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’ve been a fan ever since. It’s the reason I want to join the chorus of admirers who are wishing him a happy 90thbirthday today.
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 ofEntertainment 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 have 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!
Instead, I am here to sing his praises as he turns 90…days after seeing him onscreen at the South by Southwest Film Festival playing Nicolas Cage’s father in a new movie calledThe Trust. It’s a brief appearance, but it gives him a 2016 screen credit, 67 years after his debut in My Friend Irma.
But then, I shouldn’t be surprised. There is no facet of show business he hasn’t tackled and conquered, from nightclubs to 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 anEsquire 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 (CLICK HERE).
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 many more years of happiness, good health…and laughter.