I’ll never forget the first time I set eyes on Jerry Lewis. I was six years old and my parents took me to see The Delicate Delinquent. It was his first solo movie without Dean Martin, but I didn’t know that then. All I knew is that the film opened with a tense buildup to a gang rumble in an alleyway—only to be interrupted by Jerry stumbling through a doorway and noisily knocking over a bunch of garbage cans. That quintessential Jerry gag won me over on the spot and I became a fan.
What made me laugh so hard? I may not have understood, but Jerry did. “I was nine all of my life,” he has said, explaining his screen persona. “Nine is innocent. Nine has a tremendous sense of humor, and nine sees everything.” He was steeped in a show-business work ethic instilled by his father Danny, an all-round performer who took his son to see Al Jolson, renowned as the world’s greatest entertainer. “I’m watching the man say, ‘You ain’t heard nothin’ yet’ and I sat another two and a half hours after the two hour show was over. You can’t forget that.”
But there was more than one side to a creature borne of old-school show biz. Asked what drove him as a performer, he answered, “Fear,” and he wasn’t kidding. It’s no secret that Jerry had a healthy ego, but he was 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 walked out of the theater while he was onstage. The fact that hundreds (or sometimes thousands) remained couldn’t salve the sting of even one person leaving.
When he and Dean Martin teamed up, their unique brand of anarchy propelled them to untold heights of popularity on the nightclub circuit, then on TV’s Colgate Comedy Hour. I was too young to see their appearances on live television and didn’t realize—until years later—that their movies only captured a fraction of their comedic energy. Jerry recalled that a group of comics were gathered at Lindy’s in Manhattan, talking about the new duo who were breaking it up at the Copacabana. “And they all said to [Milton] Berle, ‘We’re gonna see the guys tomorrow night at the Copa.’ And one of the comics said to Berle, ‘What do they do?’ And Berle said, ‘They come out and the skinny kid does some jokes and gets the audience ready. Then he introduces the handsome Italian who comes out and sings sweetly to the audience. It’s a great beginning.’ ‘Yeah, but what about the comedy?’ ‘Oh, you gotta see it.’ ”
“It was really magical,” Jerry recounted, “and nobody could leave the Copa and tell anyone else about what they saw. ‘You gotta see ‘em. You gotta go see ‘em.’”
Dean and Jerry never disappointed an audience. As Jerry later told me, “It always worked because the audience knew we were having such a good time.”
He continued performing into his 90th year and remained a headliner—a bona fide star—until the day he died today at age 91. Some younger people may not know his movies at all, and only recognize him from his annual telethon, where he raised millions of dollars for Muscular Dystrophy. His tireless efforts ultimately earned him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Jerry looms large in my life. When I was a kid I thought the sun rose and set on him, and the arrival of each new Jerry Lewis movie at my neighborhood theater was a big event. That was when he was turning out two movies a year for Paramount, in the late 1950s and early 60s.
Imagine what it felt like when, some thirty years later I had an opportunity to meet the man in person. He was visiting the offices of Entertainment Tonight for a brief interview, and I couldn’t let the opportunity slip away. I strode into our conference room, where the crew was setting up, introduced myself, and made a little small talk. He couldn’t have been more gracious. Then I excused myself and returned to my desk. I thought I handled myself fairly well.
That night I experienced a delayed reaction I’ve never had before or since: I actually started shaking. I had just met Jerry Lewis!!!
In the years since I had the pleasure of interviewing him a number of times. One night I introduced him to a huge audience of video dealers who were presenting him with a lifetime achievement award in Las Vegas. (He didn’t join us for dinner because, in best show business tradition, he would not sit down once he donned his tuxedo.) My speech was followed by a clip reel, and when I walked backstage Jerry said, with a smile, that he felt like I had just delivered his obituary!
There is no facet of show business he didn’t conquer, from nightclubs to radio and television, from movies to the Broadway stage. He even “starred” in his own long-running series of comic books! He taught filmmaking at the University of Southern California and once showed off his modest paycheck for an Esquire magazine photo essay about what gave famous people their greatest reward.
My reward has been enjoying Jerry’s unique brand of comedy and show-business shtick for the better part of my life. He has also been uncommonly kind to me, as I wrote when I shared the stage with him at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills four years ago.
I am a critic, and I have certainly criticized some of Jerry’s work, but that pales alongside the deep feelings I have for him as a performer. I wish him Godspeed, with thanks for all the years of laughter.