On Stage With Jerry Lewis

Features
by Leonard Maltin
February 13, 2012 1:00 AM
21 Comments
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photo courtesy of Howard Green
I grew up believing that the sun rose and set on Jerry Lewis; in fact, one of the first movies I remember seeing in a theater was his initial solo comedy feature, The Delicate Delinquent. I was six years old, a perfect age to discover “that kid,” as Jerry called his alter ego. So needless to say, it was a kick to share a stage with him last week at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills, to mark the DVD release of his 1959 TV production, The Jazz Singer, by Inception Media.

When you think about it, there is hardly a medium he hasn’t conquered: theater, nightclubs, radio, television, movies, and comic books. He and Dean Martin even made a movie in 3-D, almost sixty years ago, called Money From Home. Although he’s a “techie,” Jerry had no love for 3-D, which required such intense lighting that it reduced him to a puddle of sweat. Besides, comedy isn’t meant to be artificially thrust into the foreground, to his way of thinking. He illustrated his point by drinking a glass of water and dribbling most of the liquid down his shirt, then jerking a bottle against his ear and emitting a stream of water from his mouth. Yes, he can still summon “that kid” at the age of 85, and he knows the audience is going to scream in response. (They did.)

Jerry shows no signs of slowing down and has no plans to retire. What’s more, he looks great, which is amazing given the number of health battles he has fought over the past few decades. He still looks and sounds like Jerry Lewis.

As any Lewis follower knows, he is reverent when talking about Dean Martin, whom he refers to as “my partner,” or “Paul,” which is what he called him all during their ten-year run. When he spoke about the schedule they maintained in their heyday, performing in theaters and clubs, doing radio and TV shows and making movies, even I got tired! I asked if it was true that one night at the Copacabana during their 2:30 a.m. show Phil Silvers, who was staying in the apartment upstairs, walked out onstage in his nightshirt and told them to keep it down. He broke into a broad smile and said yes—and said the crowd was laughing for twenty minutes after he left.

He disarmed the audience by admitting that when he talks these days, he sometimes loses track of stories, shifting the beginning, middle and end. Several times during the evening I gently steered him back on course, but just as often he caught himself. More important, he answered questions from me, and the audience, with rapid-fire zingers and perfect timing. (When I said, “Let’s start at the beginning,” he interrupted my question. “When my father jumped on my mother?”)

Lewis on the set of 'The Geisha Boy'.

The auditorium was packed with fans and fellow performers, including Martin Short, Kevin Pollak, Jeff Garlin, Richard Kind, Dane Cook, Richard Lewis, Tom Arnold, Marty Ingels and Shirley Jones, Bruce Boxleitner, Ken Davitian, Judy Tenuta, and at least four female costars from years past: Stella Stevens (The Nutty Professor), Renée Taylor (The Errand Boy), Karen Sharpe Kramer (The Disorderly Orderly), and Ruta Lee (Funny Bones). Adam Sandler also stopped by backstage.

Asked what drives him as a performer, he answered, “Fear,” and he wasn’t kidding. It’s no secret that Jerry has a healthy ego, but he is also extremely sensitive. I talked to him years ago, after a terrific evening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and he mentioned how hurtful it is whenever someone walks out of the theater while he’s onstage. The fact that hundreds (or sometimes thousands) remain can’t salve the sting of even one person leaving.

Every time I have the privilege of talking to Jerry I try to learn things I didn’t know before. Last week I asked where he developed the habit of archiving his life and career. He said it came from his father Danny, who kept a scrapbook so thorough that even if Walter Winchell mentioned someone else named Danny Lewis he still saved the clipping! It’s thanks to this lifelong practice that we can enjoy kinescopes of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis at the peak of their powers on The Colgate Comedy Hour, or watch some of his rehearsal shots on the DVD release of The Bellboy. Summing up, he said, “I realized that what we did was so formidable that we have to give it to our grandchildren, let them know what we created, how it worked.”

A few days before the public q&a, we spoke on the phone and I asked a question so arcane I didn’t think an audience would necessarily care. I always wondered how it happened that the familiar caricature images of him and Dean Martin appeared on dispensers of Tuck Tape. Jerry explained, “Because Paul Cohen, who was the chairman of the board of the company, was a dystrophic and Paul Cohen was the man who gave me the idea to do a telethon. We were very, very close friends and I struggled with his particular disease. He decided to give Dean and myself shares in the company. Those shares were very meaningful, but of course that became a conflict of interest so I had to tell him, ‘No, we will just be there,’ as we promised to be for him, but with no remuneration.”

That night at the Paley Center Jerry knocked me for a loop when he reached into his pocket and presented me with a roll of Tuck Tape! He later told me that he had to dig deep into his trophy case to extract it. What an extraordinarily kind gesture. I may not be six years old anymore, but he’s still a hero to me.

