The Kid Grows Up
By Tom Blair
It was exactly a half-century ago that "The Kid" invaded the American consciousness. Teamed with a handsome Italian crooner who redefined cool, Jerry Lewis was the polar extreme: a naïf, a nerd, a clown, a monkey—a study in perpetual hot. And together, in their time, these two opposites, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, were to comedy what the next generation's Fab Four, the Beatles, would be to pop music.
The partnership lasted just 10 years. Ten frantic years. But it made two superstars. Both Martin and Lewis went on to spectacular solo careers. Jerry alone would star in more than 30 films; direct more than a dozen; produce 10. He would sell millions of records. Conquer Las Vegas. Host his own TV show. Turn serious actor. Write books. Teach college. Raise a billion dollars for charity. Be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Now, as he relaxes on his yacht at San Diego's Marriott marina—his favorite retreat—Jerry Lewis is no longer "The Kid." He's 70 years old, though he looks maybe 15 years younger. He's in shape. His face, a bit fleshier, is virtually unlined. He's tan. Relaxed. Reflective. His partner of so many seasons ago is gone, and Lewis doesn't want to talk much about that. Too painful, he says.
Dean Martin died last year at 79, but—in many ways—he stopped living years before. Jerry Lewis, on the other hand, is living high--riding the road-show crest of a new popularity won two years ago on Broadway. That's where he joined the cast of the Damn Yankees revival, a show that was reborn three years ago at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, under the direction of Jack O'Brien. In New York, after Yankees had a successful run with other actors, Lewis brought new life to a show that surely would have folded without him. And the show brought new life to Lewis, a superstar in limbo.
When a visitor tells his wife, Sam, how good Jerry looks, she answers with a soft smile and three words: "It's the work."
Not that Lewis ever stopped working. He has continued to appear in movies—though not at the frenzied pace of "The Kid." He does nightclubs. Concerts. Television. And he does the telethon: The Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon. The Labor Day Telethon. The Jerry Lewis Telethon. They are all interchangeable—a tradition for nearly 50 years.
On stage, Jerry Lewis is funny. He is genetically incapable of being less than funny. He is not universally loved. In the early years, biographers and armchair analysts say, being loved by an audience was what kept him in perpetual motion. His pursuit of that love—his passion for acclaim—also earned him enemies.
These days, entertaining an audience is still clearly important to him. Being universally loved seems less important. That has something to do with maturity and much to do with SanDee—"Sam," as he calls her—the woman he married in 1983, and an adopted daughter, Danielle—"Dani"—born in 1992 and named after his father.
In late summer, during a hiatus in the road show of Damn Yankees and on a brief vacation before his 48th telethon, Jerry sat on the deck of his 70-foot motor yacht, Sam's Place, and talked with San Diego Magazine. This day, it wasn't Jerry Lewis the comic. No pratfalls or shtick or "Hey, laaady!" This day, it was a relaxed and gracious Lewis, talking seriously about his art. About his old partner. About his family. About the press. The critics. And about Damn Yankees, which comes full circle on November 5 to San Diego, at the Civic Theatre, with Jerry Lewis' name above the title.
This is a very big year for you. You had a milestone birthday in March. You look marvelous. How do you feel?
Marvelous. How would I feel? I'm 9 years old. Actually, I'm taking something: embalming fluid.
The last time we talked, you were feeling the sum total of 60 years of pratfalls--down to your bones.
I still feel that; they never go away.
Did you think, with some of the health problems you've faced over the years, that you would see 70?
I didn't think I'd see 40, with some of the falls I was taking.
But you've also had some heart trouble--a heart attack when you were still in your 30s?
I never had a heart attack. I just had a missed beat, because I had run up 68 stairs in seven seconds during the filming of a movie. And no heart is strong enough to take that. I was out of the hospital at 9:30 that night. Of course, it's more fun reporting I had a heart attack. And then when I had open-heart surgery, the reason I had that was that my heart just stopped. It's called V-tack. The heart just locks. And I was gone for 17 seconds. I was in intensive care [under observation] when it happened. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. If I was Polish, I could have been down in a mine in Pittsburgh.
Well, you're riding high these days. Again. On the wings of Damn Yankees, the big hit musical. You were the subject of a special this year on A&E's Biography—a two-hour Biography.
Biography had never done more than one hour in the history of their program.
