“Don’t say the swell stuff over my grave,” said Jerry Lewis, “I want to hear it now. Tell me now.”
Most of us would like that. And how much would we want to hear it? Probably not as much as Jerry Lewis. He really needed it. As he said: “People who have had enough ‘good boy baby’ from their parents rarely turn to comedy”. His parents were show-business scrabblers, always moving from place to place. They didn’t see him much, he didn’t have playmates; he was teased at school. At his barmitzvah, only his grandmother came.
This is not in itself a guarantee of a career bringing riches and adulation but for Lewis it was a start. He had the hunger. He also had epoch-making talent that fed on the past and seeded the future. Crazy, shape-changing comedian Jim Carrey is his offspring, fast-talking mind-blowing Robin Williams his follower. And there are many more.
Lewis’s partnership with Dean Martin that took them both from the bottom to the top was unlike any other. Never did two such different types come together: “the playboy and the putz,” Lewis called it. Martin was gorgeous — handsome, relaxed, cool, adult, with a voice and a style that could charm the birds out of the trees. Lewis was frantic, gauche, noisy, annoying, childish, an absolute putz. On US television they were superstars and with their films they delighted millions of adults and kids on both sides of the Atlantic.
On YouTube there is a recording of their whole act at the Copacabana in New York in 1954. It is, as Orson Welles said, “to die for” — Martin so smooth, Lewis totally unhinged. Together they are irresistible.
Eventually, they broke up. It was bound to happen. Martin became more and more relaxed, wished to play more golf, Lewis got hungrier and hungrier, wanted to work harder, wanted more of the spotlight. Always extremely emotional, he talked in terms of love for Dean and mourning at their break-up. “You can talk about love all you want,” said Martin, “ to me you’re nothing but a dollar sign.”
Lewis would have been a very tiring and demanding lover. He could never get enough. In 1960 he owned 88 tuxedos (with gold buttons); sexless on stage, off it (though married) he was insatiable. He had an affair with Marilyn Monroe, among very many others.
He also turned down the role in Some Like It Hot that Jack Lemmon took. Lemmon was duly grateful. He sent a gift each year with a message starting: “Dear Shmuck.”
Lewis’s talent and creative urges and his lust for recognition, demanded something far more ambitious and demanding. He didn’t change his putz/klutz persona but he became writer/director/producer/star of his own films, master of his own universe.
His best film by far is The Nutty Professor and, gosh, nearly 55 years on, it’s tremendously good. It’s a comedy of course, but if you don’t find it funny it doesn’t matter because it’s brilliant in lots of other ways. It’s a terrific piece of work — it’s touching, there’s genuine suspense, much of the camera work and editing is brilliant, it has edginess and sentimentality, sharpness and softness.
In this gloss on the Jekyll and Hyde story, Lewis is the goofy-teethed, weird-voiced, physically dysfunctional chemistry teacher Professor Kelp who transitions into the bombastic, ludicrously smooth, lady-killing, singing sex-bomb Buddy Love.
Some thought Buddy Love was him lampooning Dean Martin — Lewis denied it. He said it was an amalgam of hideous types he had met in the business. You may decide it’s closer to home than that — isn’t Kelp/Love Jerry Lewis himself?
In America, many of Lewis’s films were hits and he was a crazy comic but in France intellectual cineastes hailed him a genius and Docteur Jerry et Mister Love a masterpiece. The great critic and film-maker Jean-Luc Godard said: “He was the only American director who has made progressive films…he’s much better than Chaplin and Keaton.” At home, he was famous; in France, he was revered.
Few made a more sustained contribution to charity than Lewis with his Labour Day muscular dystrophy telethon. He did it for 44 years. But he was always an angry man. In a chilling appearance on an early Joan Rivers chat show in 1968 he talks enthusiastically and at length about punishing his son with a leather belt. Decades later he denied it and, stung by her quips, he said he had never met her.
Lewis was never comfortable. In public appearances in old age he complained about everything and was often sharp and unkind, attacking elderly fans with insults. Perhaps he didn’t mean to be unkind. Perhaps he did. As a kid in the Catskills he had learnt to mix it and to kibitz, and nothing inhibits a kibitzer.