My 1984 interview with Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis and his then-new wife, Sandee, in March 1984

“Jerry Lewis is either terrific or terrible  — he doesn’t have the option of being adequate,” says Jerry Lewis, warming to his favorite topic. “People either hate him, call him a megalomaniac and a moron, or they love him. I’ve never heard anybody say he’s a nice guy.” From time to time, Lewis turns from his interviewer to address one or another of the half-dozen aides who fill his spacious penthouse atop the Helmsley Palace. All of them respond overeagerly to every remotely funny remark by the boss. At one point, even Jerry’s dog wanders into the suite to bark approval.

Love Lewis or hate him, the man is an institution, New Jersey’s second most illustrious (after his good friend Frank Sinatra) contribution to show business. Born Joseph Levitch to a pair of Newark troupers, Lewis was lip-synching records on stage at the old Central Theater in Passaic before he was out of his teens. That was in 1943, three years before his swift ascent to the top in tandem with a laid-back baritone named Dean Martin (nee Dino Crocetti).

Even in this superstar era, the figures remain impressive. Martin and Lewis were Top 10 box office movie stars from 1950 until their acrimonious split in 1958; Lewis alone continued as a major box-office attraction into the late 1960’s. He has appeared in 45 films (total gross: $300 million) during the past 35 years, directing 14, producing and writing many.

During the last 10 years, though, America’s most aggressive clown has starred primarily in the pages of supermarket tabloids. He has declared bankruptcy, overcome an addiction to the painkiller Percodan, undergone open heart surgery, and divorced his wife of 36 years.

Of the six movies he’s appeared in during the decade, only two — “Hardly Working” and “King of Comedy” — received full-scale theatrical releases in this country. There are no U.S. takers so far for “To Catch a Cop,” Lewis’s first movie made in France, the country where he has long been revered as a successor to Chaplin and Keaton.

On this snowy afternoon in March, he is in Manhattan to promote another film, “Slapstick of Another Kind.” (At his press agent’s insistence, the interview is not to be printed until the movie’s release. As it turns out, “Slapstick” will never see the inside of local movie houses; it debuts tomorrow on Home Box Office.)

Jerry, Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn in the ill-fated “Slapstick of Another Kind.”

Impeccably dressed in a conservative blue suit, he speaks rapidly in a low voice only rarely punctuated by his verbal trademark, a high-pitched, raucous laugh. With his jet-black hair and unlined face, Lewis looks nearly two decades younger than his 58 years. The years of struggle are betrayed only by his cold gray eyes — the same eyes that mirrored the occupational ennui afflicting Jerry Langford, the talk-show host he played in “King of Comedy.” During a wide-ranging, two-hour conversation studded with profanity, Lewis charts, sometimes with rancor, the recent downward curve of his film career. He eagerly renews his running war with American film critics, who have invariably dismissed his efforts as sophomoric.

When he isn’t lurching in a somewhat manic way from insufferable egotism to maudlin self-effacement, Lewis enthuses over his upcoming schedule. It would give pause to a man half his age, let alone one who suffered a major heart attack just two years ago.

In the six months since our talk, Lewis has (1) completed a second French film in Algeria; (2) hosted a one-week trial run for a syndicated TV talk show that may lead to a regular series early next year; (3) played Atlantic City for a week; and (4) nearly completed the script for “Nutty Professor II,” a follow-up to his classic 1963 Jekyll-Hyde comedy. He hopes to begin shooting the movie this fall.

For the last month, Jerry’s been at his home in Las Vegas — where he lives with his new wife, 32-year-old SanDee — preparing for his 18th annual telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Lewis will begin his 21 1/2-hour ordeal tonight at 9 on Channel 5.

Following are excerpts from the interview:

Jerry on the set of his directorial debut, “The Bellboy.”

You titled one of your books “The Total Filmmaker,” yet why were three of your last four films directed by others?

