On a recent afternoon, comedy legend Jerry Lewis cracked open a diet soda and
dimmed the lights inside a casino ballroom to drink in the spectacle of Charlie
Chaplin impersonating Hitler.
A scene from Chaplin’s 1940 Nazi satire The
Great Dictator flickered across a bank of monitors, part of a video montage
Lewis was editing together for his signature cause, the Muscular Dystrophy Assn.
The 21-hour annual event has raised $2.45 billion for “Jerry’s
kids” to date; its 45th edition kicks off on some 170 television stations Sunday
Watching Chaplin spoof the Fuhrer as a powerdrunk buffoon, Lewis
alternately howled with laughter and provided a master class commentary
Chaplin’s filmmaking “genius” and the balletic brilliance of his
“You’re getting the opportunity to see greatness here,” the
comedian said to a quartet of digital video editors in the room.
then, Lewis’ filmmaking know-how and funny guy skill-set were on
display as well. He cracked curmudgeonly jokes, barked orders on how to
the film and made critical observations about Chaplin’s “continuity” and
blocking. The kind of thing you pick up after writing and directing more
dozen films and starring in scores more.
Television’s most venerable
telethon host entered Living Legend territory long ago and his comedy
– particularly in his partnership with Dean Martin throughout the ’40s
– paved the way for absurdist jokemeisters such as Andy Kaufman, Jim
Jack Black. But at age 84, Lewis isn’t just sliding by on past triumphs.
December, Lewis said, he will go back in front of the camera for the
drama Max Rose
, his first
starring movie role in a quarter-century.
still crisscrosses the country by private jet to perform 2-hour stand-up
dozen times a year.
And November 2011 will mark the performer’s ambitious
Broadway musical adaptation of his landmark comedy The Nutty
The elastic-faced movie star is simply unwilling to let senior
citizen status limit him to fundraising for muscular dystrophy, the
term for debilitating neuromuscular diseases affecting more than 1
Americans, though he makes it clear that remains at the top of his
“Being old doesn’t mean you've lost your spirit. And that’s what
this is about,” Lewis said, hunching forward in his chair at Las Vegas’
Point Hotel and Casino to make his point.
“It's spirit and energy and the
desire to do good work for people who don’t stand a chance if I
Nonetheless, Lewis feels pressure to fulfill his mission before
his final curtain call.
“I have to finish what I’ve started,” he said. “I
want to do it before I leave.”
THESE DAYS Lewis scoots to his
appointments on a Rascal scooter and likes to literally ride circles
those in his employ. He has ascended the pinnacle of showbiz over a
60-year run as a stand-up comediansinger-
and TV star.
Named a commander in the French Legion of Honor in 2006,
he’s still a subject of national adulation in such countries as Japan
Australia; Lewis won the Jean Hersholt Oscar for his humanitarian
2009 and has even been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his work as
chairman of the MDA.
He’s got two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and
has also lived to see his accomplishments memorialized in the CBS TV
Martin and Lewis
, as well as
his backlog of television work such as The
and The Jerry Lewis
rereleased on DVD.
But along the
way, he also has suffered a litany of health problems, many related to
Besides prostate cancer, diabetes and open-heart
surgery, there’s the nasty case of viral meningitis Lewis got performing
Australia, pulmonary fibrosis thanks to his longtime five-pack-a-day
habit (Lewis ballooned up to 280 pounds for several years consequent to a
medicine he took for the condition), chronic back pain from chipping his
during a pratfall at the Sands Casino, as well as accompanying bouts of
addiction to prescription painkillers and even suicidal depression.
was horizontal for five years,” Lewis explained of his battle with
fibrosis. “Now, when someone says, ‘How are you?’ I say, ‘I’m vertical!
better than that?’” Just days after the telethon, the performer will fly
York City to begin casting 70 parts for the Broadway adaptation of his Nutty
– the 1963 Jekyll and Hyde comedy that Lewis wrote,
starred in that young fans may more readily associate with Eddie
Multiple Oscar-winner Marvin Hamlisch and Grammy- nominee Rupert
Holmes are handling scoring duties for the musical. And after six weeks
rehearsals, its cast will relocate to San Diego’s Old Globe Theater,
production will premiere.
Then in December, production is set to begin on
the independent feature Max Rose
the performer’s first movie part since his
supporting role in the 1995 dramedy Funny
. To hear Lewis explain the plot
– which he insists is not “saccharine” – his personal convergence with
character becomes abundantly clear.
“It’s about an 85-year-old man who’s
not allowing time to dictate his life,” he explained. “He’s struggling a
But he’s so upbeat, he takes all the people in his life and makes them
They are near him and their lives are punctuated with an energy and
Alternating between trash-talking and tenderness,
sweetness and snark, conversation about Lewis’ future endeavors
star to consider what had brought him here – and the fleeting nature of
“Funny is fragile. It’s elusive,” Lewis said. “It’s elusive to
everyone because you're never going to get a handle on what’s funny. And
don’t stay funny. As we get older, we lose a spark.”
“But I can make
somebody laugh when I open my eyes. It’s still there when I shut them,”
“You count your blessings. And while you do, a tremendous
humility comes over you. It’s something that happens to you. I’ve been
keep those happenings fresh.”
Last year’s telethon saw the performer haul
in $60.5 million for his cause. And it’s clear his “kids” are his
He wears his deep identification with muscular dystrophy
sufferers on his sleeve. But it raises the question: How did Lewis
interested in the disease in the first place? “That’s never been
answered by me
and never will be!” Lewis snapped, suddenly bristling with
“The important thing is not why, but that I do.”–
Los Angeles Times/MCT