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Editor’s note: Jerry Lewis died Aug. 20, 2017, of natural causes at his home in Las Vegas. He was 91. Back in 2009, he spoke with EW’s Chris Nashawaty about his ambitious, intensely personal, never-released film The Day the Clown Cried. Read what he had to say below.
Some mysteries just get juicier with age. At least, that’s how it felt on Aug. 10, when a seven-minute clip from an old Dutch TV documentary about the making of Jerry Lewis’ 1972 “lost” film, The Day the Clown Cried, was posted on YouTube by someone calling himself “Unclesporkums.” Back in 2009, I interviewed Lewis in his Las Vegas office about his career and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award he was slated to receive at that year’s Oscar telecast. The star, then 82, was gracious and chatty. That is, until I asked him about The Day the Clown Cried, a never-released movie that has become a sort of Holy Grail for movie buffs, like Orson Welles’ uncut version of The Magnificent Ambersons. “We don’t talk about that,” he said curtly, “not even if I found out you were one of my sons.” An eternity of silence — or, at least, what felt like an eternity of silence — followed.
His sensitivity was perhaps understandable. The project marked a huge departure for Lewis, who was 46 in 1972 when he traveled to Sweden to direct and star in the Holocaust-set film. Since his meteoric rise as the antic, rubber-faced half of a nightclub duo alongside Dean Martin in the ‘40s, Lewis had starred in dozens of box-office hits, parlaying that success into a second career as the unlikely, ground-breaking director of big-screen comedies like 1960’s The Bellboy and 1963’s The Nutty Professor. His ambition was limitless. And yet audiences still seemed to pigeonhole him as a purveyor of seltzer-and-banana-peel slapstick. The Day the Clown Cried might have changed that once and for all.
Lewis cast himself as a German circus clown named Helmut Doork who is sent to a Nazi prison and then a concentration camp, where he’s ordered to perform for wide-eyed Jewish children as they’re led to the gas chambers. Now, 40 years later, Lewis’ provocative premise has lost some of its shock value thanks to Roberto Benigni’s similarly-themed 1997 Oscar-winner, Life Is Beautiful. But the mystery surrounding The Day the Clown Cried has only deepened and grown more tantalizing over the decades.
Over the past 41 years, journalists and critics have speculated about the reasons why Lewis decided to never unspool his film. Was it because of a dispute with the French producer? Was it because the film hit too raw of a nerve? Or, as has been suggested by some who have claimed to have seen it (including comedian Harry Shearer) was it just embarrassingly bad? Lewis has always remained cagey about why the film never saw the light of day. And on the few occasions he has spoken about it, he’s been evasive and elliptical. He seems to relish both guarding the mystery and fueling it at the same time. He’s the keeper of a delicious riddle in an era when the internet seems custom-made to debunk them.
Two hours into my conversation with Lewis in 2009, after hopscotching through the highlights of his life in movies, Lewis seemed to soften up. As the interview was winding to a close, he leaned back in his chair and asked if there was anything else I wanted to know…
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When I asked you about The Day the Clown Cried, you shut me down pretty quickly.
JERRY LEWIS: Why do I want to go there? If you want to play 10 Questions with me, you can ask me any 10 questions you want about it and you’ll get a pretty good amount of answers. And it will only be to satisfy you that it’s not so shut-down because you’re a nice man and I’m comfortable with you. I’ll give you 10 questions.
Okay, I better weigh them…
I’ve never done this before, I’d like to see what I come up with. Don’t f‑‑‑ this up, Chris!
Do they have to be yes/no questions?
No, I didn’t say that. That’s kind of limiting.
Will I ever see The Day the Clown Cried?
He writes on a piece of white paper in green ink: NO.
Is there more than one copy of the film?
He writes: NO.
Is the film in a safe somewhere?
Okay, number four: is the reason the film has not been released because you are unhappy with it?
He writes: Yes/No.
Which doesn’t mean that Yes, I’m unhappy with the work that I did. But who am I preserving it for? No one’s ever gonna see it. But the preservation that I believe is that, when I die, I’m in total control of the material now. Nobody can touch it. After I’m gone, who knows what’s going to happen? I think I have the legalese necessary to keep it where it is. So I’m pretty sure that it won’t be seen. The only thing that I do feel, that I always get a giggle out of, some smart young guy like Chris is going to come up with an idea and he’s going to run the f‑‑‑ing thing. I would love that. Because he’s going to see a hell of a movie!
So, you do think that it’s a hell of a movie?
That’s why it’s YES/NO.
I guess my next question is…
I know, they’re tougher than the answers.
No, they’re not.
I want to hear this…
The question is pretty obvious to me. A movie like this has been made — the Roberto Benigni film, Life Is Beautiful. It’s thematically similar from what I understand.
That’s incorrect information.
Well, you understand I’m dealing with a very limited amount of facts about your film that are known.
I got ya.
To have such mystery around it…
Are you going to ask me if I’m getting a benefit out of keeping it a mystery?
No, that’s much more cynical than where I was going to go.
I was going to ask you, it’s only creating more interest and tougher criticism if and when it is ever shown.
Of course, of course. What the f‑‑‑ is he saving?!
Right. I mean, at this point it has to be either Citizen Kane or the most embarrassing movie of all time.
