King of comedy Jerry Lewis died last Sunday at his home in Las Vegas at 91.
Lewis was 54 when I interviewed him by phone (reproduced below). I was young, inexperienced, and didn’t realise his well-considered answers would not be so typical of stars I’d later interview. I thought chatting to big names would always be this easy.
As the ’60s and ’70s drew to a close, taking with it all those lightweight slapsticky comedies, the comic genius faced some tough decisions and two tough projects. Ultimately, the one would make him bigger than ever with moviegoers. The other became the bane of the rest of his life.
The first choice was to go completely straight. He’d been the highest-paid actor in Hollywood and – thanks to his extraordinary European following, mainly France – the world. But films were changing. He’d have to, too.
There wasn’t a pratfall, not even a sight gag, when he played TV host Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, stalked by Robert de Niro. It was one of the first films to newly examine celebrity. He played it dead straight, and the film was huge for all involved.
The other project was a doomed labour of love, The Day the Clown Cried, about a circus clown, Lewis, imprisoned by the Nazis who goes with Jewish children to their deaths in a camp. It blended comedy and tragedy, a mix even Lewis worried about. He worked on it for 10 years before shooting it in 1972. He lost 40 pounds to play the role and it affected him so deeply he had at least 20 breakdowns during filming.
For the rest of his life he refused to discuss it. As recently as 2008 he snapped at a reporter who asked when it’d be released: 'None of your goddamn business!'
It was shot in Stockholm but the producer ran out of money and Lewis had to pay to finish it off. Then a writer filed suit for not being paid and the film remains tied up in litigation to this day.
Lewis gave the only copy of the film to the Library of Congress with the stipulation it not be screened until 2025. And for the rest of his life he refused to discuss it. As recently as 2008 he snapped at a reporter who asked when it’d be released: “None of your goddamn business!”
I didn’t know all this when I asked him about the film, in passing, when I spoke to him for the Australian release of Hardly Working. I had no idea how close to the edge I was sailing.
He had a reputation for eating the press. He’d planned a press junket here but this got changed when a chronic back ailment flared up. Even up to the moment he came to the phone the PR had warned us there was no guarantee he’d talk. He’d already cancelled one complete round of phoners for this.
I was first in the queue. He did talk, and we got on well. For lots of reasons, to me he’ll always be king. Here's the interview:
Hardly Working – that’s the ironic title of Jerry Lewis’s new movie and it could hardly be more apt. He’s working as hard as ever at his movie comeback after a decade away. “I worked three years last year,” he said, by phone from his office in Los Angeles.
The familiar pratfalls, sight gags and one-liners in the movie suggest he’s still enjoying performing so much you could hardly call it working. “I’m very satisfied and very excited about my new work.’”
It’s the first of three films he’s made to mark his return to movies, the others being The King of Comedy, made by “that marvellous director” Martin Scorsese and Robert de Niro, and Slapstick of Another Kind, written by Kurt Vonnegut. And he’s working on a fourth, Smorgasbord [ultimately released as Cracking Up] which will see him in six or seven different roles.
His last-released film was Which Way to the Front? a decade ago which had marked the way to the back. “When I saw it double-billed with [infamous porn film] Deep Throat I could see which way the business was going.”
Why the long break? “I was just waiting for them to clean out some of the theatres,” he said, half joking.
Producers’ preoccupation with nudity and sex concerned him. You once famously said: “Sex is not a spectator sport. It’s fine in a hotel room but not in a cinema.” Your thoughts now? “Not diminished at all. In fact, they’re stronger.”
His one effort at making a film during his decade away was frustrated from the start. It was, ironically, The Day the Clown Cried. “It’s sitting in Sweden along with two of Ingmar Bergman’s films. We’re told that the French and Swedish producers are going to shake hands again and we’ll be able to get our work finished.” But he’s obviously not holding his breath.
Lewis had offered Australian Chips Rafferty the part of a pompous military officer. “Chips had a tremendous sense of humour. And he always looked marvellously fit.”
But they never worked together. Hours after Lewis offered him the role Rafferty died of a heart attack. “I was shattered when I heard. It was a loss to everybody, not only to Australia.”
“You know, I love Australia. I love it every time I go there. I had a marvellous time in Hobart – the audiences there were super. But Australian audiences have always been marvellous to me. You can say that in your article. Not like the headline i got after playing one of the clubs in this country. They said I died on stage. I suppose you’ll use that line in your headline now, won’t you?” I promised to think about it, worried the subs would have other ideas. [They did.]
Australian audiences are quicker than American audiences. You know, this is not like telling someone from a place how swell that place is. Let me make that very clear.
How are we different to Americans? ”I think you’re quicker.” I said some visiting performers find us hard to crack. “Well, I think that’s the entertainer’s problem. I’m telling you the laughs they come for me and I find Australians very quick. You know, this is not like telling someone from a place how swell that place is. Let me make that very clear.
“And that’s one of the things where truth is terribly important because you can’t fool an audience. If you’re not happy to be there they’re gonna spot it. I was thrilled with your audiences and their treatment of me was terrific. I’m going to make it my business to come back, I promise you.
“One thing I’ll never do again there is drink a glass of beer after I’ve played nine holes of golf. I got splashed on two little glasses of beer – then they told me it was much stronger than ours! When I was trying to putt on the 10th hole I knew how strong it was!”
Has he seen any Australian films? “A couple. I saw the big one, the Breaker – what was it called? [Morant] – when it first came out and I loved it. I sure would like to make a movie in your country. Would I have to work with a pouch?”
He prides himself on versatility – acting,writing, directing and producing. “Oh, yeah, I do it all. As long as there’s an audience.”
Favourite moments with an audience? “You haven’t got that much time for me to tell you. One particular thing that stands out is the London Palladium, playing for the Queen. I was a nervous wreck. I’m told I did a super show but I can’t remember what I did, I was too nervous. But it’s the audience that makes you good.
“It’s a marvellous feeling to be in awe of someone or something and to perform that way. It’s much better that way because it’s real and it’s honest. And that’s very important for me. I think that you can be a good enough actor to fool an audience but that’s not the purity of performing. I think an audience knows. I don’t know how they do, but they do.”
There are three things that are real – God, human folly and laughter. Since the first two are beyond our comprehension we must do the best we can with the third.John F. Kennedy
Ever dried on stage? “Oh, yes, many times. Sometimes that’s the most fun and I let the audience know I’ve run out. When you’re up there you’re a hell of a target and you better come up with something. But it doesn’t happen for long. If it happens it’s momentary. It’s a terrible feeling simply because you black out and you never know what the reasons are.”
John F. Kennedy gave him a plaque that read: “There are three things that are real – God, human folly and laughter. Since the first two are beyond our comprehension we must do the best we can with the third.”
Are those first two things still beyond you? “I think they’re both beyond all our comprehension. Without doubt. So I do the best I can with the third. I don’t think there are many alternatives. If we ever needed it, we do today.”
He made me promise to send him a copy of the published story, gave me his address and we hung up. He didn’t take any of the other press calls he was booked to do. I got the only interview.
A month later he sent me a letter:
Dear Ian, thank you so much for sending me the copy of our interview AS PROMISED, which I have received and really enjoyed reading. Thank you for quoting me EXACTLY word for word, just the way I said it. That is such a RARE treat! God bless, Jerry