Jerry Lewis looks back
After 77 years in showbiz, the legendary comedian will receive an Academy Award for his humanitarian efforts
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 ahead of receiving the film academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Read what he had to say below.
Jerry Lewis can’t control himself. If an off-color gag is ricocheting inside his brain, it will come flying out of his mouth a second later. There’s no point in trying to stop it. For the past 70 years, this has mostly been a good thing. It’s made generations of people temporarily forget their misery and, in the process, made Lewis a very rich man. But when he steps on stage at the Kodak Theatre next month to receive the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, there’s no telling what’s going to happen. Not even Lewis knows.
”My staff asked me, ‘What are you going to do at the Oscars, J.L.?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to make it brief. I’m going to go up there, grab that award, and say, It’s about f—ing time!’ And walk off.”
Lewis doesn’t laugh. But he is kidding. We think.
The legendary comedian is a month shy of his 83rd birthday, but he looks a decade younger. Having rebounded from recent health woes, he’s now as impishly naughty and lightning fast as he was on stage at the Copa with Dean Martin, back when he was the antic man-child riffing next to the cool-as-ice straight man. Or back when he was doing double takes and pratfalls in his hit string of 1960s solo comedies like The Bellboy and The Nutty Professor. Or when he was bleary-eyed and ad-libbing for 48 hours straight, milking laughs and donations on his annual muscular dystrophy telethons.
Lewis’ office in Las Vegas is a time capsule of a bygone golden age of comedy. Everything is hermetically clean, superstitiously orderly, and most important, red: the carpet, his old-school IBM Selectric typewriter, the telephone, even the bowl of hard candy on the coffee table. The walls are covered with posters from his movies, flattering letters from Stan Laurel and Steven Spielberg, and a museum’s worth of photos of him with Dean, him with JFK, and him with Robert De Niro on the set of 1983’s The King of Comedy. He could charge admission at the door.
Behind a large, wooden wraparound desk sits the King himself, sharply dressed in a red argyle sweater over a crisp red button-down shirt. He wears a pair of black velvet slippers with gold filigree. His jet-black hair is slicked back with Vitalis as it’s been for the past 40 years. There’s also a plate of Krispy Kremes sitting just beyond his reach. Lewis eyeballs them every few minutes, until the uncontrollable voice in his brain can’t be quieted any longer. ”They look good, don’t they?” he asks. ”I honestly don’t know whether to eat ’em or f— ’em!” Maybe the producers of the Oscars should get that five-second tape delay ready.
Right off the bat, without prompting, Lewis says that he was floored when the Academy called to tell him about his honorary award — the result of 56 years of work on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). Lewis has raised more than $2 billion to help fight the neuromuscular disease — a cause he first got involved with after a friend whose nephew had the disease asked if Lewis would make an appeal for donations on The Colgate Comedy Hour, which he hosted with Martin.
Still, it doesn’t take a shrink to realize that Lewis’ feelings about the Academy’s honor are somewhat complicated. He’s never been nominated for an Oscar, and it eats at him that it’s not his celluloid legacy that’s being celebrated this year. ”Don’t get me wrong, this is huge, I’m still sailing,” he says. But he adds that the honor is also a little bittersweet. ”Because they didn’t think enough of my work. Because what I did didn’t command consideration because it’s slapstick, because it’s lowbrow, because the Academy’s always been cautious about comedy.” He pauses for a beat. ”But I understand that, I get it.”
Before the moment can get too maudlin, too minor-key, Lewis reaches into a desk drawer and pulls out an 8-by-10-inch photo. ”Want to see a happy Jew?” he asks. He holds up the picture. It captures him in a tux, standing in front of the giant tally board at 2007’s Labor Day telethon. He’s drenched in sweat. The number reads: $63 million and change. ”Now that’s a happy Jew!”
Lewis, the only child of show business parents in Newark, first began performing at age 5. Through his teens, his act consisted mostly of lip-synching along to records for Catskills crowds. After opening for Martin in 1946, the two saw something in one another: Lewis saw the swizzle-stick Casanova he wasn’t; Martin saw the unleashed beanpole id he was too suave to unleash. Together, for the next 10 years, they were magic. After Martin and Lewis split up in 1956, Lewis went on to star in a string of movie comedies directed at first by Frank Tashlin and then by Lewis himself. From 1960’s The Bellboy through 1967’s The Big Mouth, Lewis’ run of box office smashes made him one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. ”I was on such a roll that all I was doing was writing and shooting,” he says. ”Two films a year. There was no time to think about any of it.”
