This story originally appeared in October 28th, 1982; Issue 381
Jerry Lewis has been in show business for 50 years. His life, his career have been played out before our eyes – before the world’s eyes, actually, since he is one of the few truly international stars. The bankruptcy, the ugly feuds, the marathon telethons, the drug abuse and, of course, the seemingly endless string of films. What’s made him so captivating is his unquestionable ability to make people laugh. Yet that laughter begs a question: Does 50 years in show business mean that you’re funny?
Part I: The Jerry Lewis Joke
Undoubtedly, the chocolate is the key to the joke, but is the joke, in fact, a joke? “Ohmigosh, yes the woman at the telethon says. “It is the very best, the very funniest Jerry Lewis story in the world.”
The setting for this questionable bit of levity is a Las Vegas rehearsal hall, an enormous barnlike structure known as the Sahara Space Center. Dancers, choreographers, technicians and directors are everywhere. The soundtrack recording of A Chorus Line is blaring, and to the appropriate strains of “One – singular sensation,” in walks Mr. Lewis.
But, amazingly enough, no one notices. “Not a single person saw him!” the woman continues incredulously. “He was there for, oh, five, 10 minutes and…nothing! Everybody kept rehearsing just as if Jerry Lewis weren’t in the room!
“So Jerry had these two Hershey bars in his pocket, and they were beginning to melt. He just stood there watching, and the chocolate kept getting softer and softer, and finally, Jerry just rubbed the chocolate all over his face! Like it was makeup or something!
“Some tech guy noticed, and he just fell all over himself laughing. It was the funniest thing. One guy started, and before you knew it, the whole room was cracking up. Everyone, that is, except Jerry. He just stood there and let everyone laugh, and then he opened his mouth and screamed real loud, “Doesn’t anybody work around here?”
The woman is practically breathless with laughter as she relates this story. The very idea of a man … with chocolate … all over his face … breaking up a whole rehearsal … well, it is just too much, too funny. “My God, it was hilarious,” she repeats, “but, maybe… you had to be there.”
Two years later, I am (almost) there. Not in Space Center, Las Vegas, but in Los Angeles at an equally strange locale–Scarlett O’Hara’s former mansion, Tara – and Mr. Lewis, sans chocolate, is playful once again.
It seems that Jerry can’t get into the house. The guards around the plantation movie lot, part of which now serves as Jerry’s office, have apparently locked him out, and the entire mansion is in an absolute tizzy. I am standing inside Tara, right on Scarlett’s staircase, viewing the action through the front windows. Jerry is making faces. Jerry is banging on the door. Jerry is smashing his face against the window panes, but Jerry is not getting laughs. Finally, he yells. “Doesn’t anybody work around here?” A guard emerges, but he is definitely not amused. “Mr. Lewis,” the guard says, trying the unlocked front door, “didn’t you know this was open all along?” Jerry says nothing. He just smiles and does a pratfall.
Part II: Him
Jerry Lewis likes to mess with his toys, especially cigarette lighters. He has one that’s shaped like a banana. He has another that shoots flames a foot into the air. He’s also got cameras and television sets and tape recorders. And when inanimate objects get boring, Jerry’s got a dog to play with – a Shih Tzu with a solid-gold tag that reads, I Love Jerry.
All this stuff is in Jerry’s Tara office. There is the possibility of endless amusement in this room, but Jerry is not amused. No, this is real life, and Jerry is Serious. Dressed in black tennis clothes and white sneakers, Jerry wants to be Serious. He shows all the signs of the significant mind. He chain-smokes with conviction. He exhales and stares intently. He pauses thoughtfully between sentences. Jerry is always thinking. Jerry is always … Serious.
Jerry’s staff members appreciate these moments. They sit at the far end of the room facing Jerry’s desk. You can hear them murmuring. They absorb every Serious intonation. They repeat certain words. They worship at the shrine.
Today, the air in this office is thick, full of important thought. Jerry is talking about him. Him meaning the Idiot Jerry. Meaning Jerry Lewis. Jerry Lewis is speaking about Jerry Lewis. Except it’s him he’s talking about. The staff whispers. The staff understands. Jerry can explain. “If you were going to interview the Jerry Lewis you recall,” Jerry says, “you’d walk in, I’d have a chandelier hanging, and I’d be up there.