And there's a new book out—a new Jerry Lewis biography...
We don't talk about that. We could talk about it, but then the next subject would be Kitty Kelly and that kind of book...
Okay. Let's talk about Damn Yankees. The reviews for this show may be the best of your career. But then, the critics have never been on the Jerry Lewis bandwagon. You used to say you didn't pay attention to the critics. Are you paying attention now—now that they like you?
I pay attention to the critics now because I am now being written about by critics. Real critics. Prior to this I was written about by the New York Post and sleaze like the Enquirer. I hold press conferences in every city on the tour, and they run anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half, with the top press in each city. And they are a different press, so I come with another point of view. And I tell them that for years I've battled the sleaze press—for 50 years. I say it's so nice to be here with theater press, because they have some dignity and regard for their own personal work. And they respect what I'm doing in this play, so I look forward to the press conferences each week.
And the Broadway critics?
Same thing there.
So you like what you're doing? You like this touring?
You don't think I'd do what I don't like, do you? At this point in my life? I've done 537 performances. Broadway was 185, and then 350-some in the first year of touring. And then there'll be 350 in the second year. And we go until New Year's of 2000.
Damn Yankees marked your Broadway debut—after 60 years in show business. You were quoted at the time about what your Broadway debut would have meant to your father, an old vaudevillian.
When I was making pictures at Paramount, I went to my dad and I said, "Dad, they just gave me X dollars for my company"—we were in partnership with Paramount. "I want you to look: I have raised $800 million in film rentals, with tickets at 25 cents."
And he said, "Ya ain't got it, kid." Okay. I took him to England, and I did a royal command performance for Her Majesty, the Queen. And she did something no other monarch had ever done. She stood up at the end of my performance. A standing ovation. And so did the audience, when they saw what she did. And I ran back to my dad and said, "It doesn't get any better than that."
And he said, "It does when you play Broadway." He said, "There's no way I can explain it to you. The only way you're gonna find out what I'm talking about is when you do it. You can take television, motion pictures, lectures, symphonies—take all that and put it in a corner. When you play Broadway, something will happen to you that you will never, ever have dreamed possible. And then you won't be able to tell it to your children, either."
Can you tell us what it felt like when you played Broadway that first night?
All I can say is that when I came up for the last bow, I heard my dad say, "Now you got it, kid." And all those other things I had been doing, including the Nobel Peace Prize [nomination], were nothing. The people who come to the theater are not the people who come to see Guns & Roses. Theater people have an integrity and esteem about them when they buy their ticket. I'm telling you, after 537 performances, I know what I'm talking about. They're not elitist; they're not snobs. But they are protective people who love it that you have come to join what they think is excellence: the theater.
You're part of an ensemble in Damn Yankees. That's a bit different from your other stage experiences--in clubs, or concerts. Do audiences react to that?
When they see a company having the fun that this company has, and they feel an electricity between the company and myself—which is love—yes. Because I know every name in this company. I'm into their private lives; I have an open door. They're in my dressing room all the time. It's the greatest love I've ever experienced—a love-in with 63 people. Now, the audience doesn't turn to one another and say, "You know why this is wonderful? It's because it's human, and it's basic, and there's no bullshit. It's honest." They don't turn to one another and say that. But we've had audiences stand up before the show is over, cheering this company. We've had that.
Cheering the company? Not Jerry Lewis?
No. They're cheering this company. I happen to be a part of this company.
Are you a different Jerry Lewis in this show than you've been in other aspects of your career?
Are you more into the character you're playing with this show, and less into Jerry Lewis?
No. I'm just doing the best thing I've ever done in my life. You see, if you look at _my whole body of work--let's look at all of it, put it together—we have what I call the huge white cake. Damn Yankees is the cherry.
This year marks your 45th Muscular Dystrophy Telethon...
Will you do it forever?
I'll do it until we fix it.
The critics seem to have backed off a little bit...
I'm not interested in the critics. You had six splinter groups, all in Chicago, who were sitting in wheelchairs I bought for them, telling me that what I'm doing is wrong. Would you like to meet the child I was with last Wednesday night? Who said, "Jerry, I'm glad I have this disease, because if I didn't, I'd never have met you"?
