Graham Reid | | 2 min read
Jerry Lewis is in his early 80s so it’s hardly surprising people don’t talk about him much anymore. His last decent movie appearance was in The King of Comedy in 83 as the arrogant television talkshow host Jerry Langford stalked by Robert DeNiro’s deluded Rupert Pupkin. Lewis was terrific, oozing oily indifference.
The last time he rose in public consciousness was a few years ago when he became ill and looked like a blimp as a result of medication. He said he’d bought a gun and considered using it on himself after years of chronic pain.
He has long ceased to be the goofy thin guy who was the comedy half of the duo with Dean Martin, then launched a film career with The Bellboy and The Nutty Professor.
Lewis’ face-pulling, pratfalls, tripping over buckets and walking into glass doors doesn’t much appeal these days, although elements of his gawky characters remained in Andy Kaufman’s Latka in the Taxi tele-series, in early Jim Carrey and Steve Martin routines, in Benny Hill's performances and as the voice for the crazy professor in The Simpsons.
Eddie Murphy’s box office smash The Nutty Professor was a revision of Lewis’ 63 classic.
Lewis was more than just a fall-down clown however. He wrote, directed and produced most of his own movies, he sang (not well, but passably) and wrote music, and in France was considered a comic genius and auteur long after his career faded in America.
There is a sentimental, often mawkish side to Lewis -- his annual telethon for muscular dystrophy, his disease-of-the-week telemovie Fight For Life in 87 which was all too typical -- so you have to go back to his earliest movies to glimpse his gifts.
Most of Lewis’ early Paramount pictures -- he was making two a year -- have been released at budget price but The Bellboy and The Errand Boy, funny as they are in places, now seem merely a series of loosely linked slapstick sketches.
Lewis used the same small ensemble of actors Del Moore, Kathleen Freeman, Rig Ruman and Fritz Field. They were reliable company players who wouldn’t upstage him, although in The Errand Boy he has the twitchy Howard McNear (who appeared in a number of Elvis movies playing much the same type) who comes close to stealing Lewis‘ spotlight.
But the storylines were thin and it wasn’t until The Nutty Professor, a hip flip on the Jekyll and Hyde story, that Lewis started to shine.
Filmed in glorious Techicolor (and milking it for every vivid possibility) The Nutty Professor allowed Lewis to indulge in what he loved most about film, to play two characters (as he had done in The Bellboy.)
Here he was the buck-toothed, nervous professor and then, in a comic invention of considerable genius, the sleazy, cocktail-swigging, lounge-lizard Buddy Love. Years of watching Sinatra’s Rat Packers paid off as Lewis adopted Frank’s tough-talking, hoodlum cool.
With art direction by Hal Periera, costumes by Edith Head and music from Les Brown and his orchestra Lewis got to ham it up as the prof, and show a nasty streak as Buddy -- which those who knew him well said wasn’t far below the surface.
Lewis is, by all accounts, bitter. He feels he never got the accolades in the States he deserved (which might explain some woeful, career-killing French films in the late 80s), but the world moved on just as he was hitting his comedic stride.
Falling down and shouting a lot, or mugging it up direct to camera, just didn’t cut it as the 60s rolled on and a more cynical age arrived in the 70s.
But if you want to see Lewis at his best -- other than in King of Comedy -- check out The Errand Boy with its sentimental scenes with a hand puppet and the boardroom sequence where he talks the sound of big band while playing the Hollywood mogul. Or The Nutty Professor where, as Buddy Love, he enters The Purple Pit nightclub and woos the crowd with his snappy put-down wit, and a song at the piano.
When Lewis, now frail and ill, dies you can bet you will be pointed to them by the obituaries.