Sunday, August 20, 2017

RIP Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis died today.  He was 91.  As a reader pointed out, so close to Labor Day and his longtime telethon.

I have such mixed feelings about Jerry Lewis.  I'm too young to really appreciate Martin & Lewis (his comedy act with Dean Martin).  To be honest, I never got it.   But at the time people were absolutely in stitches.

Some of his movies were funny.  And the dripping faux sincerity of his telethons were, I must admit, quite entertaining.  One minute he's overcome by emotion and the next he's playing his retarded character for laughs.   How do you take a man seriously who once said without a trace of irony:  "My greatest wish for you is that you have show business people as your friends."?

I've written about Jerry before.  I've had issues.   

But there's no question he was a giant.  For many many decades.  And yes his passing is certainly a loss -- my heart goes out to his family.  But it also means the end of an era in show business -- that Vegas nightclub, tuxedo, booze-fueled brand of razzle dazzle entertainment.   I will miss it.  And I'll miss Jerry too.   He did have show business people as his friends so I guess he led a happy life.  

24 comments :

Peter said...

You're always a class act with your tributes, Ken.

Johnny Walker said...

I wonder if we'll finally get to see When The Clown Cried now?

Charles Cavender said...

Oh, Jerry. Women are very funny. So you got that wrong. But you atoned for that misstatement in other ways. RIP

iain said...

My mother saw Martin & Lewis when they came to Glasgow. The way she described it, they were rock stars before there was such a name.

Til the end, Jerry wanted to be loved. Desperately.

Len said...

Dick Gregory died, too. Unfortunately, not that many people will notice, as his death will undoubtedly be far overshadowed by Lewis's.

Ben K. said...

So many comedians seem to have this hidden reservoir of rage and ego and paranoia and regret. Jerry Lewis let it all out for everyone to see. He was funny sometimes, but he was always a fascinating person.

Barry Traylor said...

I thought he was funny when I was a kid in 1954, but then I grew up.

VP81955 said...

My late Facebook friend Francine York made several films with Jerry. She finished her autobiography shortly before her passing at the start of the year, and once it's issued I'm certain she'll have some intriguing anecdotes about him.

Martin & Lewis regularly appeared on radio in the late '40s and early '50s, and many of their programs are available online. (Like Abbott & Costello, wordplay was integral to their act, why they succeeded in that medium.)

Jeff Maxwell said...

Just out of high school, knowing I was a huge fan, a friend of mine arranged for me to meet Jerry Lewis on the set of The Family Jewels. He gave me a tour of the sets, talked about the movie and sat down for photos and a chat. He arranged with his assistant to allow me to come back anytime. He couldn't have been nicer. Over the years, I did visit with him while shooting as well as in Las Vegas. I was very pleased when he told me he really liked the Gas Passer Chili recipe from my book.

I know from many that he could be a difficult, offensive, nasty person. Well, there you have it. I do know that I would never have made anybody laugh without there being a Mr. Jerry Lewis. I am sad and will miss his presence. As I know most every comedian will - if they're honest.

It is the end of an era of incredibly talented souls. Long live YouTube.

D. McEwan said...

Last night the lights at the Chinese Theater went dark briefly for Jerry Lewis.

Today the sun went dark briefly for Dick Gregory.

Mike Barer said...

Growing up, I put him on the same par with Bob Hope as far as comedians, and true, it is the end of an era. I remember watching his telethons, were he lit cigarette after cigarette. He lived into an area of instant information and perhaps that dimmed his legacy.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Strange convergence. Lewis was the end of a tradition that probably started with minstrel shows: exaggerated, physical, anything-for-a-laugh comedy (Mel Brooks said he borrowed a lot of his schtick from Harry Ritz, now almost forgotten). Dick Gregory took the standup comedy developed by Redd Foxx (some would say Will Rogers), politicized it like Mort Sahl and was the first to talk about race to white audiences. His disciples include Godfrey Cambridge, Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle, Whoopi Goldberg and Chris Rock. I don't think Jerry has any disciples, unless you think Gallagher is funny.

Look at me, telling Ken Levine about comedy. Well, may they both rest in peace.

Klee said...

He was such a controversial figure in real life, however, I now hope the movie he never let anyone see (the clown in the Holocaust camp) will be released. I've always been curious about the mess people say it turned out.

Nick said...

Re: THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED

The reason THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED has never been released isn't primarily about Jerry Lewis. The problem is that neither Lewis nor the film's financiers bothered to properly secure rights to the film's script from its writers. Those two writers -- Joan O'Brien and Charles Denton -- hated the rough cut they saw and O'Brien stated that neither of them would ever agree to the film's release, in part because of the changes Lewis insisted on making to their script to make his character more Chaplinesque and more loveable.

Unless those two writers, or their estates, agree to it, THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED cannot be legally released, no matter what the estate of Jerry Lewis may or may not want.

