- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 6, 2002

LAS VEGAS — Jerry Lewis gave a lavish party for himself at his Bel-Air estate on his 40th birthday in 1966. Although his films were panned by the critics, they made big money for Paramount and all the big shots were there.
Studio chief Barney Balaban announced grandly, "Just tell us what you want, and we'll give it to you." Without blinking, Mr. Lewis replied: "I would like the negatives of all my pictures after 30 years."
The executives agreed, and on his 70th birthday, the first negative arrived.
Since then, six studios have bought remake rights to Mr. Lewis' movies, no doubt motivated by Eddie Murphy's successful version of Mr. Lewis' 1963 comedy "The Nutty Professor." The movies and studios are "The Bellboy" (MGM), "The Errand Boy" (Disney), "Cinderfella" (New Line), "The Patsy" (Fox), "The Family Jewels" (Paramount) and "The Ladies' Man" (Columbia).
"I think it's nice that Hollywood recognizes what I did 40 years ago wasn't too bad," Mr. Lewis says in a slightly smug reference to his greater recognition abroad especially in France than at home.
At 76, Mr. Lewis and his legacy remain remarkably robust despite his penchant for controversy and a recent bout of severe back pain from "years of pratfalls" that had Mr. Lewis considering suicide.
The irrepressible clown, filmmaker and fund-raiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) just keeps going and going not unlike the pain-blocking batteries now implanted near his spine.
Mr. Lewis is preparing for this year's MDA telethon, has a 20-year contract to entertain at the Orleans Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and occasionally hits the lecture circuit.
He has no plans to make any new films, but he does have options to appear in the remakes, as he did in "The Nutty Professor."
Mr. Lewis also has a $1.5 million contract with Random House for a memoir about his storied and stormy partnership with Dean Martin. He started writing the book in 1996 and has completed about 1,300 pages, which he estimates is just one-third of the story. Movie rights have been sold to HBO.
Mr. Lewis, his wife, SanDee (known as Sam), and their 10-year-old daughter, Danielle (nicknamed Danny), live on a shady street not far from the Las Vegas Strip. The two-story family home is spacious but not as grand as the palaces Jerry occupied in his Hollywood heyday. (He was married to band singer Patty Palmer from 1944 to 1981, and they raised five sons.)
His haven is the office, which has walls and shelves covered with photographs of him with celebrities, caricatures and paintings of him in clown's makeup and costume, and family photos.
When Mr. Lewis breezes into the office, the first impression is a shock. His cheeks are puffed out twice their usual size. He also lacks the slimness of his prime. He says one of his medicines has caused the excess poundage.
His voice is strong and exuberant, but he seems more serious than in previous interviews; not once did the squeaky, little-boy character emerge. His gravity is perhaps understandable. In the past couple years, Mr. Lewis has been plagued by devastating physical ills.
The low point came several months ago when his back pain grew so intense that he could not sleep. He also began to lose his eyesight and could not walk more than a few feet. Medical help, including morphine, was unavailing, and Mr. Lewis plunged into a deep depression.
"I really thought about what gun I was going to use," he says.
The turning point came as a result of a daily ritual he and daughter Danny have. Each afternoon they discuss the events of the day, and he often gives her a new word to learn. One day last year it was "courage."
On an afternoon in March, Danny found her father at his lowest ebb body slumped, head bowed.
"Daddy," she said, "you're going to get better if you start using your courage."
"When she hit me with that line, I felt like I was struck by something from heaven," Mr. Lewis recalls. "It turned my mental attitude right around."
He consulted Dr. Michael DeBakey, the famed Houston heart surgeon who performed the first implantation of an artificial heart in 1966 and Mr. Lewis' life-saving double-bypass in 1982. Dr. DeBakey, still practicing at 93, suggested implantation of a new device from Medtronic Inc., the Minneapolis company that invented the heart pacemaker.
Mr. Lewis had surgery April 8 in Houston to have a battery-powered pulse generator implanted. Two wires deliver electronic impulses from the device to the spinal cord, where electrodes are embedded to stop the pain from going to the brain. When Mr. Lewis left the hospital five days later, he was able to walk down a 200-yard corridor.
"I have been pain-free for the first time in 49 years," He says. "I can raise the stimulator for when I want the pain to go away." He could not resist adding: "It also opens my garage."
Two years ago, Mr. Lewis flew to Australia to perform 28 sold-out concerts from Sydney to Perth. At the sixth stop, he went to the hotel bathroom during the night and for the first time in his life, he fainted.
His wife heard him fall and called for an ambulance. At the hospital, doctors suspected spinal meningitis, and they tapped his spine. Later Sam told him: "If the ambulance had been 10 minutes late, you'd have been gone."
He returned to Las Vegas and fought repeated nausea. The Labor Day telethon was six weeks away, and no one thought he would make it. He did. Medicines and injections helped quell the meningitis, and he was able to perform for "my kids," although he had to return to his dressing room for oxygen after only eight minutes onstage.
In May 2001, Mr. Lewis performed a concert before 20,000 in Chicago. Afterward he couldn't catch his breath. He took a red-eye flight back home and his condition worsened. He flew to Houston, where Dr. DeBakey told him the diagnosis: pulmonary fibrosis, an increase of fibrous tissue in the lungs.
Mr. Lewis was assigned nine doctors to handle his case, including one for diabetes, a condition he developed five years ago.
It could be another year before the lungs heal completely.
As evidenced by the litter in his office, the Martin and Lewis book is Jerry's consuming interest. It promises to be a mostly affectionate view of the partnership that began in an Atlantic City nightclub in 1946 and ended in bitterness 10 years later on a Hollywood sound stage.
"I'm able to show who the real genius of that act was," Mr. Lewis says, meaning Mr. Martin. "I got all the credit for it 'Jerry this,' 'Jerry that.' How my partner took 10 years of that I'll never know. Probably because he was strong. He had pretty good feelings of self-worth; he was able to handle it until he couldn't take it anymore."
Has Mr. Mercurial mellowed with age? Could this be the same jilted Jerry who didn't speak to Mr. Martin for years after Dean walked out on him? Is this the same surly showman whose sharp tongue has repeatedly embroiled him in controversy, whether its feuding with fellow performers and former studios, or lashing out at anyone who criticizes him?
In 1992, Mr. Lewis' charitable crusade, which has raised nearly $2 billion to date, came under fire for portraying muscular dystrophy patients as "nothing but objects of charity, forever dependent and forever with a hand out."
Mr. Lewis replied angrily that the accusers were a small minority who "confuse compassion with pity." He was so incensed over claims of "pity mongering," he announced he would no longer host the telethon. He rescinded his threat in time for the 1993 event.
Two years ago, Mr. Lewis stunned an audience gathered to honor his work in Aspen, Colo., by saying that he did not like female comics and that he viewed a woman as "a producing machine" for children.
But through it all, he fully intends to keep on going, perhaps breaking fellow comic George Burns' longevity mark of 100 years.
A more realistic goal involves Mr. Lewis' daughter.
"She has infused my life with a spirit I've never known could prevail," he says. "My sons were very important to me, but not like that. I need 12 more years. I need to see her graduate from college. I need to walk her down the aisle. Then I'll say, 'God, I'm ready to do what you want.'"


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