Jack Lemmon, 76, a distinguished stage, television and film actor who appeared in legendary comedies and dramas and made believable such roles as a cross-dressing Jazz Age musician in "Some Like It Hot," a distressed Everyman in "The Apartment" and a crusading conservative father in "Missing," died of cancer June 27 at a Los Angeles hospital.

After working in television during its earliest days and on Broadway, Lemmon catapulted to fame with his Academy Award-winning turn as the scheming Ensign Frank T. Pulver in "Mister Roberts" (1954) opposite Henry Fonda in the title role.

He began to reach his comedic stride in seven films he made with director Billy Wilder, including "Some Like it Hot" (1959), in which he and Tony Curtis run from the mob and Marilyn Monroe plays an unforgettable ukulele player. In "The Apartment" (1960), he was an unscrupulous executive whose pad becomes a trysting place for his bosses. Other Lemmon-Wilder collaborations were "Irma la Douce," "The Fortune Cookie," "Avanti!," "The Front Page" and "Buddy Buddy."

The actor also resonated with the public as the straight man to sly Walter Matthau in films from "The Fortune Cookie" and "The Odd Couple" in the 1960s to the "Grumpy Old Men" series in the 1990s.

Lemmon, who appeared in more than 60 films since 1954, won the Academy Award twice and was nominated seven times. He received the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award in 1988.

Wilder, known for bawdy and unconventional looks at American mores, also saw in Lemmon an average-man appeal that could be subverted to portray the greed and angst he saw girding the American dream.

Other directors with whom Lemmon worked included Blake Edwards in "Days of Wine and Roses" (1962), in which Lemmon played a desperate alcoholic, and John G. Avildsen in "Save the Tiger" (1973), for which Lemmon won his second Academy Award for his portrayal of a disillusioned garment manufacturer who despairs about his life.

Lemmon continued a string of powerful and varied characterizations, often as a man bedeviled by the vagaries of modern life. In "The Out-of-Towners" (1970), he was an Ohio businessman who encounters the worst of New York; in "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" (1975), he has a nervous breakdown.

His other films included "The China Syndrome" (1979), where he portrays a conscience-struck whistleblower at a nuclear power plant; "Missing" (1982), where he seeks information about his lost son from uncooperative South American and U.S. government officials; and "Glengarry Glen Ross" (1992), where he plays a real estate agent working in a cutthroat world.

The film critic Charles Champlin once wrote of Lemmon, "What marks all the best work Lemmon has done are some trace elements of the man himself, some perceived truth that as clown or tragic figure, the persona within the character is likable, decent, intelligent, vulnerable, worth knowing; disorganized possibly, flawed almost certainly, but forever worth knowing."

Lemmon started in television in the "Studio One" and "Playhouse 90" drama anthology series in the late 1940s and made small-screen appearances throughout his life. He had a major impact opposite George C. Scott in two acclaimed television versions of classic stage plays, "Inherit the Wind," about the Scopes monkey trial, and "12 Angry Men," about the prejudices among a jury.

Lemmon received an Emmy Award last year for his final role, as a dying professor in "Tuesdays with Morrie."

He remained a favorite among new generations of moviegoers, often as the kind-eyed curmudgeon in such films as "Grumpy Old Men" (1993) and "My Fellow Americans" (1996) with James Garner.

"Ever since I got into live TV in my late twenties, there has never been a serious drop when I'd have to make a comeback," he told an interviewer in 1989. "We all make bad films. [The producers] misjudge, and you misjudge. That happens more often than the hits.

"But I have been able to get films that have worked, not only at the box office, but critically and with the public, often enough so that I'm still around. I can still get wonderful parts, thank God."

John Uhler Lemmon III was born in Newton, Mass., the son of an executive with the Doughnut Corp. of America. His earliest stage roles began at age 4 in local theater with his father, an amateur performer.

His parents had a turbulent marriage, and their separation when Lemmon was 18 spurred what the actor described as a "fun-and-games facade." He found the stage a needed respite from home and a place where he could hone his comedy routines, which often centered on pantomime and impersonations of famous people.

He served in the Naval ROTC at the very end of World War II. In 1947, he graduated from Harvard University, where he was president of the fabled Hasty Pudding theater troupe, in which men played all parts.

After Harvard, he went to New York with $300 to find work in the theater. Despite an inauspicious start, including playing piano in bars, Lemmon said he was blindly determined to make good.

"If I'd been bright, I'd have realized that I was horribly uncomfortable, amazingly frustrated, and like any sensible person, I'd have quit," he said. "But it never occurred to me that I wouldn't be successful eventually."

While studying with Uta Hagen, he acted on the radio in 1948, and television jobs soon materialized. He made his Broadway debut in a short-lived 1953 revival of "Room Service." A talent scout for Columbia Pictures saw the show and offered him a screen test.

He got third billing in his first movie, after comedienne Judy Holliday and actor Peter Lawford, in George Cukor's "It Should Happen to You" (1954). The film also provided Lemmon with what he considered the best acting advice he ever received. Cukor, known for his delicate comic touch, redid every take with the novice actor, telling him, "Jack, less, a little less."