Now, what do you want to talk about? Do you want to talk about the Scripps Clinic here that I visited Tuesday, where a little girl, 9 years old, says, "I love you with all my heart. And I'm gonna live for you. And I will not die because you've worked so hard to help me"? All right. What do you want to talk about? I'm gonna let some six morons stop me from going to Scripps? And doing what I do on Labor Day? It's like trying to stop a tidal wave.
In an Esquire profile a couple of years ago, an agent was quoted as calling you a pussycat. But then he qualified that. He said you were a pussycat after your 1982 heart attack. Before that, he said, you could count three rows of teeth on Jerry Lewis. Are you a pussycat? Or are you a shark?
I'm anything I need to be. I'm a shark the same way you are. What makes you think that celebrity changes the fabric or character of an individual? Would you like to change seats? Find out all about yourself? And we'll compare notes and you won't see much of a difference.
So there's been no significant change in your personality? You weren't a shark until your heart stopped, and then reborn a pussycat? You've always been a combination of the two?
Always. I was taught a very simple premise by my dad when I was young—but old enough to remember it. He said, "I need you to know that wisdom comes when you get older. But before that, you've got reflexes that help you get out of the way of the oncoming truck."
Were you a pussycat with Jack O'Brien when he directed you in Damn Yankees?
Oh, I'm gonna see him in an hour. He's wonderful.
What was it like working with Jack?
Well, it was like working with the best there is. And there ain't nobody better than Jack O'Brien. There just isn't. And the reason that Jack O'Brien is the best is because of what he is. He is the most noble, talented human being I've ever known--with the exceptions of [heart transplant pioneer] Michael De Bakey and [Parade magazine editor] Walter Anderson.
Did Jack O'Brien teach you some tricks? Was there a lot to learn in doing your first Broadway show?
No. Although we did teach one another what to edit. And Jack had infinite respect for me, as I did for him. And when two men have that, they give one another a tremendous amount of room and space. I've done things in these 537 performances that were wonderful things that weren't great for the show. And out they came.
Now, Jack may be in San Diego, and I'm in Indianapolis, but I'm protecting this show like he was sitting in the first row. And he knows that. Then he gets the report, and reads about it. And I always forget they do that—send reports back to the director. And he calls me the morning after I had fixed something, and he says, "Geez, you're a class act."
And I say, "I'm not a class act; I'm smart. I'm not gonna hurt what I love." The joke I did, in the instance that I did it, was hysterical. I've never heard a laugh like that in a theater in my career. But it didn't belong in this show.
You stepped out of the show?
No. I was in character, but I was doing something that was not 1955. And it was hysterical. And it did not belong. He just couldn't believe that I would edit out that kind of a laugh. You see, the thing about Damn Yankees is: When you get into something that has been wonderful since 1955, you're not gonna score and be a tremendous hit for the things you do. It's gonna be because of the things you don't do.
The 9-year-old is having a wonderful time out there. If I'm out there on stage alone, it's easy to get caught up in that. But there are other performers on that stage who have my infinite respect. And they know that. And they have no qualms about being out there with me. They know I will never hang them out. We have cues to do; we have other people involved. Music. Sound. Lights. Everybody is at ready for a cue. You can't cock around up there; it's live theater.
Well, the generosity comes with selfishness. There's nothing greater than seeing the look on the face of a performer who knows you've been generous. And who's appreciative of that and gives you love in return. That way, you always win.
This may be a tough subject. If you don't want to talk about it...
I'll tell you.
It's a milestone year for you in another way. It was 50 years ago this year that you first teamed with Dean Martin.
July 25, 1946.
And last year, you lost your former partner. Were the two of you close at the end? Did you talk much?
Let me tell you, I would feel whorelike to include that in this discussion. That's in a place where it should stay. If he was still here, I would talk to you for an hour. He and I know it all.
Can we talk about this much: I think there are a lot of people who have misconceptions about your relationship with him. You were friends.
He was my hero.
But there was a 20-year period when you didn't talk to one another.
When you're really a friend, the friendship never stops. That never stops. There may be a situation where a Band-Aid is put on the relationship because of whatever forces there were that created whatever it is that made you stop talking. But it's like two people married. It never really stops.
Many of us remember that reunion after 20 years--when Frank Sinatra brought you and Dean together again, on your 1976 telethon.
I will never forget that. I'll take that to my grave. I'll talk about this much: That was the most courageous act I've ever seen. A man came on my turf not knowing how I'd respond after 20 years of not talking. And everyone asked me later--even Frank Sinatra asked me, "How did you handle the uncertainty?"
