The Labors of Jerry
Joseph (though some say 'Jerome') Levitch was born in Newark, New Jersey on March 16, 1926, approximately ten years before Leo, the MGM lion, passed away and was buried in nearby Gillette (later, Cheetah, the chimp featured in many Tarzan films, would also be buried there). His parents were entertainers and he would need the courage of a lion to follow them. Okay, so maybe he didn’t roar when the doctor spanked his bottom, but the baby, who would later go by the stage-name of Jerry Lewis, probably made a funny noise which caused the doctor to drop him. [Note: That Jerry was dropped on his head as a child continues to be a plausible explanation for his behavior, though why French audiences appreciate him remains a mystery.] After the birth his mother, Rae, surely breathed a sigh of relief and accomplishment, but the labors of Jerry were just beginning.
Those who think they possess what it takes to be an entertainer have always been a so-called “dime-a-dozen.” As with the mythical hydra who would regrow a couple of heads after one had been cut off, there have always been those willing to take to the stage after someone else had just bombed. In 1931 young Jerry, at just five years of age, like some annoying crab on a beach nipping at the feet of any who walked by, pestered his Vaudeville father, Danny, to have a go at the applause. Someone in the Big Upstairs laughed. Though not immediately, his annoying shtick was eventually rewarded in lights–he became a star!
They say everyone has a twin somewhere in the world. Well, maybe not an exact twin, sometimes an opposite, but everyone has a partner if they’re smart enough to look. Jerry found his partner in 1946 with Dean Martin (born Dino Paul Crocetti in Steubenville, OH). One was suave, the other wasn’t. Many times over their ten years together the applause was deafening, as these sons of thunder excelled in radio, films, and on the stage.
Why they dissolved their team in 1956 remains a mystery (Jerry, as stubborn as bull, refuses to disclose a reason), but the next several years were exceptionally good for both of their solo careers. Jerry starred in 1957 as George Baker’s comic-strip misfit, The Sad Sack, originally a Martin and Lewis project, and continued making successful comedies with Paramount Pictures, culminating with 1964's The Nutty Professor, a film some regard as a masterpiece.
In 1966 Jerry started hosting the MDA telethons, a tradition which is now synonymous with Labor Day and the end of summer. [Note: Martin and Lewis appeared on the very first MDA telethon in 1952.] The Viet Nam War era inspired many (i.e., John Lennon in How I Won The War, and Louie Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World!”), and Jerry was no exception, contributing Which Way To The Front? in 1970, a film which was swept away and ignored in America, but earned Jerry another 'Best Director' award in Europe.
Jerry’s success in Europe continued, however American audiences (other than at his Vegas shows or the annual MDA telethon) were getting bored with his shtick. Some would say those gentle kisses of public favor ceased with the Saturday morning cartoon program, Would The Real Jerry Lewis Please Sit Down? (1970, rerun in 1971 and 1972). American fans can often be as flighty as birds, so Jerry began to turn more and more to the French. It was an arrangement that worked; Americans didn’t seem to mind sharing Jerry with the French.
Well, as long as he continued doing the telethons. Staying up with Jerry during the telethons became a personal challenge with me in the ‘70s. Most years I was successful and could stay awake to see him, usually sometime between 3am and 4am, lose his temper with the television audience and start yelling at them to call and pledge money. Then he'd split for awhile to go take a shower and come back drinking a glass of water, a milkshake, or something else. The “something else” goes along with the troubling rumor he was so whacked on Percodan painkillers in 1976, that he doesn’t have a good memory of Frank Sinatra dragging Dean Martin on stage, marking the first time in twenty years Martin and Lewis had appeared on stage together. I remember it well. I remember feeling embarrassed as I got choked up at the sight of a bunch of old guys on tv. It’s still embarrassing.
Young goats get to be old goats by modifying their behavior. In 1982, after a massive heart attack and triple-bypass heart surgery, Jerry changed a couple of his bad habits so as to extend his shelf life. Some are inspired by religion, love, or career, but it takes a dedicated professional to smoke like a chimney, be a lush, a pill-popper, a cranky SOB, and not die or be killed. Jerry Lewis is a dedicated professional and chose to live.
The next year he hit his mark when he co-starred with Robert Deniro in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. Lewis played a talk-show host who’s kidnaped by stalkers, a concept which appealed to audiences (and was a Twilight Zone preview episode for Jerry’s future stalking problems). The movie remains watchable and should be highly regarded if for no other reason than Lewis made it through the whole film without making funny noises and faces. Maturity was setting in.
Making good on their long whispered threat, the French awarded Jerry with their Legion of Honor medal in 1984. America may have had a sunset for Jerry’s goofball persona, but in France he was considered a genius. Someday the French will be held accountable. We’ll add it to the list.
The scales tip one way, then another, and bad apples will eventually crop up in the bushels. 1989 through 1995 proved to be troublesome years for Jerry, as he was stalked and threatened. Finally, after much litigation, the stalker was sent off to jail. It may have been one of the high points in his year, but the lowest was probably the passing of Dean, after a nurse gave him a glass of water. Water? We know what fish do in water...
Things have kind of gone to Hell for Jerry lately. He’s playing the Devil in a revival of Damn Yankees, the guy who stalked him and went to jail was released, wrote a death threat, went back to jail, and recently died mysteriously in his cell. Also, Jerry’s post-King of Comedy persona (read: “I’m rich, the French love me, I produced Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor, so I can say what I want...) and his interactions with the media have had mixed results. Oh, he gets awards and keeps his mouth shut, but occasionally when he’s interviewed he says some things about handicapped people that have made some question the guy’s sincerity and motivation. It’s one thing to be a loudmouth and a jerk on stage and get paid for it, but another when its’s public and personal and unfortunately true. Jerry has said some really dumb things and he says he's sorry for some of them.
I could only bring myself to watch a few minutes of Jerry at the beginning of this year's telethon, and the last five minutes of the national broadcast, before Ed introduced the tote-board changing to a final $56,780,603. Jerry looked tired, ill, on the verge of crying, and perhaps fearful of wheelbound activists breaking into the studio. I hope he ceases his labors and passes along the hosting duties soon. He’s done his share.
getting some sleep,