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Jack Lemmon stepped behind the camera to direct his only film with Kotch (1971). To make the project more enjoyable, he hired several friends and family members for the film including his wife Felicia Farr and Odd Couple co-star Walter Matthau. The story for Kotch was based on a novel by Katherine Topkins and centers on meddling septuagenarian Joseph P. Kotcher (Matthau) who lives with his son (Charles Aidman) and daughter-in-law (Farr). Kotcher's children want to ship him off to a retirement home so Kotch decides to take a bus trip instead and forms a grandfatherly bond with a pregnant babysitter during his journey.
Another first timer, producer Richard Carter, spent two years developing Kotch. First, he optioned the novel and hired John Paxton, the screenwriter behind The Wild One (1953) and On the Beach (1959), to write the script. Then he began searching for the right director. As Carter remembers it, "I sent a copy of the script to Jack [Lemmon] more as a courtesy than anything else, just to let him know what I was moonlighting on. A couple of weeks later he called, wanting to talk to me about Kotch. My first thought was, 'Oh my God, he wants to play it.'" Instead, Carter was surprised by his meeting with Lemmon, who asked to be considered as the film's director. "I just looked at him," recalls Carter. "I hadn't even thought about Jack as director. I said, 'We got a deal.'"
With Lemmon on board as director, it was then time to cast Kotch. Fredric March was initially signed to play the title role but the studios felt he was no longer a box office draw and declined to fund the picture. Another rumor had Laurence Olivier attached to the film, but he reportedly pulled out due to illness. Then one day, Lemmon received a call from Walter Matthau who wanted the part. "I almost fell over," said [Lemmon]. "Richard and I had discussed Walter as Kotcher, and even though I felt he could play anything, thought he might be too young for the part, and might not want to do it."
Matthau actually agreed to play Kotch without even reading the script. He accepted the role on the advice of his wife, Carol, using a bit of reverse logic. Matthau's wife had, years earlier, vowed to never again influence his work choices after suggesting Matthau turn down The Odd Couple (1968). She read the script and hated it. Obviously, Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple ended up being a trademark role for Matthau. So with Kotch he figured that his wife couldn't be that far off the mark twice.
And Carol Matthau was right about Kotch; her husband received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for the role (losing out to Gene Hackman in The French Connection (1971)). The film was also Oscar® nominated for Best Editing, Best Sound and Best Song Life Is What You Make It with music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Johnny Mercer.
For his part, Lemmon appeared to make it through his directorial debut unscathed. Credited dialogue director Alan De Witt planted himself on set in case Lemmon needed help. But according to De Witt, "From the moment Jack started, he was totally secure as a director, as knowledgeable as someone who'd been doing it for twenty years. He never asked me a thing; didn't need to. He knew that camera almost as well as the cameraman." By Lemmon's own account, he found the experience valuable. He felt directing would "make you a better actor, accentuating the necessity to view the whole rather than your part in it." Nonetheless, some reports claim that Lemmon didn't like directing and negative reviews from The New York Times and others did nothing to encourage him. On Kotch , the Times said, Lemmon's ability as a director must be judged...as much by the material with which he chooses to make his debut as by the end product. Both are so unadventurous as to be downright depressing." Either way, Lemmon never directed another movie.
A few other family connections to note in Kotch: Matthau's stepdaughter (and daughter of author William Saroyan) Lucy Saroyan, appears as Sissy; Deborah Winters who plays the pregnant Erica is the daughter of the film's editor Ralph Winters; and another daughter, Jessica Rains, daughter of Claude Rains, plays Dr. McKernan. If you look closely, the director himself appears in a cameo - as a sleeping bus passenger.
Producer: Richard Carter
Director: Jack Lemmon
Screenplay: John Paxton, Katherine Topkins (novel)
Cinematography: Richard H. Kline
Film Editing: Ralph E. Winters
Art Direction: Jack Poplin
Music: Marvin Hamlisch
Cast: Walter Matthau (Joseph Kotcher), Deborah Winters (Erica Herzenstiel), Felicia Farr (Wilma Kotcher), Charles Aidman (Gerald Kotcher), Ellen Geer (Vera Kotcher), Donald Kowalski (Duncan Kotcher).
by Stephanie Thames