Mark said...

Nick is correct about THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED. The unwillingness of the writers of the original script to sign off on the film's release is what's kept it hidden for more then forty years. They (Joan O'Brien and Charles Denton) always hoped to get the a version of the film made based on the script they actually wrote, before Lewis altered it. At one time, there was talk of filming it with Robin Williams in the Lewis role.

Lewis, in fact, was always frustrated by the situation. He always thought that if the public could just see the movie, he would be vindicated.

Lewis owned a rough cut of THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED and donated it to the Library of Congress a few years ago, so it's being preserved, but the LOC's hands are tied so far as exhibition goes.

The movie itself was never in completed, releasable form. Work stopped at the rough cut stage when it became clear that writers O'Brien and Denton had no intention of agreeing to its release. I believe both O'Brien and Denton are now dead.

scottmc said...

In the late 60's-early 70' I was a fan of Gary Lewis and The Playboys. In that time whenever I saw Jerry Lewis my first thought was there is Gary Lewis' father. I wasn't a fan of his post Martin-Lewis movies and in that pre-Turner Classic Movies era I don't remember seeing many of the Martin-Lewis films. The telethons were a ritual in my home every year and eventually I saw the movies he made with Frank Tashlin and became more an admirer than a fan. When I finally saw the Martin-Lewis movies I did sense something special and can imagine that their live shows were electric. A few years ago I read the book Lewis wrote about his time with Martin. It was the rare example of a duo splitting up and both succeeding.

Donald Benson said...

My one thing with Lewis as a performer is that you can see how hard he's working, even when he's playing the idiot. In his writer-director-star phase you can see his nervous fingerprints everywhere, for better or worse.

As a tail-end boomer (born '55), I remember going to see Jerry Lewis movies in the theater; the Martin and Lewis features were on TV but in network prime time. Weekend afternoons on local stations were mostly older comedies from Paramount (Bob Hope and/or Bing Crosby, W.C. Fields, Marx Brothers, and Burns and Allen in support), Universal (Abbott and Costello, Francis the Talking Mule, Ma and Pa Kettle) and Monogram (Bowery Boys). Laurel and Hardy features, alas, were sliced and diced into shorts and rarely shown intact.

And of course there were the Robert Youngson anthologies of silent comedy: "Golden Age of Comedy"; "When Comedy Was King"; "Days of Thrills of Laughter"; etc.

Roger Owen Green said...

Just saw an online obit with a picture of Jerry Lee Lewis. Haven't seen such silliness since Ben E. King died; lots of references to B B King, who then had the audacity to ACTUALLY die less than 2 months later.

J Carter said...

I'm surprised at the mostly disparaging comments here. Even Ken gave a back-handed tribute of sorts. Jerry was raised in another era, so minimizing his talent and contribution to the world of comedy based on the comments he made as an old man (which I don't find controversial at all, just his opinion) seems petty to me. He's brought more laughter to my life - when I was a kid watching his movies on TV and now watching the DVDs with my daughter - than any other person. And I feel sorry for those who don't find the fun in his appearances with Dean, especially on shows like The Colgate Comedy Hour. Seems like it's the pretentious move to dis Jerry.

Patrick said...

Ken,

Referencing the above two pieces by Nick and Mark about the reason THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED has never been seen is because rights to the original script weren't properly secured and the writers of that script refused to sign off on the movie after they saw a rough cut of it, I have the following question:

Do you think that two writers should have the right to do that? I mean, there's been an enormous amount of curiosity about this movie since it was made but never released and an awful lot of people who would like to see it, even if it just to see if it's as bad as it's supposed to be, or better than expected. Do you think two writers should have the right to block the rest of the world from seeing something like this just because they weren't happy with how it turned out? Besides, it's been more than forty years. Who the hell is gonna be hurt by it at this point?

Just wondering what you, as a writer youself, thought about it.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Roger Owen Green, when Oscar Peterson died, NBC ran a clip of Art Tatum, another heavy-set black man who played piano. In their defense, it was a holiday weekend and there was probably an intern in the film library who had never heard of either of them.

McAlvie said...

Jerry Lewis was quite talented. He was especially good at physical comedy, but could play straight parts really well, too. That part didn't show very much when he was with Martin. One of my favorites was Don't Lower the Bridge, Raise the River. The Family Jewels is an especially good example of the range of his talent.

But it is interesting to me that so many people today don't find his movies funny, because many of today's film comedies rely on dorky, nerdy, loser, slap stick characters much like what he often played. They just don't do it as well.

CarolMR said...

I also read Lewis' book, DEAN AND ME (A LOVE STORY). It was one of the best show biz books I have read. And it really showed me how complex and complicated male friendship can sometimes be.

Shrill1 said...

Here's a classic Jerry article from years ago, Ken. You might enjoy it.

http://observer.com/2001/06/the-professors-still-nutty/