The Home Stretch : After Decades of Hard Work and Hard Luck, Warhorse Jerry Lewis Is Riding High in the Hit 'Damn Yankees,' Now in Costa Mesa

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A self-described "pressure player," Jerry Lewis has shined brightest in the unforgiving spotlight of live performance throughout a long and stellar career. These days, however, the legendary performer is taking it easy onstage--or, rather, easier.

Lewis, who turns 70 in March, is tossing off a mere eight shows a week on the road, reprising his Broadway role in the hit revival of "Damn Yankees"--at the Orange County Performing Arts Center through Sunday--and it seems to him more pleasurable than a vacation cruise.

"Dino and I did 56 shows a week at the Paramount," he recalled of his and Dean Martin's famous stage act during the 1940s and '50s. "We were there two weeks. Then we went to the Chicago Theater and played nine shows a day--63 shows in a week.

"I was 20 years old then. OK, at 69, I've cut that down to 24 shows in three weeks."

This vintage Hollywood great, looking remarkably young in a brown polo shirt, blue shorts, running shoes and trademark aviator-style glasses, knows he's "coming around the far turn." But he likens himself to an experienced thoroughbred relaxed enough to lengthen his stride in the stretch.

"I'm at the 16th pole and I'm heading home," Lewis said on a recent morning at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Pasadena, "and I'm going to celebrate my 70th birthday onstage doing 'Damn Yankees,' because the rush is incredible."

Not too many years ago that would have been unthinkable. His star seemed to have set--quite apart from bad press, bad temper, derisive critics and the inevitable changes in popular taste. He sank like a stone beneath the surface of an American culture that once took him to heart and heaped him with wealth and celebrity.

His personal life hit rock-bottom. Divorce, bankruptcy, heart surgery, bad investments, drug addiction, prostate cancer and politically correct attacks against his annual telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. all cut him down to less-than-giant size.

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Despite his overseas acclaim as the darling of the French New Wave--a badge of valor bestowed by intellectual auteur directors and worn with pride--Lewis went from highest-paid movie-and-television star of the 1950s to Las Vegas also-ran of the 1970s, a symbol of everything uncool and square.

But what other performer was ever nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, a singular honor for fund-raising achievements of such mythic proportions that it carries no little afterglow?

"I've grown up with a country that decided I had some worth many years ago," Lewis said. "Now they're adults, sharing my life with me [on this tour]. I can't even explain what a feeling that is. It's adrenaline. It's a joy. It's gratitude. And it's very humbling."

He goes to great lengths to point out that his performance as the devil in "Damn Yankees" is no star turn and that the production does not revolve around him.

"It's not the Jerry Lewis Show," he said. "It's a brilliant revival with an exquisite company and a great score. My whole approach to it was so focused that I even decided to be wonderful to the press. Get a load of that.

"I mean, this is really a commitment, because I've been battling you guys for 50 years. I decided I was going to sell this show. I was going to do it right. I was going to lose 30 pounds. I was going to be in great shape for eight shows a week. And I was going to romance the press."

Pause. "I've been so sweet that I'm borderline diabetic." Rim shot.

But not for long. Lewis doesn't mind pasting today's Broadway producers (his own excepted) in their collective kisser. Though his recent success in a legit Broadway theater represents the fulfillment of a dream--his father, a talented Borscht Belt performer, regarded Broadway stardom as the crowning glory of any show-biz career, including movies--Lewis can be withering about no-talent, shortsighted theatrical executives.

"I think what has happened to Broadway is no different than what has happened to Hollywood," he explained. "You've got kids running the business. Somebody asked me to have a meeting at Metro [Goldwyn-Mayer] before I went on the tour. I said, 'Well, I'll have to stop at Toys R Us first.' "

His voice drops to a no-nonsense register, just in case you don't believe he's serious.

"The decision makers are idiots, OK? They are unfortunately going through a terrible period in their lives. It happens to everyone from 25 to 36. It's called 'stupid.' But while they're doing it, they're going to take down a lot of creative people.

"That's why the David Mamets don't want to talk to these schmucks, and the project doesn't get done. Unless you're Steven Spielberg and you're in total control of the decision-making process, unless you're David Merrick, who is no longer functioning on Broadway, and you're in control based on credentials that represent wonderful creative work, you're [expletive].

"That's what's happening on Broadway, in Hollywood, in television. My God, television!" His voice rises. "The poster child for a television executive should be 4 years old, with just a little pablum dripping down at the corner of his lip. But he goes to Nielsen and thinks he's a Rhodes scholar. That's what you're dealing with.

"When you're dealing with bean counters and summer-camp reps, give me a break. Do I have to tell you what I'm talking about? You get it every day. It's an old joke. 'Make me a malted.' 'Poof! You're a malted.' The creative business, the very industry, is in the hands of retards."

Not to sound like a full-bore prima donna, he shifts to the high, familiar whine of his wacky comic alter ego: "Don't get me s-t-a-r-t-e-d!"

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Lewis is acting, of course. But he's not kidding. The performance is sincere. Later, when asked what keeps the fire in his belly, he put a leather attache case on the table, popped the latches and produced a sheet of yellow paper with a handwritten quotation from "Act One," the autobiography of playwright Moss Hart.

"May I read you something?" he asked with elaborate but genuine courtesy. "It will help answer the question.

" 'The theater is an inevitable refuge of the unhappy child, and the tantrums and other childishness of theater people in general are neither accidental nor a necessary weapon of their profession. It has nothing to do with the so-called artistic temperament. The explanation, I think, is a far simpler one. For the most part, they are impaled in childhood like a fly in amber.' "

Lewis folded the sheet of paper and put it back in his attache case.

"The only thing I disagree with," he said, "is unhappy child. The theater is the refuge of the child, period. Those who must go before an audience need certification. That's what drives us, [especially] at the beginning."

Yet there are performers "who would say I'm dead-ass wrong," Lewis added. "I know people who do it because they get paid to do it and have no passion for it. They can be terrific, and they really don't need the fire in the belly. It astonishes me. I don't understand it."

Lewis got a second wind for both his life and career when he married his second wife, SanDee "Sam" Pitnick, in 1983. They have a daughter, Danielle, whom they adopted the day after she was born. Now a wide-eyed, bright-faced 3 1/2-year-old, she's the apple of her father's eye.

He dotes on her every chance he gets. She's on the tour, along with Sam, and he carries her picture (8-by-10 color glossy, no less) in his attache case. He also recounts her latest shafts of verbal brilliance to anyone who'll listen.

"We're like the Joad family," he said, "except we're not looking for work week after week. We're on the road just looking to find out where it's at."

Apparently, they will be looking for several years to come. Lewis says he's committed to doing "Damn Yankees" until 1997 on its projected 100-city national tour. Then he expects to go to London with the show for another year, followed by stops in Paris and Berlin and a tour of Japan.

"My daughter will be 8 when we're through," Lewis said, adding that he hopes to reprise his role in a planned movie version of "Damn Yankees" by the time the international tour ends in the year 2000.

"Which studio and which company I can't tell you. But I can tell you the talks are serious."

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When will he find the time for the movie? He doesn't know yet. He does know, however, that "nothing gets in the way of the telethon." The tour will shut down every August "for as long as we go and no matter where we are" to give him four weeks to prepare for the worldwide broadcast on Labor Day weekend.

Clearly, one thing Lewis doesn't lack is fire in the belly. He may need, if anything, a fire extinguisher. *

"Damn Yankees" continues through Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 606 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $19 to $49.50. (714) 740-2000 (Ticketmaster).

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