BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — The rubber-faced clown who cheered two generations with his kooky antics is back. But this time Jerry Lewis is the subject, not the object, of the comic insight.
'Jerry Lewis: Method to the Madness,' a documentary by Gregg Barson, probes the life and career of the 85-year-old comedian, premiering Saturday on Encore.
The standup comic, who spent years cavorting across the big screen and the tube with his adolescent screech, 'Hey, Laaaaaady,' loose-limbed pratfalls and loony repartee with partner Dean Martin, wasn't easy to snare, Barson said.
'I met him at Phyllis Diller's concert, her final show in Las Vegas,' said Barson. 'And I introduced myself to him after the show. My wife said, ‘You've got to meet him. Your idol, Jerry, is here.' And I ran up to him. And the next day he called me and said he was a great fan of Phyllis Diller's. And from that moment, we started speaking on the phone.'
They continued to talk by phone about every two weeks.
'And it changed my life, literally,' Barson said. 'I kept approaching him and saying, ‘Can I do this project about you?' And it took a while, and he was always busy. But he was always appreciative that I cared about it so much … it became my passion project. And it is. It's my life literally right now. And he said, ‘Why you? Get in line. There's 13 others ahead of you, kid.'
'And I said, ‘Yeah, but they're not me.' And he said, ‘What did you say?' And I got very scared. I almost hung up the phone. And I said, ‘They're not me,' and he said, ‘I like that. You remind me of myself.' '
Jerry Seinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino all talk about Lewis and his legacy in the film.
'I've had wonderful times with all of them,' Lewis said. 'I have never heard them expound on the work as they did there. But it's a proud moment to hear people, your peers, acknowledging what you're trying to do. It's like a good writer. He loves to hear from another good writer.'
Lewis, whose popularity has waxed and waned, admits he's soured on the status of today's show business.
'I love my industry. I love what it does. I don't allow people in my family to use the term ‘TV.' That's stupid. It's ‘television.' It's a miracle. It's entitled to that respect. And that's the way I am about it. And when I watch it, I want it to grab me,' he said.
As for his heroes, Lewis, who appeared on the 'Tonight Show with Johnny Carson' 44 times, admires Jim Carrey.
'Most brilliant physical comic we've ever had,' he said. 'But, of course, you cannot deny Billy Crystal and Robin Williams. You cannot deny them. They bring so much energy to the field of comedy in general. And I love to watch an audience get pleasure. And you will get it from these people.'
'And he said, ‘I'll bet you never thought you would be hearing stand-up from Jerry Lewis on the phone.' And I basically fainted, and then when I recovered, said, ‘I never really did expect to hear it.' And he was just so gracious.'
'I want it to be like I ran home and made sure to be there before (expletive) ‘Law & Order' went on, and long before Jack Webb — the cop shows. Where we ran home to see (Milton) Berle on a Tuesday night. Nobody wants to run home now and see anything. They run home and hope there's something on. And we got to fix that.'
'Why? Because they're veterans. And you never saw a young kid just in the business of two months get up and absolutely hypnotize an audience. You need a veteran for that.'
Lewis appeared on the 'Tonight Show with Johnny Carson' 44 times.
'We don't have the soul in our industry that we had when I was working,' he said. 'And the soul has been desperately deteriorated, only because you got a guy that's running a network whose aunt died and left him some stock.'
Lewis also admits that he's tough on co-workers who aren't up to their jobs. 'Look at it from the standpoint of the human condition,' he said. 'How do you respond when someone is cruel, unkind or disrespectful? Don't you respond the same way? And don't you also hate them for drawing those attributes that you don't want to call on? Well, actors are no different. We all respond in kind.
'When I work with somebody who bends over backward to do their job, I bend my back for them. But if someone doesn't care about their work and they're just doing it, then you don't put out. They wonder, 'What's wrong with him?' They never look in the mirror and say, 'What the hell is wrong with me and what am I provoking?' '