I had the privilege to attend one of the last public appearances made by Jerry Lewis, the legendary comedian, actor and director who died Sunday at the age of 91. Much was made of Lewis’ confrontational interview with the Hollywood Reporter last December, but just a month prior to that incident which is being credited as his last TV interview, Lewis was a featured guest on the final TCM Cruise.
The week-long celebration of classic film featured a variety of actors such as Kim Novack, Michael York and Leslie Caron speaking about their films and lives. Lewis joined the cruise toward the end of the week after flying from Los Angeles to San Juan to meet the ship. The comedian had some obvious physical difficulty with walking and getting around, but the man was as sharp and funny as ever as he fielded questions during two hour-long interviews with TCM personalities Ben Mankiewicz and Illeana Douglas.
The Hollywood Reporter interviewer who spoke with Lewis last December seemed to anger Lewis when he persisted in asking questions about whether Lewis would retire. Having attended Lewis’ interviews on the cruise it was easy to see why this line of questioning upset the man. Lewis took great pride discussing with Mankiewicz and Douglas how he still writes every day and how that is what kept him going.
Here are some interesting facts I remember from his presentations:
Stella Stevens: When asked who the most talented actor he ever worked with was Lewis responded Stella Stevens, who was his leading lady in “The Nutty Professor.” Perhaps a surprising choice from a man who had worked with the likes of DeNiro (in “The King of Comedy”) but Lewis stated that Stevens (who is probably best known to younger audiences from “The Poseidon Adventure”) would take his direction so effectively and work so diligently to deliver what was requested of her that she forever impressed him.
Comedy needs an audience: Lewis spoke enthusiastically about how when he started directing his own films he missed the live audiences he was used to from his night club acts so he would open up his sets to whoever happened to be strolling around the studio lots where he was filming. Studio chiefs thought he was crazy but the comic actor felt he could only know he was funny when he had spectators nearby to laugh or not laugh as the case may be. He even had bleachers set up on one of his sound stages to hold spectators.
He changed filmmaking: Unfortunately my memory is a little sketchy on the technical aspects of this but Lewis spoke with great pride about his idea to add some sort of monitoring device for directors to see their work in the film process. I may be getting some of the facts wrong here but Lewis seemed quite happy with the fact that he had come up with an idea that is still used today.
And finally, and perhaps now most poignantly, Lewis talked about the importance of knowing when to leave. He joked that his worst experiences as a stand-up comedian was when he stayed too long on the stage. He said he would often kick himself thinking he should have been in the car on his way home five minutes sooner following a big laugh but sometimes screwed up his performance by dragging it on too long.
As the curtain comes down on Mr. Lewis’ life and career it may ease the sadness a bit knowing that nothing pleased the man more than knowing when it was time to make a good exit.
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