Peter Travers on Jerry Lewis: The Ultimate Funnyman as Total Filmmaker

Rolling Stone's film critic pays tribute to the innovative, misunderstood comedian who became a bona fide moviemaking genius

Peter Travers pays tribute to Jerry Lewis, the comedian, screen legend and moviemaking genius who passed away at 91: "He was the total filmmaker." Credit: Everett Collection

I annoyed Jerry Lewis once by asking him about The Day the Clown Cried, a movie he starred in and directed in 1972, and then refused to release. "It's awful," said Lewis of the Holocaust drama in which he starred as a circus clown who entertains Jewish children as he leads them to their deaths in Nazi gas chambers. Why not show it and let the world decide? "I'm ashamed of it," Lewis told me flatly. When I pressed him, he flashed a look that could be subtitled "End of Discussion." Now, with the comic legend's death at 91, after decades of fighting health problems and addiction to pain medications, his controversial never-seen movie may or may not find a release. But the debate about Lewis – his restless inventiveness, his defensive anger, his need to control, his filmmaking innovations, his invaluable contributions to screen comedy – will continue. Such is the power of his prodigious talent and personality.

The Lewis obits give credit where it is lavishly due. His career was huge in so many areas – film, TV, music, nightclub acts, Broadway and as a lifelong telethon advocate for children with Muscular Dystrophy ("Jerry's Kids"). But when I talked to Lewis for the last time, before his 2015 induction into the Comedy of Hall of Fame, the subject was film. Pure cinema, he called it – comic action unburdened by too much dialogue or heavy thematic lifting. Lewis had liked something I had written about Funny Bones, a 1995 dramedy in which he starred that dug into the bleak roots of comedy. "Comedy comes out of pain and uncertainty," Lewis said. Where does his pain come from? Lewis shot me a dark look. "What the hell do you mean," he bristled. 

I brought up the common joke that only the French really get Jerry Lewis. Gallic critics rank Lewis as an artist on the level of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. But here, at home, the kid from Newark, New Jersey, born of Russian-Jewish parents, is mostly seen as the funnyman who lit box-office fires in the 1960s by mugging and screaming, "Haaaaayyyyyy, Laaaady!" In 1984, Lewis was awarded the French Legion of Honor for his film work. In America, his only Oscar was given in 2009 for his humanitarian efforts.

That's got to hurt, right? "A little," Lewis grudgingly allowed. But he said his famous temper was reserved for professional incompetence. "I go after those who are acting stupid. You don't make friends when you do that. And I couldn't care less." He claimed to laugh off digs in the press and on social media (Vice published something in 2014 called "Jerry Lewis Is Still Alive (and Still a Piece of Shit)." As he sees it, "they're pains in the ass, that's all."

So let's allow his work in film to speak in tribute to Lewis, or "Jerry" as he liked to call the idiot child he played in the 16 films he made with his partner Dean Martin from 1949 to 1956. Most were formula retreads, ground out to capitalize on the Martin & Lewis fame on TV and in clubs. Lewis favored 1952's The Stooge, in which he and Dean play stage partners and his suave other half treats him cruelly. Make of that what you will. But the duo's last two films, 1955's Artists and Models and 1956's Hollywood or Bust,  deserve mention because they brought Lewis together with director Frank Tashlin, whose feel for mime and brightly-colored, cartoon anarchy would fuel the star's own career as a solo performer.

The two meshed beautifully in 1960's Cinderfella – the scene of Lewis dancing down a staircase to a Count Basie beat is time-capsule worthy. That same year marks Lewis's own directorial debut with The Bellboy, basically nothing more than a series of skits involving Lewis as a bellboy at Miami's Fontainbleau Hotel. The film was a hit, though critics sneered Lewis became a box-office golden boy – and, as the French would say, an auteur.


Then, in 1963, the stars aligned to put Lewis in the sweet spot with audiences and critics alike. The Nutty Professor, written, directed and starring Lewis, gave him the dual role of his career. First as Julius Kelp, the nerdy, near-sighted chemistry prof – and then Buddy Love, the slick, supercool, superarrogant singer that Julius transforms into, Jekyll-and-Hyde style. Many saw Love as a satirical jab at Dean Martin, the stud who got all the babes while Lewis played the spastic goof they laughed at. In reality, the movie reflected the two sides of Lewis himself. "Are you saying there's more to me than ha-ha," he asked when I brought this up to him. "Then I agree." He once said, half-jokingly, "People hate me because I am a multifaceted, talented, wealthy, internationally famous genius."

Trouble started soon after. Lewis kept the hits coming – The Patsy, The Disorderly Orderly, the underrated Boeing Boeing – but he began spreading himself too thin (a solo club act, a TV series), all exacerbated by his growing Percodan addiction to ease the pain of injuries suffered doing stunts and pratfalls. The 1970s became a kind of limbo for Lewis, until he made a dramatic splash in 1983's The King of Comedy. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film cast Lewis as Jerry Langford, an isolated, embittered version of himself – a TV host kidnapped by a psycho wannabe comic played by Robert De Niro. His performance dug deep and struck a chord. (That Lewis failed to receive an Oscar nomination for both The Nutty Professor and The King of Comedy only adds further to the Academy's reputation for missing the boat on brilliance.)

Through all the ups and downs, his reputation endured. In the years since, Lewis has appeared in such indie films as Cookie (1989), Arizona Dream (1993), Funny Bones (1995), Max Rose (2016) and The Trust (2016). But those who want to learn and understand the extent of the man's artistic influence should read The Total Filmmaker, a 1971 book culled from 480 hours of lectures Lewis delivered at the University of Southern California. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were students. You can find copies of the book online; it's indispensable. Here's one excerpt:

"I have some hates in film – the schmuck who works with it and, deep down doesn't like anything about it; also, the guy who doesn't care how he works. The other-type person I hate is the untotal filmmaker who loftily claims he is dealing with the 'human magic' of reels, dictating what the emulsion sees and does, and yet has nothing to say. I think he's taking up space. You can automate that kind of film-maker. They come out of a box that says, 'I'll make whatever you want.'"

Jerry Lewis made what he wanted to make, showed us what he wanted to show us. That's a total filmmaker. That's also a career for the ages. In The Nutty Professor, a coed, played by Stella Stevens, burns Buddy Love by calling him a "rude, discourteous egomaniac!" Buddy's comeback is pure Jerry Lewis: "You're crazy about me, right?" Truer words were never spoken.