“I’ll retire when they put me in the box. And even then, I can’t guarantee you won’t hear noises from me.” – Jerry Lewis to this columnist in a Chicago Sun-Times piece from Oct. 7, 1991.
It was impossible to feel neutral about the great Jerry Lewis.
Over the decades, many, many millions loved and admired Mr. Lewis and his oft-brilliant work, not to mention his tireless charitable fundraising efforts.
Many others never really got Lewis’ manic man-child shtick, and were taken aback (to say the least) by some of his darker words and actions.
Jerry Lewis was a genius, a towering legend with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was half of one of the most popular comedic duos in movie history, a telethon host who raised more than $2.5 billion for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and a skilled craftsman behind the camera.
He was also a mercurial, egomaniacal, often polarizing figure with a roller-coaster career, pockmarked by such notorious episodes as his bitter breakup with movie partner Dean Martin; a legendarily “lost” film about the Holocaust that to this day has been seen by only a handful of people; struggles with addiction, and his stubborn (and incredibly wrong-headed) insistence female comedians simply weren’t funny.
Mr. Lewis died at his home in Las Vegas on Sunday morning. Although his days of hosting the famous Labor Day Telethon ended in 2010 after a 40-year run, he was still occasionally making appearances in films — most recently as Nicolas Cage’s father in “The Trust” and as a jazz musician in “Max Rose,” both in 2016 — and making pop culture news, e.g., an incredibly awkward interview with the Hollywood Reporter at his Las Vegas home last December.
Go back to the late 1940s, the 1950s and the early 1960s, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger star than Jerry Lewis. By 1948, the Martin and Lewis stage show — featuring Martin as the suave and laid-back crooner and Lewis as the crazy, stumbling, bumbling comic foil — was packing venues as large as the 6,000-seat Roxy Theater in Times Square.
Martin and Lewis starred in 13 films together, but the relationship became strained as Lewis’ screen-chomping persona pushed Martin to the background. They broke up in 1956 and didn’t so much as speak to one another for years.
In the 1960s, Lewis surprised many with his bold, avant-garde, creatively adventurous work, including “The Bellboy” (which he also wrote and directed) and to my mind his greatest film: “The Nutty Professor” (1963), an update on “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” directed by, co-written by and starring Lewis as the shy and awkward Professor Julius Kelp, and his alter ego, the suave and slick Buddy Love. It was a dark and knowing social satire and psychological character study — very funny and more than a little disquieting.
By the end of the decade, however, Lewis and his old-school showbiz persona were out of favor with the new Hollywood. Lewis became better known for the annual Labor Day telethons on TV (during which he would sometimes berate the orchestra leader or the director and not even bother to hide his impatience with some of the folks sharing the stage with him) than his movies.
In 1972, Lewis directed and starred in “The Day the Clown Cried,” about a German circus clown named Helmut Doork in a Nazi concentration camp. Embarrassed by the final product, which he termed a disaster, Lewis took steps to ensure the film never saw the light of day.
A decade later, Lewis made a spectacular cinematic comeback with his roles as a Johnny Carson-esque late-night talk show host who is kidnapped in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” (1982). It was a stunningly effective piece of dramatic work.
In the years that followed, Lewis kept busy. He would occasionally do a television or film role, he’d perform on stage, he’d publish a book, he’d teach a class, he’d accept an award. (He never won an Oscar, but in 2009 the Academy gave him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.) And yes, sometimes he’d rub us the wrong way with something he said.
On Oct. 7, 1991, I wrote a piece for the Sun-Times chronicling a day spent with Lewis and his wife SanDee aka “Sam.” We rode in a maroon limousine to Waukegan, honoring a pledge he had made to a 10-year-old boy from Gurnee on his telethon to go bowling with the child.
“I’m here because I promised the kid I would do it,” Lewis told me. “What, I need the publicity? I need to have my picture in the paper? After 60 years in the business?
“For whatever reason, it was this little boy’s dream to meet this crazy idiot Jerry Lewis.”
For more than 40 years, Lewis had been making these personalized house calls, over all the United States.
As we pulled up to the bowling alley, a number of TV crews gathered around the limo. Lewis complained about one of the entertainment shows, saying they always shot him in a way that made him look like a physically challenged person — though he used a much harsher term.
Just before Lewis stepped out of the limo, he reflected on his legacy, noting that younger audiences might not know the scope of his work, but at least they knew of some of his later performances.
“I wish I could do it all over again, only better,” he said. “Not that I’m so wise and mature even now.”
He switched to that famous over-the-top voice and bellowed, “Because I’m only nine! NIYIYIYIYIYIYINE!”
And then he went bowling with a 10-year-old kid from Gurnee.