If you directed all the time you’d need a rubber room. The role of the director is probably the most arduous job in the world and when I work on a script, whether I write it or not, I break it down for nine months. I don’t roll a camera until I have everything nailed down. Then, I do that homework all over again every day. I used to work 28 hours out of every 24. Since the surgery, I get everything done in a 15-hour day and I’m very satisfied.

How else has your life changed since your heart attack?

After three months, the doctors let me do three days onstage. That was a little scary, because you get crazy physically and you think that all of the stitches are going to come loose.

I feel marvelous, considering the alternative. (Emits his trademark laugh.) God almighty, I walk on the Carson show, and he says, “a grown man and you’re still taking money for making noises and silly voices.” Then I give him regards from Sinatra and thank Johnny for getting us off the . . . cover of [a well-known supermarket tabloid]. When my attorneys were filing a lawsuit against them, their attorneys told mine, “Whenever we have a slump in circulation, we put Sinatra or Jerry on the cover and it comes way up.” So I called them up and told them, instead of making up [stories] call me up. Some of my [stories] play better.

There have been reports you’re moving to France.

No, I’m not going to leave my country, though I do spend a lot of time in France. I bought some land there 15 years ago, and when [French President Francois] Mitterand presented me with the Legion of Honor earlier this year, he mentioned that I am a landowner. From there someone surmised that Jerry was going to move.

What’s your French film like?

It’s called “To Catch a Cop,” and it’s cute. In France or anywhere in Europe, you can play an almost-straight role and it’ll work comically for you. I’m a cop, Michel Blanc is a cop, the whole theme of the picture is that everybody’s a cop. Everybody’s chasing everybody.

Do you speak French in the film?

(He affects a broad Gallic accent.) But of course. All you have to do is say “ze” and “zat.” Why did you choose to do “Slapstick,” an adaptation of a Kurt Vonnegut novel?

While I was paid a lot of money, I mostly did it because the director, Steven Paul, had a dream. This kid was in my office annoying me for eight years, since he was 17 years old. He got the option on the book predicated on getting me. I couldn’t walk away from that. I’m doing interviews to sell the picture, but I’m outrageously honest. And I have to tell you it misses. It’s a shame, because this is as close as Vonnegut will ever get to getting his work on the screen. I helped Steven as much as I could technically, but I would never have accepted this film as a directorial assignment. It’s just too weird, not my kind of comedy, really.

Why did Warner Bros. sell another of your films, “Smorgasbord,” directly to cable TV?

My mistake was making the picture for a little more than $4 million. Warners knew it wasn’t a megabuck movie, so they weren’t going to put $3 million in prints and advertising. You put your life’s blood into a theatrical, and without your permission, they made $12 million just putting it on cable and cassettes. I call that . . . dirty pool and I’m going to sue {them}.

It’s interesting that during the entire period, from the coming of talkies to the decline of the studio system in the 1960’s, you were the only comedian who managed to take control of his films as a producer-director.

I had to, only because I wanted to take the autonomy out of the hands of the incompetents. It wasn’t so much for the power, but to make sure that if they wanted a film to be adjusted — say, to have 12 minutes cut — they should let me make the cuts.

Jerry’s masterpiece, “The Nutty Professor.”

Do you consider “The Nutty Professor” [1963] your best film?

I think so; from the writing to the directing to the acting to the producing, for me it was the total work. You only have to do one of those in your career. But I’d like to take a shot at doing it a little better, so that’s why I’m making a sequel.

Many people have assumed that Buddy Love — the womanizing, obnoxious alter ego of the shy, awkward Prof. Julius Kelp — was your way of getting back at Dean Martin. Is this so, is the character based on him?

No way. Buddy was a conglomeration of the bigot, the snob, the heckler in an audience, the Joe McCarthy of the theatrical world. Because he was suave, tall, and good-looking, some people identified him with my ex-partner. But I love my partner. I would never have written that with him in mind.

Jerry’s famous reunion with Dean Martin on the 1976 telethon.