“It’s a very fine line I walk,” Jerry continues, “but if you’re schizophrenic, which I am, it’s fine. I can sit here and talk to you about Jerry Lewis all day long and tell you everything I know about him. And I probably know more than anyone. Good. Bad. Negative. Positive. The highs. The lows. All of it. Which is the way I look at him. He is another faction.”
Got that? Jerry Lewis is not a man. He is a character. Specifically, a nine-year-old goofball kid. This other guy, also named Jerry Lewis, has “played” the Idiot for 50 years, an affectionate nickname to be sure, but make no mistake, they are not the same person. One is a Serious man. One is a character. OK? OK. The two do contact each other periodically, though. They even write occasionally. “Sometimes I have long talks with him,” the Serious Jerry says, speaking of Mr. Idiot Lewis. “I can show you memos that I’ve sent as the director to him as the star. I’m here at five in the morning, and I’ll send out the day’s memos at 10:30. On the set, the mail boy picks up the mail and brings him the memo that I wrote, and he’ll turn and say, ‘Let that guy go fuck himself.'”
This is no kidding. Non-idiot Jerry even went to a psychiatrist about this split-personality stuff, but the doctor said there was a distinct chance that if Serious Jerry were to be cured, Idiot Jerry would be lost forever. The Serious man didn’t want that, so he made a clean break, a total separation. “I’ll speak only in the third person from now on,” he said. “I’ll be a Serious Man and only ham it up for the movies.” Too bad this didn’t quite work. It turns out that Serious Jerry also likes to flame his lighter a foot into the air. He even likes the banana. Poor Serious Jerry just can’t maintain his air of significance. Traces of chocolate always remain.
This troubles Jerry Lewis greatly. He wants so much to be important. “I hate the guy with the big black hat,” he says. “The guy with the big black hat represents the mortgage on your house, and he also represents foreclosure, and he also represents all the things that hurt the little guy. I love when a snowball hits that big black hat and I know that all that little guy has got is the snowball. I write about those little guys. I perform those little guys. But,” says Serious Jerry with great seriousness, “I don’t want to be one of them.”
Jerry’s aides understand. They murmur appreciatively over this last bit of dialogue, and Jerry is pleased. “Let me tell you,” he says serenely, “show business is my life.”
Part III: A Serious Idiot Is Born
Joseph Levitch was a greasepaint baby, conveniently born between acts to show-business parents from Newark, New Jersey. By all accounts, he was a precocious child–wacky from birth, zany and crazy. At age five, in 1931, the tot made his stage debut singing “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and, shortly after, the child changed his name to Jerry Lewis. “I didn’t want to be confused with the comedian Joe E. Lewis or heavyweight champion Joe Louis,” he explains.
Between bookings, Jerry attended high school, where he was nicknamed Id. “They called me Idiot because of my joking,” he recalls fondly. “It made me popular. There is always one character who’s more popular than the others for whatever the reasons.”
By 19, Jerry was married, had the first of six sons, Gary (who was destined to become a semifamous pop star), and his nightclub work had become fairly lucrative. Then, one fateful night, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were casually introduced to each other on the street. “He was such an Adonis,” Jerry writes in his recently published autobiography, “and look at me, weighing 115 pounds – still fighting acne.” Nevertheless, the two personalities clicked, and their act – based on the premise that sex and slapstick sell like mad – became an enormous success.
Jerry promoted Martin and Lewis by engaging in one publicity stunt after another – amusing bits like sticking chicken chow mein up his nose at well-known Chinese restaurants and staging fake drownings at the beach. “I stuck the noodles up my nose while Dean nonchalantly sipped his tea,” Lewis says. “Someone invariably noticed us.”
These attention-getting devices would soon become Jerry Lewis standards, but early on, the gimmicks apparently worked. His act became wildly popular, and Lewis’ income soared to $7500 a week. Hollywood beckoned the duo, and they ventured to California geared for big-screen stardom. Yet, My Friend Irma, their first feature film, nearly ruined Martin and Lewis. Or, rather, My Friend Irma nearly ruined Jerry Lewis. “My part was written all wrong,” Jerry states. “They wrote me to play the tough guy, and when we did the screen test…well, it wasn’t even acceptable to the projectionist. I went to Hal Walls [the producer] and said, ‘You saw the character I play, and now you’re changing it. So let’s get the character you saw and add him. Let me be … the idiot.'” Lewis won the point, and My Friend Irma was a box-office smash: Martin and Lewis became America’s hottest attraction.
