S'more Entertainment has released two rare 1965 interviews with Jerry Lewis that appeared on David Susskind's "Open End" chat show. The B&W videotaped broadcasts are shown in their entirety sans original commercials. According to the informative liner notes by Susskind biographer Stephen Battaglio, Susskind, a successful TV film producer of "highbrow" content, and Lewis had a previous relationship: Susskind had been the agent for Martin and Lewis in the 1950s. Their relationship soured in later years partly because Susskind was critical of actors in general, especially those who dared to produce and direct their own movies. None of that tension comes across in the interview but it still makes for a rather riveting experience. "Open End" was one of many talk shows during the 1960s that appealed to viewers' intellect. The primary objective wasn't to make news, get laughs or have a guest promote his or her latest venture. This is obvious in the Lewis shows- he isn't asked about what he is currently working on nor does he attempt to insert a plug for anything into the interview. Rather, Lewis- who was never lacking in self-esteem when it came to his career accomplishments as a filmmaker- seems to relish the opportunity to show his serious, personal side. Susskind proves to be the perfect interviewer- he asks intelligent questions then shuts up and gives his guest ample time to answer them, uninterrupted. Notably, the camera is rarely on the host and most often on the guest. Such techniques may seem quaint today but one wishes more of them were being employed.
In the first interview Susskind never questions Lewis about his films and only discusses the Hollywood aspect of Lewis's life in big picture terms. Lewis opines that he isn't part of the Hollywood party scene because he was obsessed with it as a young man. Instead, he says he prefers to simply go home and be with his family after leaving the studio. Lewis does defend Hollywood against its bad reputation, pointing out that the industry is filled with kind and generous people who devote their lives to bringing entertainment to millions of people. It's clear that family was always of paramount importance to Lewis. At the time he had six sons ranging from an infant to 19 year-old Gary, who had recently launched a successful career with Gary Lewis and the Playboys rock band, Jerry stresses in the interview how he and his (then) wife Patty attempt to provide a normal life for them. Susskind challenges him in that regard, pointing out Lewis's penchant for excessive spending and the fact that the family is living in Louis B. Mayer's former home, a 33-room estate that Lewis paid for with a check for $500,000. Lewis grapples with the paradox but admits that it's hard to try to explain why 33 rooms are necessary even for a big family. He says that much of his penchant for big spending is probably a psychological need to rebel against his humble past. Raised in a very modest home in New Jersey, Lewis's mom and dad (both alive at the time of this interview) were hard-working show business people who had a vaudeville act. Lewis remembers the pain of what that lifestyle meant: long hours, constant travel and little money because his father was a poor businessman. Most poignantly, Lewis recalls having attended fifteen schools in his childhood and the on-going pain he still feels from his humiliation at being left back one year in grammar school. (He describes a system that seems intentionally designed to psychologically wound such children.) He confesses to owning hundreds of suits and pairs of shoes but tries to mitigate his compulsion by pointing out he ultimately gives many of his possessions away to charity. At times Lewis comes across as a human paradox. He's humble, he's a bragger, he admits to being an egomaniac but at other times comes across as a sincere, down-to-earth husband and father who ascribes to an old-fashioned ethic of working hard to provide for those who are dependent upon him. Susskind asks him about the challenges of living in an interdenominational marriage (he's Jewish, his wife Catholic). Lewis responds with candor and explains that both he and his wife were patient and understanding with the other's beliefs and try to objectively expose their kids to both religions. (He also makes some comments about his parents' lack of tolerance for the situation which they probably didn't appreciate being broadcast on national television). Given the social mores of the era, it's probably not surprising that Lewis held to a traditional view that the man is the head of the household. He confesses to being insecure about letting his wife be alone for any length of time with another man and prohibiting her from even dancing with anyone but him. "Leave her alone- she belongs to me!" is how he would address any man who dared to inquire about a dance with his wife. Such misogynistic statements would seem outrageous today but in Lewis's defense, they were much more the norm in 1965.
The second interview pertains almost entirely to Lewis's work in film and television. The show captures Lewis at a period of time when he was at the height of his career, though there were signs that the downward spiral had slowly begun. His best movies were already behind him and, although he would continue to make feature films, few hits would follow. He had also suffered the disappointment of having a weekly TV series canceled, something Susskind questions him about almost mercilessly. To his credit, Lewis assumes the entire blame for the failure of the show, calling it a "disaster" and saying he found that the medium of a weekly TV series was not something he felt comfortable with (though he would return to do another ill-fated series in 1967). Lewis answers some hardball questions without hesitation including making his first sustained comments on the causes of his breakup with Dean Martin. Again, Lewis assumes the burden of the blame, saying that he never properly consulted Dean's feelings when it came to demanding that their act move in certain other directions. If Lewis's ego is in check in assuming blame for some aspects of his career that didn't work out, his legendary ego goes into overdrive when Susskind asks him why American film critics seem immune to his achievements. Lewis bristles at the topic and displays a Trumpian anger and sense of victimization toward the press and even implies that American critics are simply not as savvy (i.e intelligent) as their European counterparts who are more appreciative of his achievements. (In one cringe-inducing moment he asks Susskind to read a London reviewer's praise of him!). Throughout both interviews, Lewis comes across as articulate and extremely intelligent. At times he is humble and at other times he "humble-brags", using humility to actually extol his talents. But he's never less than fascinating. (Bizarrely, it is revealed midway through the second interview that Lewis is taping the show on his own reel-to-reel recorder, which he adjusts on camera- but gives no explanation as to why he is recording audio on a segment that is being videotaped.)
Lewis remains a genuine legend in an era in which legends are in short supply. He was the first actor to successfully launch a career as both producer and director that extended beyond the novelty of trying this "trifecta" achievement more than once or twice. He also shows in the 1965 interviews that he doesn't hedge on answering sensitive questions. He gives direct answers and speaks from the heart even if his views might raise eyebrows.
The DVD from S'more Entertainment doesn't contain any bonus materials and one wishes that perhaps Susskind scholar Battaglio had been asked to provide a commentary track. The menu is poorly designed and doesn't give any indication that there are two separate interviews on the disc. (Nor does the packaging mention this). Thus when I tuned out of the first interview while the end credits were rolling, I thought the DVD had no other content- until I noticed the 90 minute running time listed on the package. I then re-examined the DVD and noticed that other chapters appear after a "next" arrow on the menu.
The quality of the transfer is very good, however, and the glitches that are apparent are clearly from the show's original broadcast. You don't have to love Jerry Lewis to consider this a "must have" release.