Are you friends with Dean? Do you ever speak?

We don’t socialize, we don’t seek each other out, but when we are brought together there are great moments of reminiscence. We last saw each other two years ago at the Golden Globe Awards. Someone brought us a reunion project a few years ago, but it didn’t work out. One thing I’ve learned in this business is you never say never.

What do you consider your worst work?

I’ve got a list that would take a half-hour. For all the wrong reasons: sometimes a feeling of insecurity, sometimes not feeling well. If a dramatic actor’s baby is sick in the morning, he can turn that into a performance. You tell a comic that and he doesn’t go to work.

Why do you think you’re so much more popular in Europe?

The Martin and Lewis pictures would gross around $2 million there. But a Jerry Lewis film would start at a $5.5 million gross, because he directed it. That’s the way they think.

Moving away from the relatively complicated plots and verbal humor of the Martin-Lewis pictures to a more visually oriented style wouldn’t seem to have hurt.

Plot is the disease that will eat away at the basically simple fun. It’s important, but when it begins to infringe on the humor, it’ll begin to put your funnybone to sleep.

To this day, I wish someone would tell me what Blanche DuBois was yelling about in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” When I first met Tennessee Williams, I told him, “You’ve given me a headache that’s run about 29 years,” and asked him to explain the play. “Jer,” he replied, “you wouldn’t understand if I told you.” I think most people are ashamed to admit they don’t understand something.

Are there any younger comedians working today you particularly respect?

Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Woody Allen, and Charlie Callas, who should have been a big star. I saw a kid last night, Billy Crystal, in a nightclub here and he’s . . . brilliant.

What about Eddie Murphy?

You haven’t even see the tip of the iceberg. He’s got that innate Jewish comic tendency –I’m not being facetious, the Jewish among us that have it, have it from birth — in the black form. He’s got a sense of timing that’s incredible.

As a writer-director-star, in many ways you anticipated the work of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. But unlike them, you’ve never played a definite ethnic character. Why have you continued to downplay your Jewishness on screen?

I never hid it, but I wouldn’t announce it and I wouldn’t exploit it. Plus the fact it had no room in the visual direction I was taking in my work.

Jerry in a scene from “The Day the Clown Died.” In 2014, he donated it along with all of his other film holdings to the Library of Congress, with the stipulation it not be shown to anyone until 2024. (Though he has repeatedly denied it will ever be shown).

What’s the status of “The Day the Clown Died” [1974], in which you played a clown in a World War II German concentration camp?

It’s still tied up legally in the vault in Sweden, along with two [Ingmar] Bergman films and a Louis Malle from the early 1970’s. But I’m fortunate that mine is a period picture. My attorney in London tells me there’s some progress.

Are you planning to play any more serious parts?

Hell, no! Not unless I get another script like “King of Comedy.” Were you gratified by the good reviews you got, virtually your first in this country?

What? (Mock astonishment.) From the critics? No! How can I keep telling them they’re morons and then when they write good about me, tell them they’re wonderful? None of us in the film industry really {cares} about getting ripped as long as the guy takes a look at our work and has a point of view. But a lot of reviews come straight from press brochures.

In your opinion, why are the critics are so hostile to you?

Jerry played multiple roles in “The Family Jewels,” one of his films with few, if any, critical defenders.

They’re prejudiced because I’ve ripped them. I’ve asked for it. But on the other hand, the critics have given me a longevity. The greatest thing that can happen to a young performer is for the critics to jump on him, so the public can defend him, embrace him. The difference between Martin and Lewis’s earning capacity — $8 million a year — and my personal earning capacity at present is only half.

I’ve had over 40 years as a star; that’s unheard of. George Burns is unique, he didn’t become a big name alone until he was 75. Bob Hope cannot be placed in the same category, he’s a national treasure. Other than that, you name for me someone who’s had a pretty consistent position for 40 years. I have had about 8 to 10 years longer in my career than I should have had; and it’s largely thanks to the critics. And my fans.