Exactly 10 years from the day the duo began to work together, they busted up. Dean Martin refuses to comment on his former partner, but Jerry now says, “In order to maintain the Martin-Lewis relationship, I went through a 10-year period of lies. The whole situation was against my nature, but I didn’t know that. When you’re between the ages of 20 and 30, you think that whatever you’re doing is right. But between the ages of twenty and 30 is a period that men in medicine have finally found a title for. It’s called stupid.”
After emerging from his stupid period, Jerry entered the film phase of his life. He began directing, writing and starring in movies, and in 1959, he signed a contract with Paramount that still represents the biggest single transaction in film history for the exclusive services of one star: $10 million plus 60 percent of the profits for 14 films over a seven-year period.
The most notable picture Jerry made during this period of constant activity was The Nutty Professor. “It is my favorite,” Jerry says, “but I don’t like to talk about a favorite. I always figure the other films are listening.” A self-directed and cowritten effort, The Nutty Professor is basically a Jekyll-and-Hyde story. Jerry plays the sweet, spastic Dr. Julius Kelp, a chemistry professor who, by drinking a potion, transforms himself into Buddy Love, a jerky, self-centered, ultracool nightclub singer who … uhmm … well, the guy seems an awful lot like Dean Martin.
The film was criticized as “one of the cruelest, nastiest, malice-aforethought swipes ever taken by one member of a broken-up partnership at the other,” but The Nutty Professor has its beautiful moments; the film is almost a masterpiece of loathing, and when Lewis, as Kelp, metamorphoses into the entirely repellent Buddy Love, the effect is mesmerizing.
Unfortunately, The Nutty Professor was not the beginning of a trend. Lewis’ subsequent films dealt primarily with the Idiot Jerry character and his impossibly messy, frustrating life. Nevertheless, this character had an enduring appeal for audiences in the United States and in Europe. France, especially, could have been rechristened Lewisland. The French showered Jerry with awards; they pronounced him a genius; and no less than Jean-Luc Godard said, “Jerry Lewis is the only American director who has made progressive films.” Complementing Godard’s praise, French film scholar Robert Benayoun wrote the definitive Jerry book, Bonjour Monsieur Lewis, which has never been translated into English, despite its massive sales in Europe. “I consider Jerry Lewis, since the death of Buster Keaton, to be the foremost artist of the time,” Benayoun wrote.
American film experts were less enthusiastic. “I stay away from his films,” says drama critic John Simon. “It’s the kind of low, infantile, witless farce that does not interest me in the least.” Yet, Woody Allen, the only living practitioner of film comedy whom Lewis admires, maintains that “Lewis is one of the most gifted and natural comic talents we’ve ever had. I’ve seen him live and loved him. I’ve laughed hysterically at many of his films.”
Lewis ignored his stateside detractors, and although he does not speak French and has not read Benayoun’s book (he does own 500 copies), the critic’s work appears to have greatly affected Jerry. Around 1960, Lewis began to believe his foreign press. Besides prompting some remarkably self-indulgent films, this attitude caused Jerry, who was always philanthropically inclined, to become even more committed.
In 1966, Lewis began hosting telethons, on a small scale, to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). By 1970, the yearly event had turned into a major production, a bona fide American institution, and Jerry emerged a full-scale humanitarian. By prompting donations from the telethon audience, Lewis raised over $400 million for the MDA by 1970 and could no longer be considered simply the Idiot. Jerry gained instant credibility. Everybody finally understood that this was a Serious Man. And, best of all, Lewis knew how to make the most out of his newly achieved status: he refused to say why he was so devoted to Muscular Dystrophy. One Texas man, desperate for the information, offered Lewis $500,000 to divulge the reason for his unwavering benevolence, but, predictably, Jerry declined. “I don’t bother with those people,” he says, “not when it comes to my kids.”
Part IV: The Man With the Solid-Gold Camera
Jerry Lewis, serious or otherwise, is a quirky guy. He’s got this misanthropic edginess, a definite nasty streak. This character flaw may be caused by the Idiot Jerry’s rearing his silly head, or it might just be man’s natural reaction to a huge influx of money over a period of fifty-odd show-biz years. At any rate, Lewis appears to be the first punk capitalist: he spends money with abandon, but there’s always a certain twist to his purchases. Jerry definitely has his bent moments. Hell, Jerry Lewis has his bent years.
