Jerry Lewis turns 87 on March 16. The word legend is used rather loosely these days but he is the very definition of it, a master comedian, actor, filmmaker, singer, and humanitarian. If you never had the pleasure of seeing him in person, you truly missed out on something. Luckily I saw him perform his act twice, once at the Westbury Music Fair in New York and once at the Orleans Hotel in Las Vegas. Both shows were among the very best live performances I have ever seen, the others being Liberace, Dom DeLuise, and Joan Rivers.
I was lucky enough to see his tour de force turn on Broadway in “Damn Yankees,” which I don’t consider a great musical, but he brought such magic to his role as the devil that it was one of those once in a lifetime theater experiences that you will never forget.
As an actor, Jerry Lewis never got the respect he deserved. His role as Jerry Langford, a Johnny Carson-like talk show host kidnapped by Robert DeNiro in “The King of Comedy” (1983), is the best work he has done on-screen, a surprisingly low-key, nuanced performance that showed a serious side he rarely ever displayed in the movies. It’s a crime he was not nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role, but thankfully he received a much overdue Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2009.
One of the great thrills in my life was answering the telephone one day in 2002 and hearing a crazy voice at the other end asking to speak to me. Yep, it was Jerry, actually responding personally to a letter I sent him asking if he would let me interview him. We had a series of phone conversations in the following weeks as we tried to arrange a time to meet when he was in New York. I consider one of my biggest accomplishments the fact that I actually was able to make him laugh a few times. He even sent me a comedy CD of crank phone calls he had put out after I told him that I loved his “Just Sings” CD. Alas, Jerry’s schedule was very hectic and the in-person interview never happened. I’m still hoping it will.
If you go to YouTube and simply type in Jerry Lewis, you will find enough priceless clips of him to keep you entertained for hours. Among the ones I recommend most are his live performance in Las Vegas from the 1980s and his guest spot on Dick Cavett’s show from the early 1970s.
Refusing to slow down at an age when most entertainers have long been retired, Lewis is currently working on bringing the stage version of his classic film “The Nutty Professor” to Broadway. He also still performs occasionally – he will be returning to Westbury for a one night only performance on April 6. Lewis and his wife SanDee make their home in Las Vegas.
Jerry Lewis has had a tumultuous life both professionally and personally – few stars have suffered as many career highs and lows and health problems, yet he has always managed to bounce back with his dignity and humor intact. A few years ago he said his goal was to live beyond 100 so he can surpass George Burns. Here’s hoping he does just that. Happy birthday Jerry and thanks for so many years of laughter.
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