Jerry Lewis was, as others have noted in marking his passing, a mercurial and irreplaceable figure in Hollywood. The Golden Globe nominated actor, writer, director and consummate entertainer who passed away at 91 delighted millions and raised millions for charity, transcended borders and received the French Legion of Honor. He drew on children’s whimsy to play the fool but as a perfectionist at his craft, did not suffer fools lightly. He surged to fame on the success of the nightclub act he developed and performed with Dean Martin, the partner with which he would also make seventeen films in the 1950’s. He was nominated as Best Actor in a Comedy for the 1965 farce Boeing Boeing in which he played opposite Tony Curtis. His biggest hit came with The Nutty Professor (1963).
Through the years the Hollywood Foreign Press met with Lewis several times, the last in 2016 for a press conference for Max Rose, the independent film debut by Daniel Noah in which Lewis plays an aging jazz pianist in failing health whose life is thrown into turmoil by the discovery of his deceased wife’s apparent indiscretion many decades prior. It is a poignant mediation on life and death, the unflinching testament of a man and artist at the sunset of his life. When we met him at the time he reflected on his own life. Here are some of the things he said:
“Being 90 is not simple, but it’s interesting, (laughter) very interesting. Before I was 90, I could walk, I could see well, I could hear terrific, and now I can’t hear or see or walk. But I am thrilled to be 90. If that is the pay I have to put up, if that is the rent, that’s okay”
“I learned from a fairly good filmmaker, Cecil B DeMille, whose office was eight feet from my office at Paramount, and he said one day, if you can make a film that entertains the audience you are successful. If it doesn’t entertain the audience, don’t make it. I said well you have to make it to find out what they think. So you are in a Catch 22 very often.”
How would you like to be remembered and why?“I don’t care. I want to hear all the good stuff while I am here. I am not interested in what people will think after I don’t hear it. And I enjoy my life every day. There’s 24 hours to enjoy what God has given to me. How can you not be a happy man? Now there is a guy outside that works for a butcher, he’s not happy. And he never will be because it’s not something he cares deeply about. When you care deeply about something like your film, and the work that you have done, and the people that you have done it with, it gives you such a feeling of self-worth and tall. I used to be four foot four. I am now six feet.” (laughter)
“And if you are really, really in love with you are doing, it will steer you to the right places, it will not steer you to the wrong places. If you love it, it’s going to give you everything that you want if you work at it. When I am directing a film, I am on the set at a quarter to six in the morning and I don’t leave till about midnight. But I get the work done, and I feel proud of what I have done. And I am still proud of every film I ever made because there are some people that see it and take something away with them, they take something, whether it’s the feelings they get from the actors or the plot, or the funny stuff they do. It’s a very meaningful job.”