Jerry Lewis is swirling in the vortex of two Dannys.
“She has become my total center,” said the man who, at one time or another, was the highest-paid nightclub comic, the highest-paid television entertainer and the highest-paid film director in the world. “And that, as you might imagine, is a large change for me.”
Lewis is talking . . . and talking . . . and talking about his adopted daughter, Danielle, who will be 3 next month. The producers of “Damn Yankees,” who have brought Lewis in to revive their revival of the 1955 Broadway musical hit, want him to spend a lot more time pushing the show. They took the unusual tack of closing the show for two tourist-less winter months before reopening it, to put Lewis in the role of the devil who barters a Washington Senators fan’s soul so the fan can be transformed into the batting hero who helps the Senators beat the hated New York Yankees.
They’ve rented a plush-on-plush suite in the Waldorf Towers, high above Park Avenue, so that Lewis can chat up reporters in style. Preceding Lewis is a reputation that he’d rather have reporters on the room-service menu, preferably de-boned. But when he talks about and shows off photos of his pigtailed, smiling little Danni, it’s clear that the fabled Lewis temper-toting fangs have receded.
“It’s a wonderful change. The feeling of total and complete selflessness is incredible,” said Lewis, propping photo after photo on top of his briefcase. “I just don’t want anything to get in the way of this concentrated love. I’m so connected to her and she’s such a daddy’s girl. We have such a bonding that I never had with children before.”
Lewis, who turns 69 on March 16, four days after “Damn Yankees” reopens (previews begin Tuesday), was 18 when his first son, erstwhile rock star Gary, was born. He and his first wife, Patti, had five sons, but he said he never got close enough to them.
“When you are younger and have kids, you are so busy with yourself. You want everything for yourself,” said Lewis. And for a little bit, he rewinds back a few decades, thinking about that other Danny: Danny Levitch, his father.
“He taught me everything I know,” Lewis said. Except that as a father, Danny Levitch was busy with his own life. He and his wife, Rae, were small-time entertainers, mostly in the Borscht Belt. When they could, they took their only son on tours. But the boy was left in the care of his grandmother in Irvington, N.J., a suburb of Newark, where he honed his act--inspired by his father--as class clown. Danny Levitch pushed his son, getting him bookings from the time he was 5, when Jerry’s whole act was singing, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”
In fact, Jerry’s whole act was trying to please his father, an act that didn’t end until Danny Levitch died in 1982. Stories of Jerry’s nearly futile attempts have become legion: The time he bought Danny a custom Cadillac and wrapped it with 25 yards of ribbon and heard Danny say only, “How come it’s not a convertible?” The time, at age 55 no less, when Lewis came off stage after 90 minutes of stand-up applause and was greeted by the unsmiling Danny, saying, “You were OK--for an amateur.” The time Lewis finally got to Broadway. . . .
But wait, that’s now.
“I played the Palace. I played the Paramount. I played the Roxy. I played the Capitol,” said Lewis, rat-a-tat-tatting legendary houses he sold out when he and Dean Martin were the nation’s comic darlings between 1946 and 1956. “But that’s not Broadway. That’s film houses. That’s vaudeville houses. This, this will be Broadway.
“And the wonderful part about this is that I would have been disappointed if the show would have moved to one of the side-street Broadway houses,” said Lewis, between gulps of Diet Coke. The Marquis, where “Damn Yankees” is ensconced, is at Broadway and 45th Street. “I’m really getting the thrill of my life in that it is on Broadway. You have to drive your car down Broadway to get to the theater. I love that.”
And then he softens his gleeful rant a bit.
“My dad is looking up over a cloud, giggling,” said the only son, still trying hard to please. “He never got to Broadway. His dream was to see me on it. But he knows, I guess.”
The dream started in earnest in the summer of 1946. The postwar boom was about to strike and fun was in the air. Skinny D’Amato, as the owner of the 500 Club, the top fun purveyor in the East Coast’s summer fun town, Atlantic City, N.J., took a flyer on a rubber-faced 20-year-old comic, Joey Levitch, who had recently stage-named himself Jerry Lewis.
“Atlantic City was still a class operation in ’46,” said Lewis. “It was just incredible; flowers along the streets. It had medians where beautiful flowers were kept immaculately. In the winter, they would have horse sleighs in those medians. It was a magical city.”
Magic, however, was eluding Lewis that late July. Business was slowing at the 500 Club and the accompanying musical act was already history. D’Amato asked Lewis for a suggestion--in reality asking him to save his job. Lewis came up with the name of Dino Crocetti, a 28-year-old Sinatra-like crooner he had met while staying at a Manhattan hotel a few months before. D’Amato called Crocetti, who had renamed himself Dean Martin, and got him down just in time for the evening show on July 25. Lewis took Martin aside and persuaded him to do a few slapstick routines with him. They did three hours that night and by week’s end, they were the darlings of Atlantic City. By the end of the summer, they were hauling in more than $2,000 a week and everyone along the East Coast had heard of them.