Eventually the actor spoke up, "Are you trying to tell me not to act?"

"Yes, oh God, yes," Cukor replied.

At the same time he was making musicals with Betty Grable and Janet Leigh, Lemmon scored with "Mister Roberts."

As the woman-chasing hustler Ensign Pulver, Lemmon blended broad comedy and subtle pathos. That became one of his most enduring cinematic traits, the ability to transform from a bratty clown with questionable morals to a man with backbone and a new degree of self-understanding.

In the movie, he is hated by his shipmates aboard a cargo vessel for being the favorite of the comically deranged captain, played by James Cagney, who had a palm tree fetish and little regard for his men. Roberts, played by Fonda, had run interference for the ship's crew but eventually transfers to a fighting ship, leaving Pulver with the chance to take a stand.

In the final scene, he notably tells off the top officer, "Captain, it is I, Ensign Pulver, and I want you to know that I just threw your stinkin' palm tree overboard. Now what's all this crud about no movie tonight?"

Lemmon went on to play a city slicker in "Cowboy" (1958), with Glenn Ford, and a warlock in the comedy "Bell Book and Candle" (1959) with James Stewart, Kim Novak and Ernie Kovacs.

But the attention was nothing like what he got for "Some Like it Hot." In that whimsical movie, Lemmon and Curtis witness a mob killing and disguise themselves as women to avoid being identified. They join an all-woman band and vie for the attention of the sexy Sugar Kane, played by Monroe.

But Lemmon, in a ridiculous blond wig and a high-pitched voice, soon attracts Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), an old playboy who overlooks Lemmon's obvious masculine features. Subtly, Lemmon's character finds himself getting more into the role.

Curtis tells him, "You're not a girl! You're a guy! Why would a guy wanna marry a guy?"

"Security!" he retorts.

The important roles of the rest of his career alternated among satire, slapstick and drama.

In "The Apartment," he played C.C. "Bud" Baxter, who sees his professional fortunes rise when he lends his apartment to his bosses for their extramarital affairs. His conscience starts to gnaw at him when the woman he loves (Shirley MacLaine) turns up as one of the mistresses. He was nominated for an Academy Award for the role.

Lemmon struck a starker chord in "Days of Wine and Roses," playing a self-loathing public relations man whose drinking destroys his life. He attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to prepare for the part, and the result was uniformly praised and resulted in another Oscar nod.

Richard L. Coe wrote in The Washington Post that Lemmon's "graphic fury" fully depicted the "terrifying, shattering reminder of an alarmingly communicable disease."

Lemmon returned to comedy, notably in Wilder's "The Fortune Cookie" (1966), in which his brother-in-law (Matthau) persuades him to fake an injury to collect money, and "The Odd Couple" (1968), the Neil Simon play about mismatched buddies (again with Matthau) who must live together.

In his sole directorial effort, Lemmon led Matthau to an Oscar nomination in "Kotch," (1971), about an old man who befriends a pregnant teenager. Matthau died last year of a heart attack.

Lemmon's bleakest role soon followed, as Harry Stoner in "Save the Tiger," which has the tragic shades of "Death of a Salesman." The film chronicles Stoner's moral descent, including his arranging for a store fire to collect insurance.

Paramount Pictures, fearing the film would not find an audience, gave the film a paltry $1 million budget. But Lemmon was so taken with the part that he worked for the union's minimum wages, about $165 a week, instead of his usual salary. The critical response was among the best of his career.

His final Academy Award nominations were for "Tribute" (1980) and "Missing."

In "Tribute," he repeated his Broadway success -- it ran for 212 performances, and he received a Tony nomination despite mixed reviews -- as a press agent who learns he has cancer and tries to mend relations with his estranged son.

Lemmon returned to Broadway in 1986 for a much-lauded version of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night."

He continued to take supporting film roles over the last two decades, in "JFK," "The Player," "The Grass Harp" and "Short Cuts."

Lemmon once said he thought of himself predominantly as a character actor, not a leading man, and he liked the variety of roles that standing brought him.

Wilder once rated Lemmon "somewhere between Charlie Chaplin and Cary Grant" and on another occasion said, "Happiness is working with Jack Lemmon."

And yet, other observers found something more complex about his off-screen personality.

"For all his persona on screen, he was one of the saddest men I've known," Don Widener, the author of a Lemmon biography, told the Associated Press yesterday. "You could see it in his eyes. The face would be laughing, but his eyes were sad. I never found out why that was."

In his private life, Lemmon enjoyed playing pool and piano. He was said to have given up smoking and drinking martinis when he turned 60 and was known as one of Hollywood's nicest, if bluntly opinionated guys, especially on environmental issues.

His marriage to Cynthia Stone ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, the actress Felicia Farr, whom he married in 1962; a son from his first marriage, Chris; a daughter from his second marriage, Courtney McCrea; a stepdaughter, Denise Gordon; and three grandchildren.

Jack Lemmon, right, played the straight man to co-star Walter Matthau in several movies, including 1968's "The Odd Couple." Matthau died last year.