A tribute to my comedy hero Jerry Lewis: Shaun Micallef

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Ever since I can remember, Jerry Lewis was there on TV; his films shuffled out of order so that on Saturday afternoon he’d be a skinny 25 year old black and white geek and by Sunday afternoon, he’d be a good looking 30 something, drenched in glorious Technicolor – then mid-week, he’d be guesting on Sonny and Cher, a Brylcreemed elder statesmen in a tux and white socks, playing both his own straight man and patsy.

He was, somehow, a cool man-child, dancing madly to Count Basie and about as unlikely a comedy icon as you could think of, but he’d been one of the biggest and most influential for over half a century.


Jerry Lewis dies at 91

The legendary entertainer had ‘great success being a total idiot’, starring in more than 45 films in a career spanning five decades.

Back in the ’60’s, the French critics mentioned him in same breath as Chaplin and Keaton. As for the American critics – well, let’s just say that if they mentioned him at all, it was while shaking their heads. In his hey-day though, audiences loved him. From the ’50’s as one half of the most successful comedy teams of all time, right through to maturity as a solo act which saw him become the most popular film comedian in the English speaking world – and love him or hate him (and it’s one or the other; there’s no middle ground) Jerry Lewis is impossible to ignore.

It’s not every day you get to meet a comedy icon; someone you grew up on; who was the reason you got into comedy; your childhood hero. For me it was a Thursday in July back in the year 2000. He was visiting Australia for a return season of the show he’d done in 1998; cut short when he was taken ill. I’d seen it in Melbourne in the Palladium Room of the Crown Casino. It was Las Vegas slick but at 72 he had, of course, slowed down and couldn’t possibly match on stage the same antic spirit of the clips he showed to catch his breath. But I was glad I went and saw him. This time around, though, I thought it’d be fun to meet him. I contacted The Age and asked whether they’d like me to do a profile piece. They said yes and I contacted his people, arranged it and flew to Sydney for a press conference and one-on-one interview. Simple as that. And what The Age was paying me covered the cost of the plane ticket. Perfect.

The press conference was in a conference room at Star City Casino. I was early and so hung around in the lobby, waiting. I hadn’t needed to do any research or prepare any notes because I already knew so much about him. My preparation therefore consisted of reminding myself not to sound too much like a fan-boy. The only things I’d brought along were a 1961 copy of Life magazine which featured a spread on the huge, doll’s house set he’d used in The Ladies Man and a first edition of his 1971 book the Total Film Maker which I was thinking of asking him to sign for me at the end of the interview – if it went well.

I’d heard he could be prickly.

He arrived early too. Dressed in a blue and red tracksuit that sported his own caricature and logo, he and his entourage streamed out of the lift and made their way to the conference room. I saw him deliberately walk into the wrong one and start talking to the group of architects in there, pretending he was their next speaker and ad libbing his way through whatever was on the whiteboard – much to their amusement and delight. He left to a round of applause and disappeared through another door.

Inside the right conference room I could hear a radio mic being attached to his tracksuit. He was talking to Chrissie, his publicist, in an Irish accent. He sounded in a good mood. Someone introduced him and he strode in to some polite applause (the architects had been more effusive). First up he apologised for an unpaid hospital bill from his last visit; a misunderstanding, he explained, which had now been taken care of. No doubt he wanted to clear the air and make way for questions about the tour. Nonetheless, the first few questions were about the unpaid bill and he fielded them with good humour and diplomacy. Then the questions got onto the reason for his hospital stay – a bout of viral meningitis – and his health generally. He said he was fine; much recovered, thank you. When was he going to retire, someone asked. He said, pointedly, that he had no plans and that, in fact, he was doing a tour. Was a tour wise when he was so susceptible to illness, implied someone else.

At that point I thought I’d help, unfortunately letting my fan-boy run amok and asking a question about a bug that flew in his ear in a drive-in movie theatre appearance back in 1963. He did a take. “How can you remember—” he began, but then saw that I was too young to have remembered. “How do you know that?” he asked under the laughter from the room. Then he was asked about why he didn’t think women were funny; a reference to something he’d said at the Montreal Comedy Festival the previous year. He got serious and explained that he just didn’t like women doing crude material. Again, I thought I’d help. I mentioned that he’d worked with Kathleen Freeman many times and obviously found her funny. He agreed – he seen her only last week, he said. The press conference mutated into a plug for Nutty Professor Teeth, which he was encouraged to put in as the cameras flashed. ‘Oh God,” he lamented to his wife, who was sitting directly in front of me. ‘That’ll be the one they’ll use.”

But really – what did he expect?

The Age had wanted a photo of Jerry and I for the piece, which pleased me no end because I’d have been too embarrassed to ask if I could take one. I tracked down the photographer and Chrissie the publicist said Jerry would meet us on the balcony. On the way out, Jo from the Matt and Jo Show complimented me on my stalker-like knowledge during the press conference. Out on the balcony, Chrissie the publicist said that Jerry liked my questions. “Did Jerry say that?” I heard myself asking. I was beginning to sound like Rupert Pupkin.