For instance, there is the matter of the camera. Jerry owns a solid-gold Nikon with a diamond in the viewfinder. Why is anyone’s guess. Call it the trappings of stardom. Call it an investment. Whatever the reason, Jerry loves this camera. One year, he appeared at Cannes on his balcony overlooking the Croisette, positioned his Nikon and focused. He focused at the fans, at cars, at everyone on the street below. The fans looked up, the cars stopped, and all eyes were fixed on Jerry and his solid-gold camera. When a sufficient traffic jam was created, Jerry returned to his suite a happy man.
And then, of course, there is the matter of the socks. It seems that Jerry categorically refuses to wear a pair of socks more than once. Every morning, Jerry receives a new pair of socks. He wears them all day and then throws them out. Jerry Lewis may well spend $5,000 a year on socks alone.
These and other curious facts surfaced publicly in 1981, when Lewis, once a party to that ground-breaking Paramount deal, filed for bankruptcy. He expected to make $2 million in 1981 and had $140,000 in his checking account at the time of the court proceedings, so theoretically, the legal move was self-protective: Jerry was facing two lawsuits. The more personal of these was a divorce action made by Lewis’ wife of thirty-five years, Patti, who was asking for $450,000 annually in alimony and child support. “I was married to a lovely lady for almost thirty-six years,” Lewis said at the time. “She. produced six sons for me. I’m the heavy in this piece.”
Even though the divorce action was emotionally wrenching, Lewis’ other pending litigation could be considerably more costly. It involves the Jerry Lewis Cinemas, a national chain of movie houses that booked only G-rated “family” films. The theaters had been a dream of Lewis’ for 20 years. “It was perfect,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “The only thing we didn’t do–and I was just as guilty as any of the people I worked with–was that we really didn’t see if we had enough product. We were not able to supply the family-oriented films I had built this empire for. The moment the R-rated films started, I washed my hands of it. I knew where it was going to go. We had $144 million in the master account in March 1970. Four weeks from that day, we were broke.” Today, the lawsuit from the chain’s investors has still not been resolved. Lewis admits that he stands to lose $27 million when the case is settled.
The Jerry Lewis theaters were not Lewis’ only ill-conceived undertaking. In 1965, Jerry began taking Percodan after he injured his back in a pratfall. He rapidly became addicted (he has since recovered), and some say the drug clouded his thinking, forcing one poor decision after another. He continued to work steadily – films, nightclub engagements, the telethon – but, basically, Lewis was just going through the motions.
But even medical problems make it difficult to explain Jerry’s involvement in the 1971 film production The Day the Clown Cried. This movie told the disturbing tale of Helmut Doork, a famous clown (played by Lewis) who is arrested by Gestapo agents during World War II. Sent to a concentration camp, Doork’s job is to cheerfully lead the children interned at this particular camp into the showers where they will be gassed to death. The film was deemed too abhorrent for distribution. Several industry insiders feel that Lewis was forced, at least temporarily, to quit making movies. “Many people considered Jerry Lewis to be a very disturbed man,” states one studio executive. “Nobody knew what to say – a clown leading kids into the ovens? That’s deranged.”
Soon, Lewis turned to Broadway. He was tired of hosting television shows – his rather adventurous, live two-hour TV program in 1963 is best remembered by then staff writer Dick Cavett as “the equivalent of having been on the Hindenburg” – and Lewis had tried every other form of entertaining. It was time for the bright lights of 42nd Street.
Lewis’ chosen show was, supposedly, a “can’t miss” vehicle. But the play, Hellzapoppin, was a large-scale vaudevillesque production that received disastrous reviews (“The show flays around like a has-been clown frantic for a comeback,” proclaimed the Boston Globe) and suffered from deep artistic differences between producer and star. Hellzapoppin, which came to be known as “Hellzafloppin,” closed out of town.
