We’ve had a lot of obits on this blog in the past 12 years but this is a particularly tough one because my relationship with Jerry Lewis was...well, complicated.
As a child and a tween, if someone asked me who my favorite movie star was, I’d answer unhesitatingly that it was Jerry Lewis. Jerry Lewis was handsome and made me laugh. He had his own comic book, his own cartoon series, his own variety show, his own talk show, his own theaters, and every year he raised millions of dollars to fight muscular dystrophy on Labor Day. What was there not to like?
Jerry’s new movies stopped suddenly around that time, though. I’d learn later that he had heart issues, a drug addiction, and the still not completely known story of his legendary unfinished and unreleased film, THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED.
As I grew older, I discovered that the real Jerry was actually much closer to the egotistical “Buddy Love” character he portrayed in his best picture, THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, than to his typical likable loony character. I also discovered he had an entire career before I had ever encountered him, teamed with—of all people—Dean Martin!
As HE grew older, he wrote several very good books, he surprised with a great dramatic take in KING OF COMEDY, flopped with a couple of French-made features and a half-hearted American comeback attempt, and continued to make millions for MD research and tick off millions of people by his ego, his ill thought out comments, and his occasional racist and/or misogynistic statements.
In time, the MD let him go, he made one last movie, he promised THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED could be seen in a decade, and he did annoying live interviews and personal appearances. But he was still Jerry Lewis.
He was still the Jerry Lewis that made me laugh harder than I had ever laughed just because when it came to being silly, he was utterly fearless. He was still the pioneering filmmaker, he was still considered a genius on the level of Chaplin and Tati in France, and at heart, no matter how fake it turned out to be, he was still that crazy kid somewhere deep inside.
Rest in peace, Jerry. Thanks for everything.