Richard Lewis, as usual, is dressed in black and pacing back and forth, wearing a groove in the tasteful gray carpeting of a guest-house suite in Hollywood’s St. James’s Club. He keeps pinching his brow, tugging at his hair, acting as if he were doing his act, which, as anyone who knows him will testify, really isn’t an act at all.
”I don’t know if this is going to work,” he says, stopping the worry-walk long enough to share his anxieties. ”It’s a crapshoot.”
The time is 10:30 a.m. Saturday, and Lewis looks like a nervous wreck, unable to make eye contact or stay in one place for more than a few seconds. A videotape crew is setting up, positioning lights and cameras, rearranging furniture, preparing to shoot scenes for Lewis’ latest HBO special, I’m Doomed (premiering July 7 at 11 p.m.). It is a logical follow-up to his previous cable anguish-fests, I’m in Pain and I’m Exhausted.
”I think,” Lewis says, ”the one after this will probably be I’m Dead.”
Lewis has been bouncing between analysts’ offices and nightclub stages for so long that his life seems to have blurred into a never-ending therapy session. He has built a comedy career out of sharing his pain, his neuroses, his low self-esteem. He has problems maintaining relationships, problems with his family, with his posture, and with his health. He has problems with the fact that he has so many problems.
He once told a crowd that had surprised him with its applause, ”Thanks. You’re a great audience. I just wish I could feel better about feeling good.”
His crisis of the moment involves the quartet of celebrities gathered in the adjacent suite, the therapy group of Richard Lewis’ dreams: Angie Dickinson, O.J. Simpson, Robert Goulet, and Dudley Moore. He has decided to turn his problems into theirs, if only for one day.
That’s what this part of I’m Doomed is all about, a group therapy session in which Dickinson, Moore, Goulet, and Simpson reveal their highest anxieties, except that because Lewis wrote the script, the anxieties all happen to be his.
”I can’t seem to shake this fear of intimacy,” Goulet says, rehearsing the lines Lewis has given him. ”When a lady tells me that she loves me, I tell her, ‘What are you trying to say?”’
From the moment his guest stars arrived, Lewis has been alternately thanking them for coming and apologizing for the weather (sunny), the traffic (sparse), the very fact that he has dragged them into this miserable little fantasy of his. When Angie Dickinson enters the suite, Lewis kneels.
”I had met Richard at a couple of private parties and I just adored him,” Dickinson says later. ”One day he called me up and gave this long spiel on who he is and why he was bothering me, and by the time he finished, no matter what he asks, you couldn’t possibly say no to him. He’s so funny and so dear when he gets going. You hang up the phone and say to yourself, ‘He sounds just like Richard Lewis.”’
By 11:30, the suite has been converted into a psychiatrist’s office, and Lewis goes next door to give his stars one last pep talk. ”We’re playing it as straight as possible,” he tells them. ”There’s no audience, so don’t even wait for the laugh. The straighter the better. So let’s go; we’re gonna make therapy history. If we pull this off, everyone gets a broiler.”
The opening scene features Richard interrupting the therapy session, frantic and apologizing. The excuses he gives are not in the script, and he changes them with every take.
”I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Lewis says, lapsing into a stream-of-self-consciousness rap. ”I had a long night: I dreamt that Hiawatha was suing me for palimony. My mother woke me up at 4 in the morning. She thought she had a cyst on her neck. It was just some fettuccine from dinner the night before. I’m sorry.”
”He just got here,” Dickinson says, right on cue, ”and he’s making me crazy.”