Comedian Jerry Lewis accused of sexual harassment by former co-stars
The allegations against the late comedy icon were revealed in an investigation published Wednesday by Vanity Fair.
Another major Hollywood star is being called out for inappropriate behavior as the #MeToo movement continues to embolden previously silenced victims of sexual assault.
Only this time, the actor in question is dead.
Comedy icon Jerry Lewis, who died in 2017 at age 91, is accused of sexual harassment and punitive behavior by several of his female former co-stars in an investigation published Wednesday by Vanity Fair.
There has been no comment from any representatives of Lewis’ estate nor its benefactor, Lewis’ widow, SanDee Pitnick. USA TODAY has reached out to Lewis’ former manager and his onetime publicist for comment.
The most detailed allegations come from Karen Sharpe and Hope Holiday, both of whom appear in a nine-minute video shot by Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, the documentarians behind a series of films on sexual abuse, including HBO’s “Allen v. Farrow.”
The interviews were conducted by the filmmakers for what appears to be a forthcoming project focusing on Old Hollywood’s abusive and sexist “casting couch” approach to show business.
Sharpe, 87, describes being cast in the 1964 Lewis vehicle “The Disorderly Orderly” and being required to model her outfits for Lewis, then 38 and already a Hollywood titan, having secured a record-breaking $10 million deal with Paramount in 1959 after breaking up with former partner Dean Martin.
“He grabbed me,” Sharpe recalls. “He began to fondle me. He unzipped his pants. Quite frankly, I was dumbstruck.”
Sharpe rebuffed Lewis and offered to quit the movie. Lewis said she could not because that she had already signed a contract.
When Sharpe returned to the set to shoot several days later, a crew member pulled her aside and told her that Lewis had decreed that no one should speak to Sharpe. The star himself, she says, required her to rehearse with a stand-in when the cameras weren’t rolling. Lewis “never worked with me. He never spoke to me,” she says.
When shooting was complete, Sharpe says Lewis pulled her aside and offered a confession of sorts. “I honestly don’t know how you came to work every day,” he said. “You see, I’m sick.”
Sharpe says she wasn’t having any of his excuses. “Is that your excuse for bad behavior? … Well, I don’t excuse that.” Then she added, “You ever think about playing a heavy, a real (SOB)? Because you’re really good at that.”
The accusations echo those levied in recent years against a list of once-powerful Hollywood men including convicted producer Harvey Weinstein, accused by dozens of women of abusing his career-making power, alleging he made intimidating sexual advances or raped them; actor Kevin Spacey, accused of forcing young male actors to have sex; Matt Lauer, accused of inappropriate sexual behavior at work, including locking a woman in his office in order to assault her; and singer R. Kelly, who faces decades in prison after being convicted in 2021 on nine counts of sex trafficking and racketeering.
Holiday, a comedic character actress who had made a splash in Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” featuring Jack Lemmon, says she had a more disturbing encounter with Lewis, whom she met when she was 13 as a friend of her theater executive father.
In 1961, Lewis offered Holiday a part in “The Ladies Man,” and on the first day she appeared on the set, she says he summoned her to his office and locked the door.
“He starts to talk dirty to me, and as he’s talking, the pants open, and the ugly thing came out and he starts” to masturbate, Holiday says in the short film, a scene reminiscent of what several women alleged in 2017 as their experience with comedian Louis C.K.
A shocked and rattled Holiday was too afraid to report Lewis to the Screen Actors Guild: “He was very big at Paramount. I was under contract to him and to Paramount, and I didn’t want to shake the tree.”
In the short film, Holiday appears visibly upset by not only that alleged incident with Lewis but also another in which she says a famous actor, whom she declines to name, raped her in a drunken stupor.
The Vanity Fair report includes corroborating stories from a number of other actresses, including former Bond girl Jill St. John, who appeared in Lewis’ 1963 movie “Who’s Minding the Store?” as his racy love interest. In a statement given to the magazine, St. John said that while she considered Lewis a “comedy genius,” she cautioned that it’s “important not to confuse the artist with the man. Making the film was an extremely unhappy and disappointing experience.”
She would not going into detail, given Lewis is “no longer on this planet” and cannot rebut, so “I prefer to say that a good time was not had by all.”
Actress and singer Anna Maria Alberghetti recalls Lewis aggressively pursuing her during the filming of 1960’s “Cinderfella.” But her stardom enabled her to fend him off. “If this had been my first break in the business, I probably wouldn’t have had a choice,” she says.
Actress Lainie Kazan says she had already contended with years of unwanted advances from men in Hollywood before meeting Lewis in the late ‘60s when she was performing in Las Vegas. She says he told her she should get a nose job and lose weight, while also propositioning her.
“He really came on to me, but he wanted me to feel like gravel,” Kazan says.
Much more recently, Lewis even managed to make unflappable comedian Amy Schumer uncomfortable. In 2014, Schumer performed at a Friars Club roast of Lewis, when the comedian, then in his 80s, rose and hugged Schumer, only to then mime having sex with her.
“He started pushing me back, trying to lay me down on the stage,” Schumer told GQ after the incident. “He was in my ear saying ‘Lay down.’ I whispered ‘no’ in his ear. Even after I said no, he was still trying.”
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