What didn’t go as noticed was Lewis’ undeniable skill and chops behind the camera. It’s become a long-running joke that the French revere Lewis, the auteur, but they were right to see more in him than a mere childlike cutup doing shtick. Lewis was an artist. And his movies during the ’60s were both gloriously ambitious and technically groundbreaking.
During that time, Lewis invented the ”video-assist system” — a small TV monitor that directors could look at during and after a take to find out if they’d gotten the shot instead of waiting for the film to be processed in the lab and discovering too late that they hadn’t. It was revolutionary. And it’s now used on virtually every Hollywood set. It’s fair to say that if it wasn’t Jerry Lewis who came up with it, the inventor might be mentioned in the same breath as technical wizards like James Cameron.
In 1971, Lewis wrote The Total Film-Maker, a hardcover extension of the courses he taught at USC film school during the tail end of that dizzying two-a-year run in the ’60s. (His students at USC included Spielberg and George Lucas.) The how-to book has become an industry standard. In fact, while starring in The King of Comedy, Lewis was shocked that the film’s director, Martin Scorsese, took the book with him wherever he went. ”At first I thought he was trying to pull one over on me, but other people who worked with him backed it up. When I saw that, I thought, s—, maybe I better read it again!”
In The King of Comedy, Lewis played Jerry Langford, a late-night talk-show host who’s kidnapped by an obsessive fan (De Niro). You never really root for Langford, though, because he’s so foul-mouthed, short-fused, and full of ego. Strangely, Lewis has said the character was the closest to himself he ever played. Asked if this is true, he says, ”Yeah, pretty much.” Even though the character was kind of a jerk? ”Look, I’m a perfectionist. I’m not always easy to work with. And if someone presses a button, I’ve been known to get crazy.” Lewis leans back in his chair and cups his hands behind his head as if to say, What else ya got?
While Lewis has mostly backed away from acting and directing over the past 25 years, his movies have remained in demand. Various Hollywood studios have optioned remakes of The Bellboy, The Errand Boy, and Cinderfella. And, of course, there was Eddie Murphy’s 1996 take on The Nutty Professor, a film that (along with its 2000 sequel, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps) earned more than $250 million domestically. Lewis was an executive producer on both, but he still seems a bit bruised by the experience. ”I have such respect for Eddie,” he says, ”but I shouldn’t have done it. What I did was perfect the first time around and all you’re going to do is diminish that perfection by letting someone else do it. When he had to do fart jokes, he lost me.”
Today, Lewis remains actively involved with MDA from Las Vegas, where he’s lived with his second wife, Sam, for the past 25 years. She’s stood beside him while he’s battled ailments like pulmonary fibrosis, which, thanks to the steroids he was taking to treat it, made him swell up like a balloon two years ago. ”I was at 267 [pounds],” he says, holding up a photo of himself from the time. He’s almost unrecognizable. ”I got out of the shower one day and I looked in the mirror and I started to cry. I hadn’t cried like that since I was 6! Those kinds of tears, they’re like the heavy ones. And I started to think of Sam and what she’s been through.”
These days, he feels invincible. There’s even a plaque on his desk that reads ”Super Jew.” ”When I passed 80, I said to myself, I’m going to make it to any number I want. I believe that. I’m going to pass Burns. Why the f— not?”
If you’d asked him a couple of years ago, Lewis would have admitted that he thought he’d never live long enough to get an Oscar. In a way, the award is just gravy — an honor that, all joking aside, he doesn’t take lightly. ”Look, the feeling in my heart is, I don’t think what I do, all the humanitarian stuff, deserves commendation. It should be the rule.”
Which brings us back to his plans for Oscar night. What will he say when he steps onto the Kodak stage? ”You know damn well that I’m not really going to say, ‘It’s about f—ing time,”’ he says. ”I’ve got to get it off my mind, though. Because if I keep thinking it, it might pop out and I’m not going to be able to do anything about it.” Lewis laughs that whiny ”Hey, lady” laugh. ”You’d pay to see that, wouldn’t you? I would too. Belieeeeeve me, I would too!”