After 91 and 1/2 years, the feisty and flinty Jerry Lewis is gone. The indisputable king of comedy during the Martin & Lewis heyday of the early to mid ’50s (although their partnership actually began in Atlantic City in ’46), and a boldly experimental avant-garde comedic auteur from the late ’50s to late ’60s. And a truly delicious prick of a human being when he got older, and oh, how I loved him for that. Refusing to suffer fools can be a dicey thing when you’re younger and have to get along, but it’s a blessing when you’re an old fart with money in the bank.
I know that Lewis was one of my first impersonations when I was a kid….”Hey, ladeeeeeee!” (I performed this for director Penelope Spheeris way back when, and while she could’ve gone “uh-huh” she said “hey, that’s pretty good!”)
If you were born in the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s and therefore haven’t a clue who Jerry Lewis was, please, please consider reading Shawn Levy’s “The King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis,” which I’ve long regarded as the best researched, the best written and probably the most honest portrait of the occasionally contentious Lewis. If you get hold of a paperback or Kindle copy, find the passages to do with Bob Crane — hair-raising. Or the business about Levy and Lewis in the epilogue, which, Levy says, “were so infamous that I’m told Marty Short spent an evening entertaining Tom Hanks and Paul Reiser at dinner doing impressions of Jerry from it.”
You also have to read Nick Tosches‘ rhapsodic, utterly brilliant “Dino: Living High In the Dirty Business of Dreams.”
I can’t sit here on a Sunday morning and tap out some brilliant, all-knowing, heart-touching essay on what a huge electrical energy force Lewis was for 20 years in the middle of the 20th Century. So I’m just going to paste some choice HE posts, starting with an excerpt from my one and only interview with the guy at the Stein Erickson hotel during the 1995 Sundance Film Festival and on through to my last in-person encounter when Lewis did a q & a at the Aero theatre to promote Daniel Noah’s Max Rose.
Posted on 5.1.13: “Jerry Lewis has long been regarded as a difficult man, but listen to him at this recent Tribeca Film Festival appearance. He’s 87 and yet he seems more engaged and feisty and crackling than the vast majority of his contemporaries. There’s something about old show-business buzzards. The scrappy survival instincts that helped them make it when young are the same qualities that keep them sharp in their doddering years. You don’t have to be a prick to be intellectually focused and alert (the elegant Norman Lloyd is in his late 90s and a beautiful man to speak with) but if given a choice between a state of advanced vegetation and being a Jerry Lewis type of old guy, I’d definitely go with the latter. I suspect that Lewis biographer Shawn Levy will go ‘hmmm’ when he reads this.”
From “No Hugs or Sorrows — I Prefer Jerry the Flinty Prick“, posted on 8.2.16: “What I’d really like to see is a story of 90-year-old Jerry Langford, the late-night talk show star who was kidnapped by Rupert Pupkin back in the early ’80s. Jerry is semi-retired but still plugging away, involved in real estate and other ventures, still playing golf, still on the cryptic and blunt side, still disdainful when the occasion requires and is no one’s idea of a gentle or lovable fellow. And yet he’s largely unbent and, for an old guy, still full of beans. And he’s nice with kids and dogs.
“Does ‘mean’ Mr. Langford feel badly about still being flinty and not all that considerate with each and every person he deals with? Okay, maybe, but he’s ecstatic about the fact that he’s alive and crackling and living a pretty good life for a guy born in 1926. He’s on Twitter and Facebook and owns over 300 Blurays. And he has a 79 year-old girlfriend that he “puts it to” every so often (i.e., extra-strength Cialis), and he rides a bicycle and walks two or three miles every day and lifts weights. Who needs love, kindness and forgiveness when you’ve got your health? Langford pushes on! But watch out when he’s in a bad mood.”
Lewis excerpt from 1995 Sundance Film Festival interview: “I sat down with Jerry Lewis to talk about Funny Bones. The interview happened at the Stein-Erickson. Right away you could feel the testy fear-factor vibe, but I enjoy that as it sharpens your game. Several people (publicists, etc.) were sitting and standing around us in a semi-circle; it was almost like we were performing.
“A year or two earlier I’d read and enjoyed Nick Tosches‘ ‘Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams’, so I asked Lewis if he’d read it. He had, he said, and I knew right away I’d stepped into it. The book was hurtful to a friend, he said, and that was the end of it. ‘Ask me something else,’ he said, steam literally hissing out of his head like a radiator, ‘before I get pissed.’”
“But I’ve always liked Lewis overall. He’s tough, shrewd, funny, been around, done it all, seen it all.”
From a riff about Scott Feinberg‘s interview with Lewis two or three years ago: “The best take-away is Lewis mentioning that he changes his socks four times day because it makes him feel renewed. Obviously an extravagant habit. To do that you’d have to own…what, at least 30 pairs of socks that you like? If you only owned 30 pairs you’d have to wash and dry them two or three times per week. If you owned 50 pairs you wouldn’t be such a slave to the wash cycle. I immediately decided to try a variation. Henceforth I’m a two-pairs-per-day man. Managable. Change in the late afternoon or early evening. Thanks to Lewis and Feinberg…seriously.”
Lewis excerpt from his appearance at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival: “Lewis is 87, and he’s still plenty sharp. I laughed out loud several times. He’s cruel and dismissive, okay, but he’s fucking funny.”
From Max Rose director Daniel Noah: “I wish I could say that our last chat was one of some consequence, but it wasn’t. We spoke often and usually only for a minute or two. But we did talk about his death many times over the years. Jerry was unafraid to contemplate it even as he joked that his plan was to live forever. I once asked him what he hoped they would say at his funeral, and without missing a beat he snapped, ‘Look — the sonuvabitch is still alive!'”