Yes, he was a comic legend whose films were embraced by audiences raised on his manic, over-the-top, rubber-faced routines. And as host of an annual telethon he raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
But he was also a difficult and egotistical man. I met with him last year and this is what I wrote for the Daily Telegraph:
He can be cantankerous and irascible; he is prone to making sexist and misogynistic remarks; and he has endured a litany of health problems, including two heart attacks, pulmonary fibrosis, prostate cancer and type 1 diabetes.
But at the age of 90 Jerry Lewis is enjoying something of a career comeback.
Seventy years after he teamed up with Dean Martin in the comedy duo Martin and Lewis, sixty-seven years after his first film role in My Friend Irma, 56 years after making his directorial debut with The Bellboy, and after a break of several years because of ill health, the veteran comic is back working.
His one-man shows sell out, he teaches a film class near his home in Las Vegas and he has a new movie about to be released---his first starring role in more than two decades.
"Being 90 is not simple, but it’s interesting, very interesting," he says, talking in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. "Before I was 90, I could walk, I could see well, I could hear terrific, and now I can’t hear or see or walk. But I am thrilled to be 90."
Then, in a typically cringe-inducing remark, he adds: "My daughter asked me what it was like in prehistoric days, so I smacked her right in the mouth."
Age has taken its toll on the hyperkinetic comic and his memory for facts isn't what it was, but he still cracks jokes and contorts his face in the elastic ways he utilised in his persona of a manic man-child that made him one of the most iconic performers in Hollywood history.
|with Dean Martin in his heyday|
He arrives in a wheelchair but insists on walking into the suite, leaning heavily on a silver-topped cane. Once he is seated he talks lucidly and lengthily in a virtual monologue that embraces his memories of long-gone friends, who, he says proudly, included President Kennedy and Charlie Chaplin; his partnership, breakup and eventual reconciliation with Dean Martin; performances at New York's Copacabana in the 1940s; life in old Hollywood; his vehemently strong views on the state of the film industry today and, of course, his new movie.
It is called Max Rose and he has the title role of a retired jazz musician whose beloved wife of nearly six decades has just passed away. Then, while going through her effects he discovers a love note from another man, a revelation that leads him to believe his marriage and indeed his entire life was built on a lie. He decides to track down and confront the man in the hope that what he learns will provide him with the answers he needs. The supporting cast includes veterans Claire Bloom, Mort Sahl and Dean Stockwell.
"It was my pleasure financially to do it," Lewis says with a grin
. "Seriously, I got the script and I couldn’t put it down. I fell in love with the material and felt it was a perfect time in my life to do it. And I had a wonderful time."
Possibly Daniel Noah, the first-time director who also wrote it, did not have such an enjoyable time.
"Being a first time director, we watched him tremble every morning---tremble," says Lewis with a laugh, adding: "And it was such fun because he was a big fan of mine and loved the fact that I loved the script.
"It's a hell of a movie and nice that there aren't anti-tank guns coming from the left and .38 revolvers from the right---none of that. I think the movie industry has to pay attention that we need to make good quality films or we are never going to get the business back. You can't continue to kill people and stab them in the chest and rip their vaginas out.I don't think it makes any sense. If there aren't enough angry people in the business to change it, it's never going to change. And television has caught the disease. I mean, I have got children I won't allow near the set, for Christ's sake. (His six children ----five by his first wife and an adopted daughter with his second---are aged between 24 and 71).
His favourite films, he says, are The Sting, Dr. Zhivago, Oklahoma! and Lawrence of Arabia.
"There are things I see in the picture business today that upset me and I wish I could say to them, 'don't do that; don't show that to the people, it will set us back 20 years.' But if it's making money they will tell you you're nuts for not liking it. That's okay, I'll stay nuts.
"But I'm running out of time so I'm stating my feelings about the industry as loud as I can."