Lewis won’t discuss Hellzapoppin or The Day the Clown Cried or the Jerry Lewis theaters or, for that matter, anything at all unpleasant. He believes in “turning negatives into positives” and claims the past is behind him. Lewis argues with those who cite The Day the Clown Cried as the reason for his decade-long absence from moviemaking. Instead, he blames pornography. “I was waiting for the theaters to be cleaned out,” Lewis says. “I had scripts put on my desk: The Ant That Sucked Denver, The Homosexual Matricide Case of the Undernourished Faggot Who Loved a Rabbi. But how many times can you watch two chicks in a motel with some guy with black socks whipping the bejesus out of some S&M? The one thing that doesn’t get tiring is good comedy.”
Jerry’s idea of good comedy was Hardly Working, his comeback film, which surfaced in 1981. The movie garnered some of the worst reviews in cinema history (excruciating and painful were recurring adjectives) yet went on to earn $50 million at the box office – $40 million of that being profit. “The public never left me,” Jerry says flatly. “They were there all along.”
Part V: The Prostitutes and the Fans
During this year’s telethon extravaganza, Jerry Lewis satisfied a longtime desire: he publicly attacked the American press. He fumed for almost an hour about journalists (whom, on other occasions, he has referred to as “stupid whores” and “stupid prostitutes”). He read nasty quote after nasty quote; showed nasty illustration after nasty illustration. And when he finished reading and displaying all these attacks on himself, Jerry received a standing ovation. The entire harangue brought to mind an old Lenny Bruce joke that goes something like this: A huge sea monster attempts to terrorize a beach. He roars, he breathes fire, but no one is frightened. Sadly, the creature returns to the scientists who created him. “What did the people on the beach say?” the scientists ask. “They said,” the monster replies, “that I was doing Jerry Lewis.”
Yet, Jerry is (you guessed it) dead Serious. Frankly, he feels maligned, and he’s out for revenge. The press is just a bunch of jerks – men with big black hats, if you will – and Jerry is ready with his snowball. The only snag being that Lewis is completely irrational on the subject of journalists. He simply doesn’t make much sense. All Lewis understands is that (a) “the whores” do not like him, and that (b) “the prostitutes” do not appreciate his work. That the press’ criticisms could actually, perhaps, on occasion, just maybe, have some realistic or creative basis does not interest Jerry. For example, a typical Lewis fourth-estate analysis:
“Let’s say your new film comes out and suddenly all the critics who have been slashing you for years say….”
J.L.: “All the morons? They’re still morons.”
“What if they say….”
J.L.: “They’re still morons.”
“But what if….”
J.L.: “They’re morons.”
And so it goes. Hating the press appears to be Lewis’ favorite pastime. He continues, with venomous glee: “These are the things that the people who hate me, hate most: Truth. Talent. Courage. Competence. Point of view. Multifaceted. These people wouldn’t like to meet Jerry Lewis in person, either, because they’d lose somebody to rap. They need to get through their fucking timid little lives. Spending your time knocking someone is absolutely gutless. It doesn’t take any intelligence. It doesn’t take any of the good things that make up life. It takes a timid fucking soul to sit there and disrupt. It’s very, very sad.”
“There is no category for comedy at the Academy Awards,” Lewis almost screams.
These remarkably harsh statements are also used in regard to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, which year in and year out has refused to acknowledge Jerry Lewis’ contributions. “There is no category for comedy at the Academy Awards,” Lewis almost screams. “There’s a category for the guy who puts a new bulb in the toilet of the movie house. They also have a category formagnetic-strip systems that are utilized by the extension of perspiration from a yak’s ass. They have categories for everything, but not for comedy.
“I have a simple philosophy,” Lewis adds. “Don’t say no swell stuff over my grave. I’m opening up a chain of eulogy stands where anyone can go in, and for twenty bucks they read to you all the swell stuff they’re going to say when you croak. I want to hear it now. Tell me now. That’s all I ever say to the academy, but every year, the Irving Thalberg Award goes to this wonderful conglomerate from Pittsburgh Ball Bearing Paints because it put up enough money to make a two-reeler out of The Great Gatsby, which is a porno film in Tokyo.”
If the early signs are any indication, Lewis’ new film, King of Comedy, may surprise the academy and even thrill the press. Directed by Martin Scorsese and costarring Robert De Niro, King of Comedy is a radical departure for Lewis – a serious film in which Jerry plays, for the first time, a dramatic role. Lewis is Jerry Langford, a Johnny Carson-like character who’s held captive by an aspiring comedian (De Niro). Jerry was Scorsese’s casting inspiration, and the director is a longtime admirer of Lewis’ work. “Jerry is totally surreal, but he was very easy to direct,” Scorsese states. “The role was difficult. He had to look as if nothing were going on – as if he were just walking along the street. He wasn’t used to acting that way, and he had to keep his face less than elastic. That’s very hard to do.”
