- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 7, 2004

Jerry Lewis is having the last laugh. There was a time when the comic legend’s brand of physical clowning seemed superannuated, rendered obsolete by a new style of topical, socially conscious stand-up. Originally personified in the early ‘60s by Lenny Bruce, the new style gained momentum through the ‘60s and ‘70s with the success of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Robert Klein and others.

By the ‘80s, what the late Bruce had begun seemed to reach its inevitable culmination in the edgy, confessional, R-rated monologues of Sam Kinison and Eddie Murphy.

Then, somewhere on the road to obsolescence, the art of Jerry Lewis received an acknowledgment almost too poetically just to be true.

None other than Eddie Murphy himself revived his own becalmed movie career with a hit remake of … Mr. Lewis’ “The Nutty Professor” (1963), the Jekyll and Hyde comedy that many consider the chef-d’oeuvre of his solo film career.

Now, on Tuesday, Paramount Home Entertainment re-releases the original Lewis version on DVD with a nifty spit polish and added commentary tracks featuring the writer/director/star — that’s auteur in French. At the same time, Paramount is releasing another 10 Lewis features on DVD for the first time.

In a happy coincidence of timing, director and film historian Peter Bogdanovich provides a personally fond, fascinating and professionally admiring look back at Mr. Lewis’ long career in his critically praised new compilation of personal interviews with Hollywood stars, “Who the Hell’s In It?”

After a long period of neglect, Mr. Lewis seems to be getting, at the tender age of 78, a belated second chance to make a first impression.

At Mr. Lewis’ peak, club owners shelled out $40,000 for a night’s worth of his patented pratfalls. He co-starred with his suave straight man Dean Martin in 16 hit films during the 10-year reign of the Martin and Lewis duo at the pinnacle of American comedy. After Mr. Lewis went solo, he signed a 1959 movie deal with Paramount Pictures giving him $10 million, plus 60 percent of the profits for 14 films over a seven-year span.

In the long years since his astonishingly successful postwar run, Mr. Lewis has suffered derision — and far worse — for his decades of physically dangerous slapstick. He has fought a decades-long battle with chronic pain, a fight he unintentionally started with his earliest gags. Prior to his 2003 annual Muscular Dystrophy Telethon appearance, he ballooned to a weight that left him unrecognizable due to steroids treating his pulmonary fibrosis.

During a visit to the District late last month, Mr. Lewis showed no signs of tossing in the towel despite his myriad ailments.

Now performing in his eighth decade, Mr. Lewis vows “I’m gonna beat George Burns, I promise you.” He also plans to executive produce five remakes based on his film catalog.

While he is still much heavier than the whippet-thin comic we first met in the 1940s, he has lost much of that alarming bulk on view on the 2003 telethon. His face is ruddy and alive, his conversation hurtles forward like a steam locomotive that has reached top speed.

He’s living proof of the healing power of laughter. And its staying power.

“When you create laughter or give some, [the audience] places you somewhere back here in the memory bank, and you’re there forever,” Mr. Lewis says, solemnly pointing to the back of his head.

Mr. Lewis earned his place in the collective memory the hard way, stumbling over nearly every object in sight. He says his craft is easier said than performed, one reason physical comedy has fallen out of favor.

“It’s hard to do and do it well,” he says. “You’re born with it, that’s why my Dad called me ‘Bones,’ meaning comedy is in the bones.”

Those bones proved too brittle for the constant pounding his physical shtick demanded. One wonders: Could a producer afford the premiums to insure a latter-day Lewis in today’s litigious climate?

Mr. Lewis’ District visit found him teaming with Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican, to promote legislation that, in part, would establish a National Center for Pain and Palliative Care Research at the National Institutes of Health.

* * *

Few born after the baby boom have an inkling of the breadth and depth of Jerry Lewis’ work. To these products of comedy’s Ironic Age, Mr. Lewis is no more than the schmaltzy old showbiz trooper and cornball do-gooder of his annual Muscular Dystrophy telethons.

But in their day, Martin and Lewis ruled Hollywood in a manner unheard of in today’s fickle environment. Movies, nightclubs, television — name a medium, they conquered it.