Jerry Lewis was born Joseph Levitch in New Jersey and spent much of his childhood in the care of relatives while his father, an entertainer who went by the name Danny Lewis and pianist mother Rachel, played the Borscht Belt. Following in their footsteps, he made his stage debut at the age of five and by 15 he had his own fully-fledged comedy routine. He played nightclubs and also held down a succession of dead-end jobs to make ends meet. But his fortunes changed forever in 1945 when he met singer and fellow comic Dean Martin at the Glass Hat Club in New York. The following year they made their debut as a duo, with Martin as the dry-witted straight man and Lewis, bursting with energy and unable to control his mouth or rubbery limbs.
"We had magic," Lewis recalls. "We were getting two hundred and fifty dollars a night in March of 1946 and by December we were getting fifty thousand dollars. It happened so fast. In three years we earned four million dollars."
They appeared regularly on television and made a series of films, becoming one of the top box-office draws of the 1950s. But they began feuding openly, finally splitting in July 1956. Their final days were rancourous ones, neither speaking to the other once the cameras stopped rolling on their last film together, Hollywood or Bust. They did not reunite for nearly two decades.
But now Lewis becomes mawkishly sentimental when speaking of his ex-partner, who died on Christmas Day 1995.
"Audiences all over the world knew that we loved one another and cared for one another," he says. "There was nothing make believe with Dean and myself; we loved one another desperately and all of that came through.
But why, then, didn't they talk to each other for almost 20 years?
"It was stupid," he says. "To this day neither of us could tell you why. There was so much more that I wanted to do and I wanted to take the comedy and give it the life that a director gives to an actor. And Dean had the same thing, but he wanted to sing more; he wanted to perform and find his audience that loved what he did as an individual and that was fine but when we got to that point we just didn’t talk. Terrible, terrible, it was awful."
Lewis went his own way and made a string of highly successful solo films, beginning with the Delicate Delinquent and including The Sad Sack, The Geisha Boy, Cinderfella, The Bellboy, The Ladies Man and The Errand Boy. The Nutty Professor in 1963 was one of his last big hits and his popularity wanted. So after several unsuccessful films he focused his energies on other projects, including a film director class at the University of Southern California, where he mentored, among others, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
Although he remained popular in Europe, most notably in France, his career was dead in the water in the U.S. so he concentrated on his fund-raising telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association which he began hosting in 1966 and which resulted in a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 1977.He made a well-received film comeback in 1981, playing a late night talk show host kidnapped by an obsessive fan in The King of Comedy, followed by Mr. Saturday Night and Funny Bones, which traded on his long and storied showbusiness career. In 1994 he had a successful run on Broadway as the Devil in a production of Damn Yankees and two years later he served as a producer on a remake of The Nutty Professor which starred Eddie Murphy.
Health issues and a series of controversial statements and homophobic jokes forced him into semi-retirement during the early part of this century but he has bounced back and as well as Max Rose he has another movie The Trust, in which he appears with Nicolas Cage, awaiting release. He is working on a script for a fellow comic he will not name and still teaches an acting and comedy class.
He was married to singer Patti Palmer in 1944 and they had six sons (their youngest, Joseph, died of a drug overdose aged 45) before divorcing in 1982, after which, he says in an off-colour remark, "I banged anyone I could meet."
He has been married for 33 years to his second wife SanDee Pitnick, a former Las Vegas dancer 25 years his junior who, he says, is "the greatest audience I have ever had."The mention of his wife leads to a lyrical litany on love: "I say to everybody, love is what wakes you up in the morning, love is what makes you walk and love is what makes you hope," he says. "Love is what makes you dream and love is what makes you want to get up in the morning, love is something that you want to be a part of, because it makes you better."
How would Jerry Lewis, known to the French as "Le Roi du Crazy," like to be remembered?
"I don't care," he says. "I'm not interested in what people will think after I've gone. I want to hear all the good stuff while I'm here."
After more than eight decades he must have some regrets?
"Regrets? You don't think about regrets," he says. "You regret something and then move on. You don't think about them and you don't carry them with you. You have to look at things that are negative and figure out why they happened and make sure they don't happen again. I keep negative out of my life."
Then he can't resist a last bad joke. "Except for film negative."