I said, "How did Dean handle the uncertainty?" I guess because he knew in his heart where I was coming from. That's why it worked.
You delivered a great line.
When we stood there together on that stage, on live TV, I prayed to God, "Dear God, please give me one line that I can say so we can really lighten this moment." Because I was just this close to being reduced to a washcloth. And when I thought to say to Dean, "So, are you working?" I thought, there is a God.
Let's talk San Diego for a few minutes. This is where you come to relax. How long have you been coming to San Diego?
On your yacht?
It was on a ski boat. I came to buy a ski boat. And I brought the ski boat over to the Kona Kai Club and got a slip for it. Then I come down the following Sunday, and I go out with Joey Stabile, my manager, and we go out on the bay, where the Sheraton marina is now. And we're water-skiing. And I've got this tacky little cooler, with some Cokes and tuna-fish sandwiches. Now we're hungry, so I pull the boat up on the sand. And we're eating these sandwiches and having our Cokes, and I say to Joey, _"I never tasted a sandwich like this." I say, "This is better than chateaubriand. I mean, I've eaten in the best restaurants in the world; why am I getting the pleasure?"
He says, "Because you're on the water."
And I said, "Then the people who have lights and curtains and a galley on their boats--and a bed--they must feel this 12,000 times more than I feel with the tuna sandwich." And I took my ski boat over to Chris-Craft and bought a 41-foot boat that afternoon.
That was the first yacht, the Pussycat.
Yes. I bought the boat from Jerry Medina. And the guy working for Medina was Joe Peru, who is still my captain and has been with me since 1959.
Oh, boy. When does he write his book?
He would never write a book, 'cause he's my friend.
Are you a different person when you're in San Diego? What is it about San Diego? You've been coming back here for 37 years.
San Diego is the second-best city in the world.
Okay, what's the first?
Paris. San Diego is the second-best city in the world because of the boat people. And the people in San Diego who aren't boat people must get the contagion of that. Boat people have a very, very warm and caring feeling about one another. There's a camaraderie that happens when people are on boats. It's not unlike the camaraderie that develops when people adopt a child. You immediately open your hearts to them. And I see people in San Diego who will not let the technology of 1996, or the speed with which this stupid world is turning, change their persona.
San Diegans are nice; they're kind. They at least make me feel very special when I come here. But not special because of celebrity. Special because I'm another human being. I mean, I went to the Padres game the other night, and people in the stands were yelling and waving. Just saying hi. And they're not yelling at a celebrity; they're yelling at what was just like a neighbor in their minds. Never intrusive. I shop and I go to the stores in this town, and I have the best time. It's a great, great city. It's just a shame that the Republicans had to abuse it this summer.
Ha. You have a different reason for loving Paris. They love Jerry Lewis in France. Do they take to the latter-day Jerry Lewis in France? Not "The Kid," but the actor who does serious roles in movies like The King of Comedy with Robert DeNiro?
Oh, yes. The King of Comedy made more money in France than in any other country in the world. And they have respect for Jerry Lewis the filmmaker. People there say to me, "Not until 1960, when you wrote and directed The Bellboy, did France embrace you."
You seem to be a man who's happy with himself now--content. I think I know one reason. How old is your daughter, Dani, now?
Dani is 4½. She's the air in my lungs. Center of the world. She is the world. The most loving, most incredible young lady. She goes to Montessori school in every city we travel to, and we've gotten a letter of commendation from every school...
And you have all the letters in your pocket right now...
No, not really. But they say they've never seen a 4-year-old walk in with the command and courage and self-esteem and security and confidence of this 4-year-old.
Are you a different sort of father with her than you were with your boys?
Oh, yes. More time. There's a very important element that's not as involved now. With my boys, there was self. And self gets in the way of taking care of children. There is no self now.
It's her. Sam and her. Dani loves to go to museums and libraries. She loves books. She loves us to take her places where she can be a sponge and soak up all this wonderful stuff. She doesn't watch TV. Well, she watches PBS and Nova. And that's it. I won't let her watch any of that other stuff. But remember, you're not just sitting here with a plain person. You're sitting with an idealistic, mid-Victorian, old-fashioned curmudgeon. And I will fix the world before I go. I promise you that.