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21 Comments

  • laura cohen melamed | June 21, 2013 4:02 PMReply

    I want to thank you so much for this article which I just came across yesterday 6/20/2013. My father was Paul Cohen, the man who put Jerry on the tape dispenser and asked for his help raising money for MDA. My sons never met my father, he died in 1968 from lung cancer at the age of 51, so articles like these are very special for me to pass on to them. Jerry is a brilliant comedian and great actor as we all saw in the King of Comedy and the King of all fund raisers. I wish I knew what happened between him and the MDA. The end of an era for sure. My father would be sad about it. Like losing another piece of my father's legacy for us. If you speak to Jerry again tell him Paul's daughter sends her love.

  • ROBERTA MARTINS. | May 6, 2012 9:13 PMReply

    AVISO PARA O MUNDO:

    JERRY LEWIS ESTA DOS MEUS OLHOS Longe (EUA), EU ESTOU NO (BRASIL), POREM, ESTA ETERNIZADO no MEU Coração, POR QUE EU SIMPLESMENTE AMO JERRY LEWIS.

    JERRY LEWIS EU ESTOU CONTIGO PARA SEMPRE, POR TODA VIDA ...

    JERRY LEWIS E UNICO E INSUBSTITUIVEL.

    JERRY LEWIS E UM ESPETACULO DE HOMEM, SOLIDÁRIO, divertido, charmoso, LINDO, PERFEITO ... JERRY LEWIS (EU TE AMO) ... eternamente,


    ROBERTA MARTINS.
    Fortaleza-Ceará
    BRASIL
    06 DE MAIO DE 2012

  • ROBERTA MARTINS. | May 1, 2012 9:03 PMReply

    JERRY LEWIS IS MY LOVE ...

    JERRY LEWIS IS MY LIVE ...

    ROBERTA MARTINS.
    Fortaleza-Ceara
    BRASIL

  • ROBERTA MARTINS ( B R A S I L ) | April 28, 2012 7:19 PMReply

    JERRY LEWIS IS BEAUTIFUL ;

    JERRY LEWIS IS WONDERFUL ;

    JERRY LEWIS IS PERFECT.

    I AM FAN NUMER ONE.

    JERRY LEWIS ( I LOVE YOU )!!!
    ETERNALLY,

    ROBERTA MARTINS.
    (Fortaleza-Ceara) BRASIL

  • ROBERTA MARTINS. FORTALEZA-CEARÁ (BRASIL) | April 21, 2012 10:56 PMReply

    JERRY LEWIS,

    EU AINDA VOU TE CONHECER PESSOALMENTE.
    DEUS SEMPRE ESTARÁ EM NOSSAS VIDAS.
    VOCÊ É MUITO IMPORTANTE NA MINHA VIDA.
    EU TE AMO, POR TODA ETERNIDADE.

    EU SOU A SUA MAIOR FA DE TODO UNIVERSO.

    ROBERTA MARTINS.
    FORTALEZA-CEARÁ
    BRASIL

  • ROBERTA MARTINS. Fortaleza-Ceará (BRASIL) | April 21, 2012 10:53 PMReply

    Prezados,
    Deixo aqui REGISTRADO todo meu AMOR por JERRY LEWIS !!!
    A minha homenagem para JERRY LEWIS é tão infinita, assim como é, a SUA BELEZA e o SEU TALENTO. INSUBSTITUÍVEL !!!
    Eu te amo por toda ETERNIDADE ... , ... , ...

    JERRY LEWIS IS BEAUTIFUL;
    JERRY LEWIS IS PERFECT;

    JERRY LEWIS ( I LOVE YOU )
    ETERNALLY

    EU SOU A SUA MAIOR FÃ DE TODO O UNIVERSO.

    ROBERTA MARTINS.
    Fortaleza-Ceará
    BRASIL

  • Scott93205 | March 5, 2012 9:39 PMReply

    Jerry makes me as happy in my 50s as he did when I was a kid. Every Sunday night I watch a Jerry Lewis movie or a Martin & Lewis movie or a couple Colgate Comedy Hours. The last time I saw THE PATSY, somewhere between twenty and thirty minutes into the movie I settled myself down to keep from hyperventilating – there just hasn’t been anyone, ever, who can make me laugh like Jerry does. There isn’t another famous person that I pray for or send birthday cards to. In his biography THAT KID Jerry’s quoted saying he believes this life is a dress rehearsal, and if you do well here God lets you go on to the Big Show. I want into that show just to watch Jerry perform there.

  • Lettie Ann | March 5, 2012 1:46 AMReply

    Thank you for a wonderful article about Jerry Lewis. I've been a fan since 1949.
    If you'd care to join jerrylewisfans.com, we'd be proud to have you.

  • Bob | March 4, 2012 8:51 PMReply

    Any chance of us seeing the video of this interview Leonard?

