to get through both videos, but they're chock-full of interesting anecdotes, advice, and thoughts from one of Hollywood's greatest legends.

What do you think of Jack Lemmon's thoughts on acting? Do you have any acting/directing advice to share? Let us know in the comments below.

[via filmschoolthrucommentaries]

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It's kind of funny how little Mamet seems to think of actors...he basically wants puppets who say the lines and don't infuse anything into it, where Lemmon shows why that approach won't ever work. Infusing characterization is more than just saying words.

March 7, 2014 at 12:42PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I think that you either misunderstand Mamet or you are grossly exaggerating that stance for some reason. It is a misperception that he tries to eliminate actor choices from his works. He simply doesn't want any actor's external point of view injected into his work (Strasberg); this would fall outside of the playwright's intent. The actor should simply rely on the given circumstances of the text, unearth the essential action (aka "need"), and live truthfully (Meisner); this will cause the actor to adhere to the playwright's intent. I don't think that is too much to ask from any writer.

Seriously, if he didn't care about acting and unearthing the truth of human existence, he wouldn't have helped create a theatre company, start up an acting school or write a number of books on the art form.

I'm not a fanboy but someone that has legitimate insight into the matter due to industry experience with him and those close to him (as an actor).

March 8, 2014 at 6:24AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


"It is a misperception that he tries to eliminate actor choices from his works. He simply doesn’t want any actor’s external point of view injected into his work."

If you're such a Mamet fanboy that you can't see the inherent contradiction between those two sentences, then I can't do anything for you. Did you become an actor to serve as one iconoclastic playwright's marionette, or to be a passionate artist?

March 8, 2014 at 6:42AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


How is placing yourself into the given circumstances and live truthfully not artistic?

What is an actor's job? Well, it's the same as the filmmaker's: to tell a story; most of the time that involves exposing the truth. In a film, the story is created by the screenwriter. If you can't understand that, or what an actor's job truly is, then I can't do anything for you.

Instead of trying to troll, why don't you talk with some established actors that focus on the telling of the story and exposing the truth of the human experience--one the screenwriter creates--and you may begin to understand that actors should be selfless (living truthfully and serving the story) not selfish (using the story to emote past experiences which is external to the story).

March 9, 2014 at 8:33PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


How to become an actor?

March 10, 2014 at 12:16AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


My take from a writer's perspective is that one can write a "colorless", bland text and let the actor interpret it or one could write a very specific text and basically shoehorn the actor into just voicing the text. The most recent screenwriting has been to leave as little to the actor as possible. If you look at Vince Gilligan's work, his dialog plus his narrative leave very little to actors. Vince may not dictate and merely suggest (strongly) but, when I read the BB pilot and then saw portions of it, it played out exactly as I thought it would. On the other hand, if you see the script for something like "Five Easy Pieces", there's a mountain of unexplored potential. Lemon, as an actor ... a great actor, surely would have preferred to be given a lot more leeway to do "his thang".

March 10, 2014 at 12:33AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I still remember well watching GlennGarry Glen Ross at a little art house theater in Berkeley. I thought two things about it: it was very dark, and it was a great script. It was my introduction to David Mamet. And I still remember well the first time I saw The Edge, another script by David Mamet. Everyone working in both those movies were so lucky to be a part of them. What a rich experience it must have been.

March 8, 2014 at 3:31AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM