Happy Birthday, Jerry Lewis!

Jerry Lewis - RKO-325I’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 90th birthday 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.

Jerry Lewis Album cover

          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
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.

Jerry Lewis album-402

          That night I
experienced a delayed reaction I’ve never had before or since: I actually
started shaking. I had just met Jerry

Lewis -Martin-news clip

          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!

Jerry Lewis event ticket

          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
called The Trust. It’s a brief
appearance, but it gives him a 2016 screen credit, 67 years after his debut in My Friend Irma.

Jerry Lewis - Batman Comic

          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 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 many more
years of happiness, good health…and laughter.



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May 2024