Jerry Lewis called himself “a genius.” He was, of course. And he was the King of Comedy. But I always thought he seemed a little afraid that no one else would give him the credit for his brilliant uninhibited goofiness and astounding ability to make audience around the world laugh ‘til they hurt. Once he was a super star, his lack of humility about his prodigious talent could be a little surprising. But you were usually laughing so hard you forgot about it. Comedians tried to imitate him but no one could match his child-like, nutty, seemingly-simple characters that were not only hilarious but in a strange way endearing.
There were gasps when he broke up with his ten-year partner, Dean Martin. But many don’t remember that when he went solo he became the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Even so, Dean was one of the few people Jerry gave unqualified credit for helping to make him what he was.
I interviewed Jerry many times over the years. He was brilliant and thoughtful, always funny but also argumentative and bossy. He tested me like he tested everyone but when you got his approval, it meant a lot.
Lewis was especially proud in a career of giant successes to play opposite Robert De Niro in “The King of Comedy”. His respect for De Niro inspired him to deliver a great dramatic performance. Fans began to realize that he could make you cry as well as laugh.
Jerry gave a lot of himself to help others. His limitless love for “Jerry’s Kids” made his Muscular Dystrophy telethon a success for over fifty years. There are so many star-studded fundraisers now it’s easy to forget that Jerry Lewis created a show that attracted the biggest names to raise funds and awareness.
Jerry always insisted that “there is a thin line between comedy and tragedy”. His life showed that too. At ninety he was grateful for all his blessings but very cranky about his pains. He didn’t age gracefully and he once said he thought he taken 24,000 pills to combat the illnesses he suffered. But he had a punch line for it. “I never fall down any more or I should say, I don’t fall down on purpose,” he riffed. And he also observed, ‘People say, “How would you like to be remembered?” I don’t want to be remembered. Gimme a break. What I want is to hear what’s great about me now. Let me hear it! In the box, you don’t hear these eulogies.”