My Day With Jack Lemmon and James Garner – Filming The Role of Charlene,
The Budget Rental Clerk in My Fellow Americans
It was a wild ride that night. What had brought me to that moment was a call-back audition for a film starring Jack
Lemmon and James Garner called, ” My
I had auditioned once already and, a few weeks later, my husband had driven me from our home
in Tennessee to Asheville, North Carolina for the call-backs.
The competition had been narrowed to myself and one
other actor, a delightful lady from Atlanta, Georgia, Sheri Mann Stewart. During the long wait, Sheri, my then-partner
Mac and myself became fast friends. In fact, by the time the wild ride began, both Sheri and myself were wishing
both of us could somehow get the part, though we knew it was impossible.
It was decided that we would ride over to the set within the Biltmore Manor Estate, and audition directly for the
producer and the director. The next half hour was like something out of a Felini film. We were to be taken to the
filming location so there I was in the back seat of a small rental car with Mac, my nose firmly wedged into the slightly
cracked window, gasping for fresh air. I am intensely allergic to cigarette smoke and there was some in the car.
When I say my nose was wedged in the cracked window, I mean it literally and since I’m very short, I was up off the
seat, holding myself up, bouncing on both hands the whole way – very Felini. We even had Felini sound effects! Mac
played a lively tune on his Native-American flute as we careened through the winding roads of the Biltmore Estate,
headed toward a date with destiny.
We arrived at the set, which looked quite surreal in the midst of the natural setting – a huge facsimile of the
front of the White House, looking for all the world like the real thing from the front and then, as we circled around
to the back of it, looking for all the world like a theatre set – just big walls tacked up on boards! As we pulled
in, a rider rushes by on a horse to complete the tableau. Felini would have yelled “cut” then.
The director and producer were both friendly and put us right at ease. I did the audition again, with my normal
southern accent, which must not have been as southern as I thought because at the end of it, the director Pete Segal,
said that it was great but would I mind doing it again, with a southern accent. I said “awryte.” Sheri
also auditioned again and then, we waited. When Shirley Crumley (the Casting Director – a delightful lady) came back
after a while, she said that they absolutely couldn’t make up their minds between us and had asked if we could go
back to the casting office and do the auditions on tape one more time. So, off we went again, my nose back out the
window. It was around 9 p.m. by that time. On the way back, Mac jokingly said we should just do the part together.
What happened at the casting office was nothing short of fate. In a bold and creative move, Shirley decided to put
Sheri and myself on tape together, splitting the lines between. We didn’t rehearse. We barely even decided who got
what line. It was something that felt so right and so perfect that I felt the hand of Divinity in it, as did Sheri.
The result of that unconventional casting decision was that the director and producer liked it with both of us,
so much that they sent the script back to the writers, had the part split into two parts and cast us both! We were
elated. After the film was released, seeing the scene with both of us in it, it’s hard to imagine it being any other
Well, now that the audition was behind me, I could actually start to think about the film. Jack Lemmon’s work has
been such an inspiration to me. I used to watch him in “Some Like It Hot” and just marvel at his timing
and all the unique little quirks he added to each character. I was so thrilled about the possibility of actually
meeting him. The day came and it was everything I could have imagined.
When I was called to make-up, I hopped in the seat and then glanced to my right to see none other than Jack Lemmon
sitting beside me. I had so much cotton in my mouth, I couldn’t even say hello. I kept wanting to pinch myself. I
kept thinking “You are sitting in a make-up tailor, next to Jack Lemmon.” It made all that horrible hairspray
and other make-up torture worth it.
In speaking of my longheld admiration for Jack Lemmon, I don’t want to appear ungracious to his co-star James Garner,
another actor I have enjoyed for many years as well. Both Jack and James Garner were incredibly generous with Sheri
and myself. For example, James noticed that his tall frame was casting a shadow on me during the scene and he stopped
filming and had them fix it so that this did not happen. Also, it was very, very hot that day and both Jack and James
stayed on set with us while they were filming our part of the scenes, so that we could react off seeing their faces.
They didn’t have to do that, but they did, and I will always appreciate that consideration.
The first time we did the scene, both James and Jack laughed soundly. Jack compared us to the two ditzy sisters
in “The Odd Couple” and I took it as high praise to be called ditzy in that context. James said “You
girls oughta take this show on the road.” Jack particularly loved an unconventional acting choice I made in
the scene, that the audience never got to see in the final version. At the very end of the scene, I laughed at my
own ditzy self, in a even more ditzy way, and Jack simply loved the unpredictable nature of the choice. In fact,
he told the director he’d give him $1,000 to use that take. Alas, the scene was cut without the reaction, but at
least Jack tried to get it in there.
One of the wonderful moments, in an altogether wonderful day, came during one of the breaks. I got the opportunity
to tell Jack how much I loved his work. I mentioned the scene in one of those “Grumpy Old Men” films where
Burgess Meridith’s character dies on the park bench and Jack’s character doesn’t realize he’s dead, at first, but
just keeps talking to him. If you’ve seen the film, I know you can’t forget that scene. What a masterpiece. I told
Jack this. It felt good to tell him. He simply nodded once, with a small smile.
What I noticed about Jack was that he was very quiet but he missed nothing. I could sense him thinking, soaking
in, contemplating everything and everyone around him. I think it was that focus which made him so good at creating
believable characters. He was totally present to the situation at all times. I’m so grateful to have had my day with
Jack Lemmon. It is a day I will always remember.
P.S. Although mine and Sheri’s scene has been cut from the cable version of the film, it’s still in the video
version. We play the Budget Rental clerks in that scene, with me being “Charlene” the first clerk you