Goodnight, Nutty Professor: Jerry Lewis, RIP
I was driving home form a visit with my Mom when I saw an alert on my phone. Thinking it was a text message or a traffic bulletin, I glance down. And froze.
I knew he was old. The last time I saw a video of him was the infamous interview footage this past year, the one where he basically replied to the (obviously inexperienced) interviewer with rude and abrupt answers. Jerry wasn’t happy, and as I read from the seminal book on his life King of Comedy… hell hath no fury like an unhappy Jerry.
And Jerry was often unhappy in his life. A life that is now over.
I don’t say “sadly”, though. He was 91 years old – a hell of a run, and one I hope to achieve myself. I don’t know how his health was in the end, but if it was failing he may have been ready to “go”. I had a conversation about this with my Mom this week when I visited – she didn’t want to linger, in pain, and suffer. She herself is prepared for the end.
I never met the man, though I met some who did – and he was everything everyone ever said about him. Crazy, funny, angry, neurotic, caring, maudlin, sad, egotistical – and, oh, yeah… Genius. He was a master comedian, a great filmmaker (his book The Total Film-Maker inspired Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, and a lot more) and a very sharp technical filmmaker (his video playback device is still being used today in movie and TV production).
He was the face of the Muscular Dystrophy Association for decades – before they unceremoniously ended the relationship in 2010 (they treated Jerry horribly, after he helped raise over $2 billion for their organization – I’ll never forgive that).
He was Dean’s pal (and foil) on screen and off – before Dean split it off because he was tired of being upstaged.
When Frank Sinatra reunited the two on stage, Jerry’s reaction was priceless. “So, how ya been?” They rekindled their friendship, I understand, but it wasn’t the same. It couldn’t be.
He made a movie that many claim is the worse ever, The Day the Clown Cried, which was never released because of legal issues. A Jewish comedian leading kids to the Nazi’s death chamber? It was an offensively bad idea… and yet Roberto Benigni won an Oscar years later for Life is Beautiful, which is not that far off for Jerry’s film. Timing is everything.
He played it straight in King of Comedy, and in Wiseguy, and in last year’s Max Rose. He was sublime in all these performances. Letting some of his darkness shine through on a screen was a good look for Jerry.
He made a comeback film in 1980, Hardly Working… and it hardly worked. He had missed a step, with age, and he was also a step removed from modern audiences. He tried, again, with Slapstick of Another Kind (based on a Kurt Vonnegut novel!) and the less said about that, the better. His last chance was with 1983’s Cracking Up… which worked better than the other two, and is a film I will revisit soon.
He was The Nutty Professor, he was Cinderfella, he was Frink’s father on The Simpsons.
He was the Disorderly Orderly, the Patsy… but above all else, he was Jerry. He was part of my life, a source of entertainment and fascination for most of my existence.
I loved him, not because of his films or performances… but because he used his celebrity to do more good in this world than any of us can ever lay claim to. He did it because he CARED. And he did it at a time when it wasn’t something your publicist told you to do – he did it because he could, and it was the right thing to do.
We should all live with such principles.
Now he’s gone. I’ll miss him.
So long, Jer. Say hi to Dean for me.