PALM BEACH, Fla., Nov. 23 (JTA) — Some people leave an indelible mark on the world: You never forget them or the lessons they teach you. Such is the case with veteran actor Jack Lemmon and his most recent television film character, Morrie Schwartz.
Lemmon says he was deeply moved by the best-selling book “Tuesdays With Morrie,” about a Jewish college professor who taught the world how to live and die with grace.
“I read the novel and I loved the character of Morrie,” Lemmon, 74, said during a recent interview from his office in Los Angeles. “I was quite taken with Morrie’s philosophies, but I frankly didn’t think of myself playing the role in the television film. I never thought I would be asked. But when they did ask me, I jumped like a turkey.”
Now Lemmon and Hank Azaria, who plays writer Mitch Albom, are bringing this remarkable story to an even wider audience on ABC-TV on Dec. 5. The movie is produced by Oprah Winfrey, who also spotlighted the book on her hit talk show.
In the TV film “Tuesdays With Morrie,” Albom, then 35, an accomplished, overworked sportswriter, reconnects with his old college sociology professor and mentor, Morrie, who is suffering from ALS — also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — a disease that the older man says physically “melts you like a candle.” Still, he keeps his mind and intellect razor sharp.
An initial visit at the West Newton, Mass., home of the man he once called “coach” turned into weekly sessions in which the older man challenges the younger one to re-evaluate his values and priorities.
Their rekindled relationship — 16 years after Albom’s graduation from Brandeis University — becomes a Tuesday afternoon habit during 14 consecutive sessions where the men discuss the meaning of life. The formal lessons ended Nov. 4, 1995, when Morrie died at age 78.
But Albom believes Morrie’s words will live on as long as he and others are alive to teach them.
Albom said in a recent interview that while the film is not an exact replica of the book, “it’s a lovely and sweet film that captures a lot of the essence, dignity and love that went on between me and Morrie.”
Lemmon — who has won two Academy Awards and an Emmy and has left his mark with numerous films, including “Some Like It Hot,” “The Apartment,” and “The Odd Couple” — says that it was easy to learn from Morrie during the month-long filming because the actor embraces Morrie’s philosophy about the beauty of life and the healing effect of love.
Morrie also had an insatiable appetite for the simple pleasures in life: twirling around a dance floor and a nice meal with close friends.
“I’m sure that I do live my life a bit differently after playing Morrie,” Lemmon said. “You can’t help but be affected by him and his words in a positive way but it’s not something I’m always aware of happening.”
The professor is wise enough to know that many of us are so afraid of loss, we don’t allow ourselves to fully love someone else. Morrie teaches about the importance of forgiveness and how vital it is to make time for the people who are closest to your heart.
“Morrie felt that love always wins and it may sound like a platitude of some kind but he’s right,” Lemmon said. “He was a really unusual man, and I could see why he had such a profound effect on his students. I, too, couldn’t help but be affected by him in a positive way,” Lemmon says.
“There is an overall feeling, an honesty and a directness of what he felt. And a lack of ego. It wasn’t ego that kept him going despite his failing health it was the determination of a born teacher to get his point across to the very end.”
The book and movie also have Jewish sensibilities. Albom is Jewish and Morrie, who was also Jewish, had vivid memories of playing stick ball on the Lower East Side of New York near where his mother ran a candy store.
In the film, we hear Morrie’s beloved mother uttering Yiddish words to her young son she called Moishe.
Since his father was not a religious man, Morrie often found himself in synagogue alone among the men in long black coats. There he prayed to God to take care of his dead mother and polio-stricken brother.
Although Morrie became an agnostic when he was a teen-ager, later in life he drew on several religions for his life philosophy, He said he still felt at home, culturally, in Judaism, and Kaddish was respectfully recited at his funeral.
Albom says that Morrie’s humanistic approach to life was very Jewish. “One of the aspects of Judaism I have always loved is that it accepts that there are other people in the world and sees the value in being a human being,” the author said. “Morrie put people first before dogma and belief.”
Morrie’s lessons are inspiring.
He believed that if each of us cared less about material possessions and more about gaining spirituality — and not taking our loving relationships for granted — we would be happier.
In fact, several rabbis have used Morrie’s words to teach their congregants that the sum total of our lives is not our actions during our last few days, but the way we lived and what we gave to others.
“Dying is just one thing to be sad about,” Morrie teaches us, “living unhappily is another. I am a lucky man to still have time to learn, to say goodbye to the people I love and time to teach to my final course not about dying about living.”
At the end of the film, when Mitch and Morrie are saying their goodbyes, Morrie helps the young man understand how much he has been touched by Mitch’s love.
He explains that death ends a life, not a relationship, which Albom believes most people can understand.
“What Morrie says is pretty simple and true. And I think that everyone has lost or will lose someone in their life who matters. So trying to cheat death a little bit by investing in one another while you are here rings true so many people.”
This is one reason why the book has been translated into 22 languages.
On several occasions during the filming, Lemmon said he felt himself becoming teary-eyed at a time when Morrie would not have — a combination of feeling sorry for Morrie plus realizing the overall loss he was facing. “I had to try to keep the emotion in control,” he said.
Lemmon said Morrie truly had a gift of unconditional love that he shared with Albom, his other students and those who read the book and watch the film.
“I equate it with my love for acting, which I become more enamored with the more I do it. It is a noble profession, as Shakespeare said, and I realized somewhere along the line that the key is not to only entertain people but to enlighten them,” Lemmon said.
“You can make them stop and think. All good works of art do that from a painting to a novel or a poem, you can change or add to someone’s life. That’s a very rare privilege that most people don’t have.”