Jerry came out and we were introduced. He was chewing gum and business-like. The photographer took a few shots and Jerry pulled a face or two. Then his mood shifted. Our backdrop was Sydney Harbour and the photographer was using a wide lens. “He’s taking shots of the background,” Jerry muttered, more to himself than me. ‘You know your lenses,” I replied anyway. ‘You’ve got to in this business, baby,’ he said and then called an end to the shoot and wandered off.

I commiserated with the photographer, who had hoped for more than two minutes to take his pictures and then went with Chrissie the publicist to another smaller conference room with a long table in the middle. Hopefully I’d get more than a couple of minutes to do the interview. Jerry walked in with a couple of bodyguards. They were burly, Teamsterish-looking men dressed in tracksuits and they sprawled themselves on some chairs across the other side of the room as Jerry sat down next to me. ‘It’s me again, I’m afraid,’ I apologised. “You again,” he repeated, as if I hadn’t said anything.

“May I tape you?” I asked, setting up a small hand-held Grundig Dictaphone on the conference table between us.

“Hah?” he said, squinting and turning his head. I’d read somewhere his hearing wasn’t so good anymore. As I fumbled to turn on the Grundig, I tried to break the ice by mentioning – in a louder voice than was probably necessary – that the long table we were sitting at reminded me of ‘that scene from The Errand Boy. “The Chairman of the Board,” Jerry said, quietly.

We spoke of many things in the hour we ended up spending together. He told old stories, spoke of his fans and the pleasure of meeting his idol, Charlie Chaplin; he gave me some comedy advice he got from Stan Laurel which I didn’t quite understand; reminisced about his successes, dismissed his critics and talked about the mechanics of comedy.

We looked at the Life magazine pictures of the Ladies Man set and he talked me through the recessed lighting. I even asked him to sign the book at the end, which he preferred to do with a big fat texta, rather than the biro I’d offered. Over the interview he’d come into focus as the man I thought he’d be: a man who loved comedy and needed an audience. At one point, when he was telling me about how Chaplin showed him how he broke down shots in his script for The Great Dictator – “a master, a deuce, an over-the-shoulder” – I’d noticed he’d leaned in quite close and was tapping me on the knee. “Just how I did it,” he said, smiling.

As we shook hands and said our goodbyes, he asked whether I’d like a copy of a book about him called Inventing Jerry Lewis by an author called Frank Krutnik. “I thought he was some kind of a nut,” Jerry said of their first meeting, “but it’s quite good.” He took my address down in his notebook, but I’d just moved and in my nervousness, I gave him the wrong street name. It didn’t matter though; I already had the book.

I met him again only once. He was in Australia as Chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation. I was asked to help present a big cardboard cheque for $600,000. He was 85 now and greatly diminished physically. “How are you?” I’d said as we shook hands. “How are you,” he’d said back. As we were lining up for the photo I told him I’d met him before and how generous he’d been with his time and how he’d told me about Chaplin and Stan Laurel and comedy and his performance at the Olympia in 1972. “Whose he talkin’ about?” Jerry asked his Chrissie equivalent. “He’s talking about you, Jerry,” she said, as if talking to a child. “He went on so long, I forgot,’ replied Jerry, making a joke he often makes when people get a bit gushing during introductions. I laughed but no one around him seemed to think it was a joke; they were handling him carefully, as if he were senile. Then the man in charge of the cheque started explaining about his charity. After a minute, Jerry shot me a glance; a combination of a wink and an eye roll. I’d gone on a bit but at least I’d been talking about him. Jerry cut the man off with an announcement that it was time for the photo and, as it was being taken, started grumbling about how he didn’t need to hear every damn detail about where the money came from. Then, after only a couple of snaps, he said “We’re done” and walked out, leaving the his people looking embarrassed. “He’s tired,” said someone, in a way that suggested he might have been tired a few times before.

I was reminded of two things. In Richard Gehman’s book That Kid, in part an account of Jerry’s publicity tour for The Nutty Professor (and the source of the story about the bug and the drive-in), the author recounts an incident where Jerry skipped out on an afternoon of golf with a local businessman. The man had arranged for a lunch and it was pointed out to Jerry that the man had gone to a lot of trouble for him. Jerry responded: “Except you know what? It wasn’t. It was all for him. I was goin’ out there not so he and I could play golf together but so he could be a big man.”

The second thing was from his own book, The Total Film Maker. He was writing about Chaplin’s last film, The Countess from Hong Kong. It hadn’t worked and he likened what had happened to Chaplin to a moment he’d seen in a documentary about Jesse Owens: “There were shots of him running in the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and shots of him walking in 1968. His walk from just one spot to another was frightening. He’d atrophied. The same thing happened to Charlie Chaplin… Thirty one years after Modern Times, Chaplin was tackling the same problems in a wholly different world with a different speed, different people – different juices.”

My last memory of Jerry Lewis is hearing his raised voice outside the door after his publicist had joined him. “Don’t f—–g tell me to calm down,” he said without a trace of Irish accent.

Still, I have to admit, even when he was prickly, he was worth meeting.

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