I’ve grown up with most of you young guys that were a part of my life and I was a part of your lives. Whether you like Jerry or not, the recollection is there. More than likely it’s a good one, because I portrayed you when you were 7 years old.


Robert Osborne (1932-2017)

Robert coaches me through a “Critics Choice” intro at a June 2010 taping in Greenwich Village.

I’m deeply saddened by the death of Robert Osborne, who passed away in his sleep this morning (as his partner of 20 years, David Staller, told the Los Angeles Times). I can’t claim that we close friends, but I knew Robert well enough over a period of years that my life was changed for the better.

Robert was truly one of a kind — deeply knowledgable, unfailingly generous and everything you’d expect from his joyful Turner Classic Movies persona and much more. He was also a quintessential adopted New Yorker — he told me more than once that the smartest thing he’d ever done was to move away from Hollywood (‘’people are so superficial there’’) to the Big Apple, where he was a fixture at Broadway openings for decades. (He kept a pied a terre in Hollywood). For many years, he maintained three apartments at the Osborne Apartments on W. 57th Street (one for his office and one for his immense movie poster collection, which he began selling off in 2014).

I’d interviewed Robert several times on the phone when I was invited to lunch with him and TCM’s vice-president for programmer, Charles Tabesh, in 2009 to talk about TCM’s 15th anniversary. Robert was warm, friendly, and very enthusiastic when I impulsively decided to pitch a film series that my friend Farran Smith Nehme had been developing as a sort of movie-buff fantasy.

It was beyond thrilling when Robert introduced the first night of “Shadows of Russia’’ in January 2010 by saluting Farran and me for coming up a series that would trace Hollywood’s depiction of Russia from before the Revolution through the Cold War. Not long after that, I was invited to tape a couple of segments for another TCM series, “Critics Choice.’’

I had made quite a few TV appearances going back to the 1980s, but was never terribly comfortable in front of the cameras. Robert immediately set me at ease with a few words. My best video work ever was introducing THE LAST FLIGHT (1931) and ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT (1942) with Robert.

With Robert and Angela Lansbury at a reception before a screening at the SVA Theatre in Chelsea.

In early 2011, I was invited to a little reception at a restaurant across the street before Robert interviewed Angela Lansbury at a screening of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE at the SVA Theatre in Chelsea. Her eyebrows arched upwards when I made the mistake of noting that Robert’s ex-boss and Lansbury’s bete noir Lucille Ball (think “Mame”) had reportedly been considered for Lansbury’s role in MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.

“Not seriously!’’ Robert said with a laugh and demonstrated why he was the interviewer of choice for Hollywood’s legends. (Though he cheerfully admitted he couldn’t get much more than a “yes’’ or “no’’ out of Robert Mitchum).

Robert took an obviously unplanned leave — first announced as three months, it lasted eight — not long after that, and Ben Mankiewicz’ hosting duties began to be expanded after Osborne took another leave in 2012. At one of the TCM Classic Film Festivals, I was interviewed by Robert in the lobby of the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel about THE IRON PETTICOAT, a long-unavailable comedy with Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn that I helped TCM clear the TV and video rights to.

A frame grab from THE IRON PETTICOAT video, which is now sadly out of print.

When TCM threw a 20th-anniversary celebration for Robertat the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival (which turned out to be his last), it was pretty obvious that Robert’s

deteriorating health made it debatable if there would be a 25th. The last time I saw him was at a Manhattan taping in May 2015. He greeted me warmly, but was too tired for a scheduled interview afterwards. Robert’s final TV appearance seems to have been an interview with Mo Rocco of “CBS Sunday Morning’’ that aired the day before the 2016 Oscars (fittingly enough for the man who wrote the academy’s official history of the ceremonies).

Robert had a strict sense of ethics — he was very proud of the fact that while had known about Rock Hudson’s AIDS well before it became public, he had not informed his bosses at the Hollywood Report, where he wrote a column for a quarter-century. He also strictly kept gossip out of his TCM introductions, but let me tell you the man knew everything about everybody (he told me that Ida Lupino’s directing career declined much less because of sexism than her drinking problem).

