On March 16, The Friars Club presented an 86th birthday celebration honoring Jerry Lewis. The sold-out event saw hundreds of Lewis fans packed into the fabled 92nd Street Y on Manhattan's upper East Side. The show was hosted by actor/comedian and fellow Friar Richard Belzer (Lewis is the club's "Abbot"). Belzer waxed eloquently about the impact Lewis has continued to have on generations of comedians. He then showed some truly fascinating clips from director Gregg Barson's recent documentary Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis. Then Lewis was introduced to a standing ovation. At 86 years old, there were few signs that age had taken its toll on the comedy legend. He walked a bit more cautiously and his hair was flecked with gray, but he cut a fit figure for a man of any age. Lewis and Belzer indulged in some predictable shtick, with Belzer taking most of Lewis' acid-tongued insults. Lewis covered many topics during the course of the interview, which was followed by an extended Q&A session with the audience. As usual, such opportunities seem to result in most normal people remaining in their seats while various nutcases take to the microphone to ask questions. The ratio here was about 50/50,which is certainly light years better than one usually finds at such events. Lewis made mincemeat of some of the people, though he admitted his hearing is not what it was and he came down hard on some people who asked sane questions, quite possibly because he misheard them. Lewis begged the audience not to use their time extolling their love for him and their childhood memories of his films, as he said the rest of the audience would become bored. Nevertheless, some hams and opportunists couldn't resist the lure of the spotlight. An aspiring standup comic insisted on shaking his hand, and Lewis conceded. However, a name-dropper in the audience kept reminding Lewis of some ties between their families and presented Lewis with what he claimed to be a photograph of his daughter at the man's house many years ago. "Bullshit", said Lewis, who claimed he didn't know the man or his family. In a cringe-inducing moment, he tossed the photo on the floor. A young woman who introduced herself as an aspiring director presented Lewis with a birthday card, saying that she wasn't out "drinking" like other people her age, preferring instead to concentrate on studying filmmaking. (This desperate plea for praise showed her ignorance of the fact that everyone else in the audience was at least temporarily refraining from drinking. Was Lewis supposed to praise us all?) Lewis was effusive in his praise of his fans and audiences, which helped offset some of the crueler instances of his dismissal and public humiliation of some of those who had addressed him. One person who escaped Lewis' wrath was fellow Friar Jerry Stiller, who greeted Lewis fro the audience and received a warm response.
A wide variety of topics were covered. Here are some highlights:
Lewis said that Dean Martin was the most underrated man in show business because he had to endure being regarded as window dressing, as Lewis would gain the lion's share of praise from critics and audiences. He said Martin gamely pretended it didn't bother him, even though Lewis said he knew that it did.
He recalled being terrified at starring in his first post-Martin & Lewis film, The Delicate Delinquent, fearing that audience interest in him would wane in the wake of the team's break-up.
Lewis confirmed the rumor that he had indeed been fired from the annual telethon for Muscular Dystrophy. He had hosted the show since the mid-1960s. The audience gasped at the revelation and he said the new management of the charity disagreed with him on some concepts so they dismissed his services. He did not expand on the reasons behind the dispute but said he took satisfaction that the telethon still raised a great deal of money for those afflicted with the disease.
When Paramount wanted to move the release of Cinderfella to the summer, Lewis insisted that he had created the film with a Christmas release in mind. When the studio begged him for a summer film, Lewis wrote the entire script for The Bellboy in a matter of days, then shot the movie in an amazingly abbreviated period of time. It went on to be a huge boxoffice success.
Lewis spoke about making The King of Comedy with Martin Scorsese. Originally his character, a Johnny Carson-like TV icon, was named Robert Langford. Lewis insisted that Scorsese change the character's name to Jerry Langford. He told the puzzled Scorsese that this would help him gain some valuable footage in a scene in which Langford is shouted to by fans as he walks through Times Square. Lewis demonstrated this by simply taking Scorsese on a walk through the area they would be filming in. Immediately, passersby started shouting out, "Hey, Jerry!" Scorsese realized instantly that he could simply film Lewis walking through the area and not have to hire extras to shout the name, "Robert". Lewis also recalled being somewhat nervous about Scorsese asking him to direct a scene in the film while he observed.
Lewis is making a new movie Max Rosen but was most enthused about discussing his forthcoming Broadway musical adaptation of The Nutty Professor. The show is geared to open in November with a score by Marvin Hamlisch and a book by Rupert Holmes. Lewis will direct.
Lewis said the worst film experience of his career was Slapstick of Another Kind, a 1982 bomb that he said "I never should have done." Lewis explained he wanted to help the film's young director (who he mercifully didn't name. It was Steven Paul). He said the film emerged as such a disaster that Lewis is disturbed to even think about it even today. However, he said, he had given his word that he would do it and "when you shake a man's hand, you don't back out."
