Jerry Lewis is 90 years old. I just watched “the most difficult Hollywood Reporter interview” with him and decided I’d better do this now. He appeared to have been interrupted. He seemed preoccupied, annoyed and willfully unsympathetic. (The exact opposite of a DeForest Kelley.) So at first I was put off … because I took on-board the interviewer’s predicament and pain.
But then I reconsidered…and thought about Jerry Lewis’s predicament and pain.
Perhaps he was simply channeling his most despicable alter ego, Buddy Love, Professor Julius S. Kelp’s “dark side” in his classic movie The Nutty Professor, to get a rise out of the hapless, seriously-unprepared interviewer who seems to be reading from a poorly-prepared script (his questions were generic and inane) because he appears to have no clue, really, as to who, exactly, Jerry Lewis is to those of us in our mid-60’s.
Jerry Lewis was the star of many of our favorite movies, half of the Martin and Lewis phenomenon that swept the nation and the world, the star of the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, and very often the guest host when Johnny Carson took a vacation. He was a powerhouse. A genius. The French revered him (and revere him still) as El Roi du Crazy… Hollywood? Not so much. Comedies never win awards. Ever noticed?
Jerry Lewis was the guy who could get us to “lay down our troubles and just get happy!” And now here was a young interviewer asking vanilla questions that could be answered with a “yes”, a “no”, or a “why?”. So Jerry complied.
Yawn. Infuriating. Frustrating. Hilarious! Was the interview a waste of time? Jerry’s, certainly. The viewers’? Well, it got me to write him a letter, so it certainly wasn’t a waste of my time!
While I was caring for DeForest Kelley, I met a man who worked with Jerry Lewis for more than thirty years. He described Jerry as “the kindest man I ever met.” He gave me a couple of examples to underscore his kindness, but since they were personal and private, I don’t feel comfortable sharing them here–but they did indicate to me that Jerry, while also entirely capable of being a real taskmaster when it comes to perfectionism and precision in cinema (like Barbra Streisand and one of my writing mentors, Ted Crail), when the chips are down you can count on him to come through for you and be your champion and benefactor when it matters most to the life, health and emotional well-being of your loved ones and/or yourself.
I respect people who respect their craft and their gift enough to be real hard asses about whatever goes out under their names, or anything else they put their hands to. That’s excellence. People with less-demanding druthers might think of the pursuit of excellence excessive when “good enough” is often all it takes to make money, but true creatives ask of their employees no less than they ask of themselves: their all-consuming very best.
In the book THAT KID: The Story of Jerry Lewis by Richard Gehman, I vividly recall an anecdote where Jerry Lewis said he was more willing to let go of a star performer than he was of someone less adept who he knew was doing his best, because “star performers will always be able to get work.”
In other words, Jerry felt responsible for supporting the people who were working for him and doing their best, as long as he knew they were in it, hammer and tong. When asked if this somewhat unorthodox philosophy didn’t make his work crews less stellar than they might otherwise be, I don’t recall how he actually responded–maybe nothing, maybe a sideways glance and a snide remark to indicate “twister of words!”–but what the anecdote meant to me was that Jerry Lewis had/has your back. And his movies were fabulous, so I think he always made the right decision when it came to keeping people around. What that anecdote shows me is heart and a gargantuan “employer’s soul”.
His hapless characters–except for the narcissistic Buddy Love and a few others–were usually inept souls whose hearts were in the right place but whose efforts were frequently laughable. Jerry seems to “get” that most people are doing their level best to “measure up” against what, at times, can seem to be insurmountable odds: there is always someone better, more adept, more confident than you and I think we are. It’s Jerry’s astutely-portrayed acknowledgment of our inner turmoil that endeared so many of his fans to him. We could watch, laugh, and think, “Thank God I’m not that woefully inept! There’s hope for me yet!”
I have no doubt that Jerry Lewis can be a real challenge at times, or that he’s an egotist–someone you definitely don’t want to get on the wrong side of. Comics who grew up playing the Catskill resorts and burlesque houses scrambled like mad to feed their families and keep roofs over their heads. There was little room for compromise; the biggest dogs (greatest talents) rose to the top and survived; the lesser lights failed, dying penniless and largely forgotten.
The thing that impresses me is that, once on top, Jerry Lewis took good care of the people he worked with. Again, Bill Welsh gave me examples that I can’t share here for privacy reasons.
A lot of times, difficult people are just making sure that we learn from them–and from our experiences with them–to do our best. (I hope the interviewer learned that one!) They aren’t trying to damage our souls, crush our spirits, or demean our skills; they’re dedicated to helping us become as great as they know we’re capable of being. And they weren’t given a manual on how to do that with tender-hearted finesse; they, too, are products of their upbringing in a hard-scrabble world.
But back to the original thread…
So I wrote to Jerry, sent him a copy of DeForest Kelley Up Close and Personal, and inscribed it “To Jerry Lewis, my OTHER Hollywood hero…”
I also told him about the one time I saw him “up close and personal” (he was onstage in Vegas; I was in the audience within 20 feet of him) and how devastated I was by the response he gave when I asked for a hug. Ever the entertainer and comic, he responded, “Last time I did that, I got a rash!” and scratched his crotch! I was a 25 year old virgin and I was mortified! I sat back down, FAST, as the audience roared!
Ever since then, I’ve had dreams several times a year about getting to finally meet him and let him know how his characters and his life story inspired me to keep on keepin’ on and getting better and better at what I do so that eventually I could become truly proud of it.
So last night I decided “Jerry is 90…the chance of meeting him will probably never come again…so I need to let him know how I feel, or I’ll regret it for the rest of my life after he passes…”
So that’s what I did.
I’m publishing this post because I want you to think of the people who have inspired and encouraged you (whether they know/knew it or not). I want to encourage you to write them a letter so you won’t regret it when they pass and you’re left with unspoken messages that could have brightened their days and lifted their spirits.
I know that literally millions of fans were devastated when De died, and they regretted never having told him how much he meant to them. Don’t let the same thing happen to you.
And don’t limit it to celebrities. Think of teachers, far-flung relatives who are still living, long-ago friends, and others whose memories fill your heart with gladness or other strong, positive emotions.
TELL THE PEOPLE YOU LOVE THAT YOU LOVE THEM BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!