Mr. Lewis went on to write, direct and produce many of his own films after their split, taught graduate-level film direction at the University of Southern California and spurred innovations in moviemaking involving lighting and camera techniques, many of which are illuminated in Mr. Bogdanovich’s book.

The American mass audience gobbled up his nebbishy screen persona, but critical enthusiasm has been far greater overseas — most famously in France — than at home. Boosters abroad have compared him to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Stateside, however, two of America’s highest honors — the Oscar and the Kennedy Center Honors — have eluded him.

And wasn’t the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor made to celebrate performers of Mr. Lewis’ stature?

“Are the Honors coming? I have no idea, but there’s certainly a reason for it,” he hints, a little darkly, while refusing to dish further on the subject.

He’s consoled by his 1977 Nobel Peace Prize nomination, which he calls his “Holy Grail.”

Jerry Lewis, the man, is a far more complex creation than any of his on-screen roles. Watch him on any given telethon and see a mixture of humanitarian and rampaging ego. Cue up the commentary tracks on the new “Nutty” DVD and hear him sound defensive about being labeled “difficult,” ticking off Paul Newman and James Cagney as fellow “difficult” actors who never caught flak for the label.

Born Jerry Levitch in Newark, N.J., in 1926, Mr. Lewis couldn’t help but perform. His parents traveled the countryside on the vaudeville circuit, and they quickly let a 5-year-old Jerry join the act. He often spent winters with relatives while his parents toured the country.

He kept performing, supporting himself with menial jobs, until a handsome crooner named Dean Martin suggested Mr. Lewis fill in when another act abruptly quit a gig at Atlantic City’s 500 Club. The rubber-limbed lad did as asked, and while the two performed separately at first, they decided one night to team up for an impromptu set of song and banter.

“My theatrical know-it-all told me we got lightning in a bottle,” he says. “I didn’t know I was right, but by the third night I knew it.

“We came right on the heels of a war — this country was hungry for laughter, for friendship, to see two people love one another and get paid to have a good time,” he says.

Their onstage antics hid the acrimony simmering beneath the surface, a mutual resentment and discomfort that boiled over 10 years after their first night onstage together.

Mr. Lewis, tired of their infighting, decided to go out on top and ended the union.

Rather than rest on his riches, he embarked, gingerly at first, on a solo career. Thanks to 1957’s modest hit, “The Delicate Delinquent,” he picked up almost where his first career had left off.

He enjoyed a string of hits that continued through much of the 1960s. In 1966, he took time out to host his first Labor Day telethon to help fight muscular dystrophy, beginning a Herculean run that eclipses his comedy career in the eyes of many.

The 1970s witnessed a near career collapse for the comic auteur as the film work dried up. His feature about a clown who led children to the gas chambers during World War II, “The Day the Clown Cried,” never saw the light of a cinema projector. His advancing age made pratfall gags less appealing.

Recent years witnessed a few mini-comebacks. He earned raves for his role in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” and stole the show in a 1995 revival of “Damn Yankees” — which last brought him to the District — a show that played up his improv strengths.

Through all the tumult, his chronic pain remained an unwelcome companion.

For years, his rigorous performing schedule blocked much of the pain for him.

“Adrenaline saved me, natural adrenaline,” says Mr. Lewis. “I’d go on stage for two hours, no pain. Curtain comes down, and I needed to be helped to my dressing room.”

In 2002, doctors surgically implanted a device that blocks the pain signals from his spinal cord to his brain. The procedure doesn’t work for everyone and the body could still reject the implant, but, for the past two-plus years, Mr. Lewis claims to be “born again.”

Mr. Lewis has strong opinions about the current comedy scene.

Today’s comics, he says, seem more intent on impressing us with their wit than making us chuckle.

“I call what they’re doing cerebral combat,” he explains. “They’re trying to beat their audience with their intellect. They forgot a vital detail: Be funny. Then, if you wanna make a statement and be part of the culture, fine. But score first.”

Mr. Lewis briefly previewed his forthcoming autobiography, titled “Dean and Me: A Love Story.”

“The secrets I tell in it are funny, and they’re heartwarming,” he says. “There’s a lot of pathos.”

On balance the career regrets are few.

“Everything I’ve done I’ve done proudly,” he says. “I’ve done it with the best energy and the most joy in the creative process, and I’d love to do it all again and do it better.”

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