If Jerry’s performance in King of Comedy is a critical sensation, one wonders what his fans – the ones who thought Hardly Working was a riot – will think. Jerry, for one, doesn’t care. “I only owe them the one thing that I keep giving them my very best,” he says. Where do you think the public would be if I were working in a vegetable store? They’d be waiting in another line for another performer. I worked my ass off to get in their line of view. I don’t owe them a thing.”
Part VI: The Love That Dare not Speak Its Name
Something strange happens to people in extreme heat. Complicate this hot-weather factor with bright casino lights and the prospect of making a million dollars in an instant, and you have Las Vegas. During Labor Day weekend, 15,000 very devoted heat victims arrive in Vegas to see the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon. They wander aimlessly through the city’s hotels; they dress in oddly revealing, brightly colored clothing; they daydream about being discovered on TV. But, above all else, they yearn to meet Jerry Lewis.
For nearly all these telethonites, the once-in-a-lifetime journey to MDA Las Vegas is a fantasy come true. Ninety-three million people watch the entire 21-and-a-half-hour Jerry Lewis telethon, and research indicates that the majority of those avid viewers wish they could sit in Jerry’s studio audience. But instead of catching the first available plane, many of these homebound 93 million satisfy their Jerry urges by writing letters to their hero. Sacks of mail arrive daily in Las Vegas, and in 1980, one particular letter seized the hearts of muscular-dystrophy-telethon devotees.
“Dear Mr. Lewis,” the letter began, “our family watched your movie The Nutty Professor, and in it you played a character named Buddy Love. After the movie, my son said, ‘Wasn’t Jerry Love good?’ We thought that was funny, but I started thinking it was a good nickname for you. I love you, Jerry, and so do millions of other people. Those people all understand Jerry Love because JERRY LOVE is you and Jerry Love is you. It is both things and it is everything.”
This letter was Xeroxed and pinned to a bulletin board in the press room, and JERRY LOVE (or maybe Jerry Love, it was hard to say which) became the unofficial theme of the 1980 telethon. As various Jerry fans began arriving in Las Vegas, one would hear them going on rhapsodically about this JERRY LOVE mind set. One stewardess, who had raised money for the MDA by selling Mount St. Helens T-shirts that boasted, I Worked My Ash Off for Jerry’s Kids, proclaimed: “Jerry Love is what I strive for in my own life. Jerry Lewis has the most amazing soul in the universe.”
Each telethon star, from Doug Momary and Freddie the Frog to Sammy Davis Jr. and Wayne Newton, veritably yelled Jerry Lewis’ praises from any available rooftop. “When you live in this country,” said Lorna Luft, “you grow up knowing who Superman is and you grow up knowing who Jerry Lewis is. I always worshiped him. The man is simply a genius.” Fundraisers, too, were gripped by JERRY LOVE fever. “He is the greatest,” said the man who had walked across America on stilts to raise money for “Jerry’s kids.” “I would never have worked so hard for anybody else.”
But of all the celebrities and all the fans, one individual most clearly epitomized the essence of 1980’s telethon extravaganza. Chris Dolan, a combination of ministar and major fan, was fifteen in 1980. The host of L.A. cable TV’s The Chris Dolan Celebrity Circle, Chris had flown to Las Vegas as “part of my lifelong quest to meet Jerry Lewis.”
Chris was frantic with enthusiasm as he attempted time and again to meet his idol. He wanted Lewis’ autograph. He wanted an exclusive interview. He wanted a snapshot of the two of them together. But it was not to be, and Chris was left watching the show on a television monitor. “I love Jerry’s comedy,” he would say as Lewis stuck some cigarettes up his nose. “His singing. His reactions. His style. My goal is to be just like Jerry. To be a multifaceted entertainer for however long the audience accepts me. And then after.”
Peculiar praise, but Lewis’ endurance, coupled with his well-publicized good-heartedness, is a great crowd pleaser. The true fan does not question JERRY LOVE . He simply accepts, refusing to wonder if, for instance, Jerry might, just maybe, host the telethon for, say, egoistic reasons. But, then again, why should they question Jerry Lewis?