“You’ve got to remember, all of Philly was there in Atlantic City every weekend then. And all of Baltimore, most of Boston and Washington and a lot of New York,” said Lewis. “The influx of tourists at that time was incredible. It had the class of Hyannis Port, the clientele of Belmont. You had to see it. It was such a joy. You would get sad because nightfall would come and you would have to go to sleep.
“The Boardwalk was so colorful and magical. The beach was as clean as you would like your own bed to be. It was incredible, impeccably perfect,” he said, and then with a sly, Jerry Lewis smile: “I straightened them out.”
His act was a wacky, manic one few had ever attempted and none had succeeded in having the energy to do for nine one-hour shows a day, something Martin and Lewis did in the late ‘40s at the Paramount, one of those on-Broadway but not of-Broadway vaudeville houses.
“I never allowed my character to be any older than 9 years old. You just keep that age as a centerpoint to work from and the mischief comes,” said Lewis. His six-foot body was rail thin and his neck seemed a yard long. His voice screeched like an off-key train whistle. He gyrated, giggled, whined and fumbled. Lewis was always in motion and almost always talking, but in the naive, somewhat annoying cadence of the 9-year-old he kept as that centerpoint.
“I put it in the body of an adult man and I’ve made it work,” said Lewis. “The trick is to get the audience to identify with the brashness and the silliness and the childlike actions and the mentality of what was really a 9-year-old. Most men are that and have always been that, but they deny it, finding for some reason that it isn’t flattering to their character.”
It was Lewis’ character and he was not about to deny it, and he and Martin, whom he credits with being the best straight man in comedy history, rode it for 10 years. Lewis said they played as many as 200 nights onstage a year. From 1949 to 1956, they made 16 movies and hosted five years’ worth of TV’s “Colgate Comedy Hour,” the first all-color network entertainment show. They were the first guests on the first broadcast of the Ed Sullivan show, then called “Toast of the Town.”
They quit the partnership in 1956, but Lewis continued to make movies, seven more in the next five years, with names like “The Geisha Boy” and “The Delicate Delinquent,” all in the same energetic 9-year-old persona. But while doing all these movies, he was watching--both cinematically and financially--and Lewis decided he wanted control. Paramount gave it to him, offering him $10 million plus a hefty percentage of the net to write, direct and star in eight films over the next seven years, the biggest contract of its kind up to that time.
Lewis’ 9-year-old adult was big box office, especially among teen-agers and in the European market. “The Nutty Professor,” “The Patsy” and “The Bellboy” were especially lauded by French auteur critics, who thought Lewis’ character was the perfect embodiment of postwar American childlike neuroses.
“I think I slept once during that time, in June of 1958,” Lewis deadpanned. “It was hectic, but when you are on a natural high, particularly in the creative process, you’re in a groove.”
He admits he was manic, even dictatorial, especially when he was directing.
“After an 18-hour day, I would spend two hours and prepare for the next day,” he said. “I sketched and worked frame by frame for every joke or every scene I ever shot. It is a very, very long, drawn-out process, but you can’t half do that. I did it totally, or not at all.”
In the midst of all this, in 1963, ABC signed Lewis to what it claimed was the biggest TV star contract ever, said to be $75 million had it run its entire length. Lewis was to host a comedy-variety show live from 9:30 to 11:30 p.m. every Saturday night. It was a monumental flop, canceled after just three months. Lewis blamed both ABC’s hype, which he felt nothing could come up to, and the voraciousness of TV.
“Television will eat your creative process alive. Something new was gone in an hour,” he said. “It is just a hungry machine that needs product. We were very careful in the early days of television. (Martin and I) would not commit to NBC for more than eight (“Colgate”) shows a year by design. We delivered 40 shows in five years, so it didn’t eat us alive. We came out unscathed, but I can’t say that for a lot of people.”
By the end of the Paramount contract, the revisionists were getting to Lewis. His 9-year-old didn’t look good on a man in his 40s, they said. Lewis continued to do Vegas dates, a little TV and some touring, but directed and appeared in only two movies between 1970 and 1983, when Martin Scorsese asked him to take the role of a talk-show host who is the target of the demented obsession of a bad stand-up comic (played by Robert De Niro) in “The King of Comedy.” The straight dramatic role stunned, and pleased, Lewis’ critics.
“I stretched at the right time,” said Lewis. “If a comic makes the stretch prematurely, he damages his career a bit. (Working with Scorsese and De Niro) was, though, an exercise in working with perfection.”