Robert, Farran Smith Nehme and me in a promo shot for “Shadows of Russia” taken in December 2009 at The Post.

One of Robert’s big dreams was getting his close friend Olivia DeHavilland to appear at the 2014 festival for the 75th anniversary of “Gone With the Wind.’’ He described a frustrating attempt to tape a segment with her in Paris that fell apart because of health issues, but was still hopeful. It didn’t happen, but even after he could no longer appear on air, Robert wrote in TCM’s program guide that as she approached 100 last year, she had set the goal of living to 115.

Robert was a gentleman and a fantastic interviewer who brought joy into many lives — including my Aunt Rose. She unfailingly watched Robert introduce four different movies every single night of the week, and that continued when I joined her in the vigil Aunt Rose kept by the beside of her dying daughter at a Manhattan hospice.

But Robert’s audience was much bigger than the Aunt Roses of the world, who did not turn TCM into the beloved brand that it has become. Robert’s greatest and most enduring accomplishment was turning untold viewers in their 30s, 20s and younger on to the classic films he loved so much. As the man most identified with a single network since Walter Cronkite, Robert Osborne insured that the flame of classic Hollywood will burn brightly for generations to come.

The last time I saw Robert was in May 2015 at a taping for some intros with cinematographer Caleb Deschanel where I took this with my phone.

When ‘King Kong’ came to TV

With SKULL ISLAND coming to theaters on Friday, it’s time to remember the first time that “The Eighth Wonder of the world” arrived on television 60 years ago tonight. If you were a kid in New York City on March 5, 1956, it was a huge deal when KING KONG (1933) made its TV debut on WOR’s “Million Dollar Movie.”


I watched at least five of the 16 showings that week (nightly at 7:30 and 10 p.m., plus matinees on Saturday and Sunday) and this seven-year-0ld had plenty of company. A 1952 theatrical re-release had done better than the original 1933 release, hence the choice of “Kong” to kick off the RKO titles on “Million Dollar Movie,” whose early seasons leaned heavily toward ’40s films leased from the Bank of America (repossessed titles that began with MAGIC TOWN) and titles from the short-lived International Pictures and independent producer David O. Selznick.


The ratings for “Kong’s” week-long debut were so spectacular that RKO General, which was still operating the movie studio as well as broadcast properties, cancelled plans to show it on four of its other TV stations (it had already shown in Memphis) and put it back in theaters for its fourth re-release that summer. (In some markets, it went head to head with the new GODZILLA — the two monsters would actually be pitted against each other six years later in Universal and Toho’s immortal KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, which is slated for a 2020 remake.)

The original “Kong” didn’t surface again on TV until August 4, 1957 when it made its national debut as one of 26 RKO titles — all previously seen on WOR –broadcast on ABC’s “Hollywood Film Theater.” It returned to “Million Dollar Movie” for an encore run beginning on July 7, 1958 and showed for decades in heavy rotation on the station (including what became regular Thanksgiving showings beginning in the 1970s) until RKO General was forced to sell the station in 1986 because the FCC found its parent company, General Tire, engaged in unethical business practices like requiring its suppliers to buy time on the TV stations.


These later showings were generally in two-hour timeslots, but the early showings were all edited to fit into 90 minutes, which meant that, after commercials, we were seeing at most 75 minutes of a movie that originally ran 100 minutes. “Million Dollar Movie” debuted both “Citizen Kane” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in two-hour time slots in 1959, but it would be years before this became the norm on WOR.

In a 1956 article in the New York Times, WOR’s general manager actually claimed that station’s editors were actually “improving” movies by cutting them. But even when WOR began showing “King Kong” in a two-hour time slot in the early 1960s, it wasn’t exactly the same film that wowed audiences when it opened on March 2, 1933 at Radio City Music Hall and the nearby RKO Roxy. The pre-code film had been cut to receive a code certificate for its 1938 reissue, and some portions were optically darkened to satisfy the censors. The most notable omission was a scene where Kong attempts to undress Ann Darrow and smells his fingers.