Lewis expressed satisfaction that his 1960s book about the techniques of film directing is still widely used in schools and that Scorsese regarded it as so vital that he kept on the set of his films. He also said that when he got into an argument with Scorsese about how to film a scene, Scorsese got the upper hand that by showing Lewis a paragraph in his own book that dispelled his argument. Lewis had to concede and Scorsese got his way.
He spoke very highly of his mother and father, both stage performers, who got Jerry into their act at age five in order to get a $5 increase in their paychecks. On his first night on stage, Jerry was taking a bow when he slipped and knocked out one of the stage lights, causing a mini-explosion. When the audience roared with laughter, Jerry was determined to continue to perform in front of audiences. He said the memory is still so vivid it seems like it was yesterday.
He talked with pride about his technological achievements, specifically in popularizing the Video Assist camera system that became widely used in the industry.
Lewis choked up a bit when talking about other comedy legends. He paid homage to the largely forgotten comedy genius Harry Ritz and recalled a particular anecdote regarding Charles Chaplin. Lewis had befriended jim legend in the 1960s. In 1971, Lewis opened his stage act in Paris to much acclaim. On opening night, his performance in front of European show business royalty lasted almost three hours. The following morning, he was having breakfast with Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charles. She revealed to him that Chaplin had attended the performance and greatly enjoyed it. Lewis was astonished. "But I didn't see him in the audience", he said. Geraldine explained that Chaplin had stood in the hot projection booth for the entire performance because he knew that if he was spotted, the attention would be diverted from Jerry's achievement on stage. Lewis is still moved by the fact that the elderly Chaplin stood for almost three hours in an uncomfortable environment, then sneaked out rather than detract from Lewis' performance.
Most moving was Lewis' recollections of his friendship with Stan Laurel, who he still regards as a prince among men. He said Stan told him about the day he received a telephone call telling him that Oliver Hardy had been diagnosed as terminally ill. Laurel recalled that his arm that held the telephone literally froze up as though it were made of stone and he could not move it, as he was so shaken by the news. Lewis said Laurel refused to leave his house for a period of time because he could not hide his depression and thought it would be too upsetting for young children to see him in anything but a happy mood. Most fascinating was Lewis' stories about trying to hire Laurel as a script consultant on his films. Laurel knew that Lewis was only trying to make him feel relevant in the new age of comedy and refused his offer of a $150,000 fee per movie. Nevertheless, Laurel did contribute some opinions. He sent one script back to Lewis with a red marker through a scene and wrote, "Don't shoot this!" Lewis felt it was one of the best scenes in the movie, and he had written it himself. Regardless, he wasn't about to second-guess Stan Laurel when it came to comedy and he never shot the scene. He said that one day he was at Laurel's house and he noticed a small ID card laying on a table. It was Laurel's studio pass card dating from 1920. Laurel gave it to him and Lewis still carries it to this day. (He produced it from his wallet and showed the audience.)
Following the Q&A, Belzer was joined on stage by David Letterman's band leader Paul Shaffer, who played the piano as the audience sang "Happy Birthday" to Lewis. This was followed by some very amusing video tributes from stars such as Tom Hanks, Woody Harrelson, Steve Martin and a joint appearance by Letterman and Martin Short who expressed their disappointment at not being at the event but said they couldn't attend because they were at least "four or five blocks away."
Lewis was effusive in his thanks to his benefactors and to the audience. Toward the end of the night, a young man in a wheelchair, James Lacerenza, addressed Lewis, telling him he suffers from cerebral palsey and that he had once been on Lewis' telethon with him. He told Lewis how much his efforts to eradicate the disease meant to those who are afflicted by it. Lewis, clearly moved, said he would meet the man backstage and talk with him personally.
In all, a memorable night for a true comedy legend. On a personal basis, I have been pursuing Lewis for an interview for Cinema Retro for the last couple of years. He's personally called me a couple of times and promised it will happen. I hope it will - but it will require him to stop working for an hour or two, and right now that doesn't appear to be in the cards any time soon.
(Following publication of this article, we were contacted by James Lacerenza, who asked us to publish the following: James Lacerenza has cerebral palsy but has been an MDA volunteer for the last 12 years, due in part to Lewis' tireless dedication. He has raised nearly $110,000 since 2005 for MDA's Summer Camp Program and has just added a second camp, run by the Jett Foundation for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, known as Camp Promise East to his fundraising efforts. Please visit James' site, and feel free to give whatever you can at www.mdactkids.org)