He did another dramatic turn in a five-week arc of TV’s “Wiseguy,” where he played a garment executive torn by his sordid past and his love for his son. But unless you’ve watched his beloved Muscular Dystrophy Telethon each Labor Day, or have caught one of his Vegas stints or brief road tours, that’s about all you’ve seen of Lewis’ work in the last 15 years.
Lewis, who also has a film opening this year, the Disney comedy “Funny Bones,” in which he co-stars with Leslie Caron, had good reason to slow down. He had open-heart surgery in 1983 and a short bout with prostate cancer in 1992. He admits to an addiction to Percodan through the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he used the drug to mask the pain from a bleeding ulcer. He lost millions in an attempt to set up a chain of “family” movie houses, the Jerry Lewis Theaters. He divorced Patti in 1980 and three years later married SanDee (Sam) Pitnick, a short, pretty woman now in her mid-40s. They adopted Danielle the day after her birth in 1992.
Lewis and Sam moved to Las Vegas in the mid-1980s to get away from the hectic pace and gossip mills of Southern California.
“We loved that we were able to find a home in the oldest residential section of Las Vegas, called the Scotch 80s. We love it because it’s quiet and that we can travel in less than six minutes and be in the most glamorous strip in the world, which we don’t do often, but it’s there,” said Lewis. “I had worked Vegas so much that it was very, very conducive to good scheduling and, besides, I’ve always kept the telethon there.”
Ah, the telethon, the thing that makes Lewis both beloved and reviled. Several years ago, some advocates for the disabled started protesting Lewis’ baby, the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, which in truth aids research into several dozen neurological diseases. They said that Lewis portrayed the disabled as pathetic creatures, and to raise money for them that way was embarrassing, counter-productive and evil. Lewis only exacerbated the problem when he wrote an article in Parade magazine saying that he would consider himself only half-alive if he were paralyzed or confined to a wheelchair like some of those he’s called “Jerry’s Kids” over the 45 years of the telethon.
Lewis has kept secret the reason he started working for the Muscular Dystrophy Assn., but he said the telethon was a success from its inception, even if he originally thought it a dubious idea.
“I was taking a ride in a bus to a basketball game in Princeton, N.J., (with an MDA executive) in mid-January, 1948. He was talking to me about the prospect of a telethon and I said, ‘Jesus Christ, I don’t even have a TV in the house yet,’ ” Lewis said. “But finally we did the first one in 1950 out of WNEW in New York. We did four hours only, but we knew we had paydirt. We only raised a few thousand dollars that night, but we kept at it, adding stations. By 1970, I had 213 stations locked up, the most comprehensive independent television network ever and since.”
Despite the protests, Lewis is proud of his work with the telethon. He said that he does phone conferences or hospital visits several hours a day and will leave “Damn Yankees” in August to prepare for this year’s telethon. (He will be back in the fall to go on a planned national tour of the show.)
“It wound up being very important, wouldn’t you say? To date, 1 billion, 400 million dollars. That’s not bad, I would think,” he said.
But, of course, it isn’t enough, not for the guy who thrived on 20-hour days.
“I’ve done everything . . . except this,” said Lewis about “Damn Yankees.” “Except Broadway. And this character, I’ve been playing this character in other guises all these years. He’s a mischievous kid, just an older one.”
He goes on for a bit praising the writing, the legacy of the play, the cast that he is joining--the things the producers want him to say.
“They wanted to reinvent the show with an international star in the role. Sounds good to me,” he said, in less of a we’re-in-this-together, public-relations mode. “I think I can sell tickets. People are going to want to see Jerry Lewis in this role.”
He wafts back for a moment, listing things he’s done, plaudits he’s gotten in his career, taking hand cream from a dispenser and squishing it slowly between his palms for the fifth time in an hour. He got to pilot the Queen Elizabeth. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (in 1977 by then-Congressman Les Aspin). He was a full professor for eight years at the USC Film School. He was a part of the J.F.K. inner fun circle.
“What could I have wanted for? I don’t particularly care about legacy. I don’t want to talk about what they’re going to write on my tombstone. I’m not terribly concerned with what they thought 15 years ago,” he said.
“This is what I care about,” he said, and another photo of Danielle appears. “I just want people to sit with me for three or four hours just to discuss her. It doesn’t have to do with sentiment. It has to do with your bones. I’ve never seen my friends more envious of what I have more than now.
“You know what this show is about, really,” he said. “It boggles my mind that I’m finally going to be on Broadway and be able to entertain for my daughter. Yes, and Dad too.”
* “Damn Yankees,” Broadway’s Marquis, 1535 Broadway, New York. Jerry Lewis joins the cast for previews on Tuesday, with an official opening March 12. (212) 307-4100.