The missing footage was restored for a 1970 re-release through Janus Films, courtesy of a 16mm print discovered in Philadelphia a year earlier. But it was not until 2005 that then-owner Warner Bros. completed a deluxe 4K restoration from all of the best surviving elements, including a non-darkened 35mm print from the UK that even included 4 minutes of entrance and exit music. This is the excellent version now available on video.


Trick for Trick (1933): Magic and malice at midnight seance on the Palisades

One of the many enjoyable things I’ve been doing since I retired from the New York Post last October is attending matinees at the Museum of Modern Art. The current series is devoted to Depression-era films, and it includes well-known titles as well as obscurities I’ve ever heard of, like William Dieterle’s “Adorable” (1933), a delightful Lubitsch-like musical starring Janet Gaynor based on a German film co-written by Billy Wilder.

With credits like that, I wasn’t surprised it was good — but I didn’t know what to expect from “Trick for Trick,” an even less well-known 1933 Fox release from the MoMA vaults directed by Hamilton MacFadden, whose best known films are the bizarre musical “Stand Up and Cheer!” (1934) that shot Shirley Temple to stardom, and “The Black Camel” (1931), the only one of his three Charlie Chan mysteries that is known to exist. (Both are on DVD).

Ralph Morgan and Sally Blane.

One of many early Fox talkies that seem to have never made it to TV, much less video, “Trick for Trick” is a comedy-thriller derived from a short-lived Broadway play with wonderfully stylish, expressionist-style sets and delightful special effects by William Cameron Menzies of “Gone With the Wind” fame. The setting is a spooky mansion full of trap doors and sliding panels where a turban-wearing medium named Azrah (Ralph Morgan, relishing a rare opportunity to ham it up as much as his younger brother Frank as the lead) invites his former protege LaTour (Victor Jory, the size of whose role bears no relationship to his second billing) and a bunch of other murder suspects to a midnight seance. This bitchy duo each try to convince a dim-witted police detective (Boothe Howard) that the other is responsible for the death of Azrah’s female assistant six months earlier. In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, the detective discovers that virtually all the invitees is packing heat.

Besides being stylishly photographed (by L.W. O’Connell) and designed, “Trick for Trick” is an awful lot of fun. Loretta Young’s sister Sally Blane (who would play a similar role in “Charlie Chan at Treasure Island”) is the female lead. The juvenile male lead, billed as Clifford Jones (as he was in the W.C. Fields vehicle “Tillie and Gus” that same year) was a familiar face to me. I interviewed him under his real name, Philip Trent, 35 years ago at the Actor’s Home in Englewood. Trent, who had two unbilled roles in “Gone With he Wind,” never mentioned “Trick for Trick,” possibly because he spends virtually the entire 67-minute running around hysterically in a raccoon coat.

Clifford Jones (Philip Trent), Sally Blane, Edward Van Sloan.

Also on hand are a bunch of great character actors, including Tom Dugan (who would go on to play the actor who impersonates Hitler in “To Be Or Not to Be”), Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing in “Dracula”), the ubiquitous Willard Robertson (“Heat Lightning”) in an offbeat bit of casting and an unmilled Angelo Rositto, who played dwarfs with everyone from John Barrymore (the silent “The Beloved Rogue”) to Mel Gibson (“Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome”) during his six decade career. The standout is Luis Alberni, whose hilariously over-the-top turn as a very mad scientist was singled out in young Andre Sennwald’s enthusiastic review in the New York Times (it opened at the Roxy in support of a vaudeville bill).

Ralph Morgan and Dorothy Appleby

“Trick for Trick” may not hold up as a murder mystery, but it’s solid pre-code entertainment that deserves a showing on TCM and a video release.