Lighting it up
On a recent afternoon, comedy legend Jerry Lewis cracked open a diet soda and dimmed the lights inside a casino ballroom to drink in the spectacle of Charlie Chaplin impersonating Hitler.
A scene from Chaplin’s 1940 Nazi satire “The Great Dictator” flickered across a bank of monitors, part of a video montage Lewis was editing together for his signature cause, the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. Telethon. The 211/2 -hour annual event has raised $2.45 billion for “Jerry’s kids” to date; its 45th edition kicks off on some 170 television stations Sunday evening.
Watching Chaplin spoof the Fuhrer as a power-drunk buffoon, Lewis alternately howled with laughter and provided a master class commentary about Chaplin’s filmmaking “genius” and the balletic brilliance of his physical comedy.
“You’re getting the opportunity to see greatness here,” the comedian said to a quartet of digital video editors in the room.
But then, Lewis’ filmmaking know-how and funny guy skill-set were on conspicuous display as well. He cracked curmudgeonly jokes, barked orders on how to re-cut the film and made critical observations about Chaplin’s “continuity” and scene blocking. The kind of thing you pick up after writing and directing more than a dozen films and starring in scores more.
“Jerry, we’re in the presence of you,” pointed out editor J.R. Boyd.
Television’s most venerable telethon host entered Living Legend territory long ago and his comedy dominance -- particularly in his partnership with Dean Martin throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s -- paved the way for absurdist jokemeisters such as Andy Kaufman, Jim Carrey and Jack Black. But at age 84, Lewis isn’t just sliding by on past triumphs.
In December, Lewis said, he will go back in front of the camera for the independent drama “Max Rose,” his first starring movie role in a quarter-century.
He still crisscrosses the country by private jet to perform 21/2 -hour stand-up sets a dozen times a year.
And November 2011 will mark the performer’s ambitious Broadway musical adaptation of his landmark comedy “The Nutty Professor.”
The elastic-faced movie star is simply unwilling to let senior citizen status limit him to fundraising for muscular dystrophy, the umbrella term for debilitating neuromuscular diseases affecting more than 1 million Americans, though he makes it clear that remains at the top of his agenda.
“Being old doesn’t mean you’ve lost your spirit. And that’s what this is about,” Lewis said, hunching forward in his chair at Las Vegas’ South Point Hotel and Casino to make his point.
“It’s spirit and energy and the desire to do good work for people who don’t stand a chance if I don’t.”
Nonetheless, Lewis feels pressure to fulfill his mission before his final curtain call.
“I have to finish what I’ve started,” he said. “I want to do it before I leave.”
These days Lewis scoots to his appointments on a Rascal scooter and likes to literally ride circles around those in his employ. He has ascended the pinnacle of showbiz over a nearly 60-year run as a stand-up comedian-singer-writer-actor-director-producer-movie and TV star.
Named a commander in the French Legion of Honor in 2006, he’s still a subject of national adulation in such countries as Japan and Australia; Lewis won the Jean Hersholt Oscar for his humanitarian efforts in 2009 and has even been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his work as chairman of the MDA.
He’s got two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and has also lived to see his accomplishments memorialized in the CBS TV biopic “Martin and Lewis,” as well as his backlog of television work such as “The Colgate Comedy Hour” and “The Jerry Lewis Show” rereleased on DVD.
“When I take stock, it’s overwhelming,” Lewis, never one for false modesty, exclaimed .
But along the way, he also has suffered a litany of health problems, many related to his extreme lifestyle. Besides prostate cancer, diabetes and open-heart surgery, there’s the nasty case of viral meningitis Lewis got performing in Australia, pulmonary fibrosis thanks to his longtime five-pack-a-day smoking habit (Lewis ballooned up to 280 pounds for several years consequent to a medicine he took for the condition), chronic back pain from chipping his spine during a pratfall at the Sands Casino, as well as accompanying bouts of addiction to prescription painkillers and even suicidal depression.