The man has impeccable credentials: in 1977, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. “I often wish he had won,” says Ed McMahon, Jerry’s telethon sidekick. “You’ll never find a better man. If he had won the Nobel Prize, it would have been a great day for America.”
Part VII: To Film Is to Wince
Jerry likes aphorisms. he likes ooh and ah material – catchy phrases that elicit wow! reactions and then are instantly forgotten. Lewis collects these bits of wisdom – lines like, “When I was a little child, my parents abandoned me, but they never left the house” – in what he calls his Creed Books. These books contain the material for Jerry’s lifelong project, a dramatic film entitled The Human Condition, which he wants to write and direct. Presumably, the project will reveal, once and for all time, the Serious Jerry, the man who wrote, “Fame is a big beautiful balloon surrounded by a lot of boys with sharp pins.”
Until then, Lewis is sticking with the Idiot. Smorgasbord, Jerry’s latest comedy, began filming last June. It is Lewis’ 47th movie, but it could just as easily be his twelfth or his third: the character is the same, the plot line virtually identical. Jerry began filming the picture, which he cowrote and is directing, at the Masquers, an old-line Hollywood actors’ club whose Creedlike motto, To Laugh Is to Win, will probably show up in The Human Condition.
Day one saw Lewis’ latest Idiot Jerry incarnation, Warren Nefron, bumble into a crowded bar. In the scene, Nefron laughs hysterically at a TV show, knocks over some drinks and collides with a few scantily clad ladies.
The scene was not funny.
Nevertheless, people laughed. They laughed hard. Lewis’ son Scott, the associate producer of this movie, spent the entire two hours of shooting falling off his chair. Almost everyone else in the crew followed suit, yet Jerry was not pleased with his own work. He did several takes, each time seeming to make the character more ridiculous. Scott Lewis would laugh mightily after each take. “Cut, print,” Jerry finally yelled. “My God,” Scott said. “I just hope I’ve inherited some of his amazing ability. We’re both Pisceans, so, maybe….” Scott Lewis’ voice drained away. He had begun laughing once again.
Part VIII: Respect and the Common Man
Back at Tara, Jerry Lewis is trying on teeth. These buck jobs are for Smorgasbord, and the kid who made them, an overly muscular, overly tanned L.A. type, is attempting to relate a joke about Jerry Lewis that was told on the David Letterman show the previous evening. The gag concerns French fries and Father’s Day gifts and Jerry Lewis cookware and, one hopes, was a good deal more coherent in its original form. Nonetheless, Mr. L.A. Buckteeth Maker is laughing heartily at his rendition. Jerry is not impressed, and he glares at the kid. “Who the fuck is David Letterman?” Jerry asks. The kid, oblivious to Lewis’ anger, starts to explain, but Jerry interrupts him. “Let me tell you a story,” he says.
“I sat in Cannes the closing night of the festival,” Lewis begins. I was with 4,000 of the most knowledgable film people and together we watched E.T. They were staggered by it. Myself included. I was staggered by it. Everyone’s in a tux, and the blobs of tears were that thick, and then the laughter overlapping the tears, and then the excitement, the sheer ecstasy, and taking that E.T. and turning it into that loving, sensitive, beautiful – well, I couldn’t believe Steven Spielberg did that work.”
The kid looks puzzled – he doesn’t have a clue as to what Lewis means by all this – but Jerry is on a roll. “And when the picture was over, that audience stood up and gave Spielberg a standing ovation the likes of which I’ve never seen. And he’s up in the balcony with the lights on him, and he spots me in the third-row orchestra, and he is taking his bow and he went like that [Jerry flourishes with his hand as if to tip a hat] just to me, and it was the biggest thrill of my life.”
The kid is quite confused, but Lewis is off in never-never land, not anxious to return. “Steven Spielberg audited my film class at UCLA,” Jerry says dreamily. “He learned good. But he always knew about respect.” Still not clear about the possible connection between this story and the David Letterman French-fry joke, the teeth guy says, “Yeah, I liked E.T. too.” He laughs nervously. Looking for a comeback, Jerry tries on the protruding false teeth once again and mugs at his audience. He gets his laugh and, buckteeth in place, grins broadly. “Show business is my life,” Jerry says mockingly. “Don’t ever forget that.”