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?”)
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.