It can be nothing in between.
Right. Exactly. Right on the money! It’s better than Citizen Kane or the worst piece of s‑‑‑ that anyone ever loaded on the projector…Hardly. Have you run out of questions?
Well, you kind of just answered by the look on your face when you just said ‘Hardly’…
I think about this a lot. If I could pull certain specific elements from the project, and give me these three or four elements that I can do what I want with, if I hired Lincoln Center one night, for a specific audience, and give me one week shooting to let me shoot a beginning to that, a beginning to that, and a beginning to that and let me show that…. Whoooo-weeeee! It would be f‑‑‑ing wonderful to think about.
But it will never happen?
Are you worried that if you showed the film it would be misinterpreted?
No. I have no fear of any of that.
So, it sounds like you’re proud of it…
And you just want to tinker with it a little bit to make it even better?
Or at least make it applicable to the one night. What I would shoot would be strictly as a marketing presentation tool for that night and it would all be thrown away after that night. I’m guilt-ridden about…most of this is about me. The whole film is about me. I’m not defending, protecting, or diving, or anything about one anything. The best compliment you could get today is that I talked to you about this.
I’m honestly surprised as hell.
I am too. I’m very surprised. There’s a gurgling inside that I get when I think about, would this make certain that the Holocaust would never happen again? It’s too small a piece. It isn’t large enough to make a dynamic impact.
Do you think Jewish audiences would like it?
Jews? Oh, they would love it. I traveled for 18 months from Stuttgart to Belsen to Auschwitz. I was putting together my crew and they brought me a man named Rolf, who was the guy who pulled the f‑‑‑ing lever on the gas chamber. And I said the only way I ever allow him near me, no less interview him, would be if he understood that I am concerned about the accuracy of the film and it would be because I need some information. But I said to my production manager, “I’m not sure I can handle it.” After about six weeks of pretty good meditation, I talked to the guy. The question nobody could answer, that the victims couldn’t answer, was: Where were they [when they] were waiting for the ones ahead of them in the gas chambers? How long were they waiting? Where were they standing? Was there an adjacent room? Did they sit? What kind of time was involved? The torture here was waiting! And they couldn’t dull the sound effects, the screaming. Could I get that information from this man? I wanted to wear a mask so he wouldn’t know it was me. When he came into the office and sat down, I thought, This poor human being. I’m sitting there and it was five after nine at night by the time we were done talking and I was…undone. But he gave me the bottom of his f‑‑‑ing soul! He wanted penance. I kept looking at his right hand. I was going to ask him which hand did you do it with? I couldn’t do it.
Some answers you don’t want to know. Are you sorry you decided to play 10 Questions?
No, you’ve got five to go.
Why did you want to undertake such a serious, non-Jerry Lewis film?
Which answer shall we use? The real one? I thought when I read it, This is not your bag. Well, yes it is! I was still fairly young at the time. But not so young that I didn’t get that thing that all men must get some time: the decision to either be a part of something that should be spoken or not. My Judaism has always been a great pride with me. But it felt like such a challenge. That sounds so trite. But a challenge to show people that there’s more to me than that.
When was the last time you watched it?
I’ll let you have that question for nothing because that’s not so terrific. Because I couldn’t tell you anyhow. I did not watch it when I came home. Well, I watched it in parts when I came home. There were reels that I had to consult with lawyers about and what I had versus what I didn’t have.
Meaning your dispute with the producers?
It was financed in a contract between the governments of France and Sweden. If we didn’t finish it, then the deal between the two countries fell apart.
So, again, when did you last watch it?
The last complete running I watched in Sweden — about a month before I came home. Then, once I came home, I would take specific pieces from specific reels that I had lifted. I never had any more curiosity to sit and look at it.
How many people have seen the film?
My dad. My mom wouldn’t see it. My dad, my manager, and me.
There were never any actual screenings of it?
Do you think it’s the best movie you ever made?
It was so deep that when I did what I know best — the comedy — it completely got away from me. I was like staggered. I called my dad from Sweden because he’s my mentor, he knows about every breath I take that’s comic. He said, “What do you expect, schmuck?” The one thing he said that really impressed me was, “You’re not gonna be free to dance your funny dance in this project.” Dance your funny dance… So when you come up against that, you know that you have a problem. You won’t be as good as what you know so well because you’re doing something you shouldn’t be doing, maybe. Maybe.
Okay, where are we in terms of questions?
I’ve got six or seven questions down.
There’s been such an aura about this film, and I want to see it as much as anyone, it’s become almost bigger than it is. And certainly you have to be aware of that…
Yes. I think it’s like bad advertising. For it to become what it has become seems unfair. Unfair to the project. Unfair to all of my good intentions. Unfair to anyone that you will sit down and have them see what you’re proclaiming is a finished work. It ain’t finished.
Does it bother you that people are so cynical about it?
Or they’re putting it down? They’re putting it down because I won’t let them see it! That’s all. They have no idea what they’re talking about.
It’s like you’re the keeper of this great secret.
And the more I hear about it, the more I enjoy it!
Well, I have to because the alternative is awful.
What’s the alternative?
The alternative to enjoying it. If people write about it now, then they’re making it into a f‑‑‑ing work of art!
And its legend snowballs.