  • Bruce R. Weaver | February 22, 2012 12:27 PMReply

    I knew or saw very little of Jerry Lewis in my youth. I think the only thing I saw of his was HOOK, LINE AND SINKER once on the late movie. I was heavily into Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Chaplin at the time (I still am--especially Laurel and Hardy!) and when the new DVD set of Laurel and Hardy's Roach films came out, I was surprised to hear Lewis' comments on the team. So many false statements were made, that I wonder why Mr. Bann even allowed their inclusion. I enjoyed his comments about Stan and how Stan helped Lewis develop his comedy. Why did Jerry give a lot of false information?

  • Yvette Kaplan | February 15, 2012 5:05 PMReply

    The sun STILL rises and sets on Jerry Lewis! The king of comedy and heart!
    Thank you for the absolutely beautiful and tender article Leonard. No one could do a better tribute, and for that, YOU are my hero.

  • Norm | February 14, 2012 8:49 PMReply

    P.S. I actually had the Jerry Lewis comic book listed in the article. I thought "It's Only Money " was one of his funniest films, with a great cast , Jerry went farther. Love them "lawn mowers."
    I don't see many Lewis on DVD. What's with that Leonard ?

  • Michael Townsend Wright | February 14, 2012 11:21 AMReply

    Just wonderful, Leonard!

  • Jack M | February 14, 2012 1:14 AMReply

    Great interview Leonard. I also grew up with Jerry Lewis movies. I remember seeing "The Nutty Professor" at a Montreal theatre and Jerry Lewis was there in person. I also got to ask him a question, but I forgot what it was. They gave us free Planter's Peanuts as a tie-in promotion. Later in my high school years, I was a 16mm projectionist and screened many Martin & Lewis and Jerry Lewis films. Ahh memories.

  • Brett Canavan | February 13, 2012 11:33 PMReply

    I am and remain a fan of Jerry's. I discovered him at around 5 years of age (with the Geisha Boy - still my favorite of his) and watched his TV show and appearances. I have no illusions that the man is flawed, but aren't we all? It matters little - like Bob Hope at his prime, who took some flak for his USO shows being publicity stunts, it didn't matter to those servicemen he made happy. I don't believe for an instant that Jerry didn't put his heart and soul into MDA and I am more a fan of his for that than for the entirety of his work. May he live healthy for many more years, thanks for the article Leonard.

  • John | February 13, 2012 7:07 PMReply

    Like Leonard I thought the sun rose and set on Jerry Lewis when I was growing up in the 1950's. I would be down at our local theater the day the latest Martin & Lewis movie opened and I would usually see it several times more as it made the rounds of drive-ins, second run theaters and big city grind houses. I never missed his and Dean's TV specials either. When the team broke up I remained a big fan of Jerry as a single and his early films like "The Delicate Delinquent", "The Geisha Boy" and (of course) "The Nutty Professor" were quite good. After he left Paramount the films became, at least in my opinion, mediocre at best though and I found his latter film work (just like that of Elvis!) pretty hard to take. I stopped being a fan. In person and on TV interviews there does indeed seem to be a mammoth ego at work there. Today even the old Martin & Lewis and early Jerry Lewis movies don't seem to me nearly as funny as they once were. Times have changed and I have changed I suppose. For the joy and entertainment he gave me as a teenager and well into my twenties I will always be grateful to Jerry though. It's great to see him in good health and good spirits!

  • Monica | May 28, 2013 5:46 AM

    I think your post was very interesting. I just wanted to say that although there is a mammoth ego within Jerry he did work very hard in every movie he ever made. He never cheated anyone out of a good time if he could help it. I believe if he had the writers we have today his work would have been so much better. Jim Carrey reminds me of him sometimes. I also appreciate all of the laughs I've had since I was a kid and I'm also very happy to see he is good spirits. As for his health I believe he posted a tweet about being rushed to the hospital about a week ago. Jerry remains in my prayers always.

  • tommy moore | February 13, 2012 5:18 PMReply

    Absolutely wonderful! Thank you for this!

  • Norm | February 13, 2012 4:44 PMReply

    Jerry Lewis is one of those complex individuals who seem to crave/demand attention/notice for their public performances at a higher level than others. And yet demand privacy when the cameras are off. His drive to be accepted is unrealistic , but he has many notable performances that are excellent for any performers body of work. The love/work relationship with Dean Martin is a perfect example of how much is enough. Lewis is comparable with Mickey Rooney who also has an almost unquenchable desire to publicly perform and be accepted. You really have to wonder , at what cost is it worth ?

  • Nat Segaloff | February 13, 2012 3:48 PMReply

    Leonard, you are so lucky to have had these encounters, and thank you for sharing this most recent one. Jerry Lewis is simply the greatest.

  • helene tillotson | February 13, 2012 8:35 AMReply

    hi leonard
    im one of those people who grew up with Jerry Lewis also and agee with you 100%.
    may jerry lewis live forever and continue to make us laugh and bring us pleasure that he has been giving us for so many years and may we continue to be so fortunate as to enjoy it.

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