“I was horizontal for five years,” Lewis explained of his battle with pulmonary fibrosis. “Now, when someone says, ‘How are you?’ I say, ‘I’m vertical! What’s better than that?’ ”
Lewis arrived for an interview with an entourage that included a manager, publicist, bodyguard and personal photographer, as well as a childhood friend who has known the performer since he was 6. Ignoring a Times photographer’s instructions, Lewis immediately began to play around with the lighting set-up and strike a series of increasingly goofy poses.
“He’s the last of a very cool breed,” said the editor Boyd, who admits to still being somewhat star-struck after working with Lewis on the telethon for 11 years. “His memory’s incredible. He’s sharp as a tack.”
But that doesn’t mask Lewis’ reputation as a demanding -- and sometimes persnickety -- perfectionist. Inside the telethon’s cavernous production office, he was quick to sass, cajole and badger production staff on the slightest whim. “Where’s my orange soda, Grandma?” Lewis brayed at his longtime manager Claudia Marghilano.
He used force of personality to persuade Michael Gaughan, owner of the South Point Hotel and Casino, to not only house the telethon but to also comp 800 rooms for cast and crew for the duration of its production.
Ten days before airtime, Lewis admitted that he continues to harass the influential local businessman for more favors every day.
“People ask how I get along with Jerry,” said Gaughan, grinning. “I say, ‘Great!’ ” -- he paused a beat before finishing his thought -- “ ‘I just give him whatever he wants.’ ”
‘Nutty’ on stage
Just days after the telethon, the performer will fly to New York City to begin casting 70 parts for the Broadway adaptation of his “Nutty Professor” -- the 1963 Jekyll and Hyde comedy that Lewis wrote, directed and starred in that young fans may more readily associate with Eddie Murphy’s 1996 remake.
Multiple Oscar-winner Marvin Hamlisch and Grammy-nominee Rupert Holmes are handling scoring duties for the musical. And after six weeks of rehearsals, its cast will relocate to San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, where the production will premiere.
Then in December, production is set to begin on the independent feature “Max Rose,” the performer’s first movie part since his supporting role in the 1995 dramedy “Funny Bones.” To hear Lewis explain the plot -- which he insists is not “saccharine” -- his personal convergence with the title character becomes abundantly clear.
“It’s about an 85-year-old man who’s not allowing time to dictate his life,” he explained. “He’s struggling a little. But he’s so upbeat, he takes all the people in his life and makes them upbeat. They are near him and their lives are punctuated with an energy and spirit that is beautiful.”
Lewis taught a grad school film course at USC in the late ‘60s and counts Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich and DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg among his former students. Although Lewis said he still voraciously watches new movies, he hadn’t been sufficiently moved to appear in one until he received the “Max Rose” script from first-time filmmaker Daniel Noah, who had written the part especially for him.
Alternating between trash-talking and tenderness, sweetness and snark, conversation about Lewis’ future endeavors compelled the star to consider what had brought him here -- and the fleeting nature of comedy.
“Funny is fragile. It’s elusive,” Lewis said. “It’s elusive to everyone because you’re never going to get a handle on what’s funny. And people don’t stay funny. As we get older, we lose a spark.
“But I can make somebody laugh when I open my eyes. It’s still there when I shut them,” he continued. “You count your blessings. And while you do, a tremendous humility comes over you. It’s something that happens to you. I’ve been able to keep those happenings fresh.”
Last year’s telethon saw the performer haul in $60.5 million for his cause. And it’s clear his “kids” are his priority. Lewis recalled the devastating loss he felt recently discovering that an 11-year-old boy he had promised to visit died just hours before Lewis could see him.
“I was so shattered, I couldn’t turn myself to go out the door,” Lewis recalled, tears welling in his eyes at the memory. “And I’m thinking, ‘This mustn’t be the payoff for all this work I do.’ ”
He pulled himself together.
“My kids have a tremendous elegance to me. When they get struck down, they have incredible heart and a wonderment for the world,” Lewis said.
He wears his deep identification with muscular dystrophy sufferers on his sleeve. But it raises the question: How did Lewis become interested in the disease in the first place?
“That’s never been answered by me and never will be!” Lewis snapped, suddenly bristling with indignation. “The important thing is not why, but that I do.”