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August 21, 2019

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Jerry Lewis at 90: ‘It’s a monster number’

Jerry Lewis at Home

Christopher DeVargas

Entertainment legend Jerry Lewis photographed at his home Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, in Las Vegas.

Jerry Lewis at Home

Entertainment legend Jerry Lewis photographed at his home Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, in Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

Jerry Lewis at 2013 Cannes Film Festival

Jerry Lewis promotes his new film Launch slideshow »

The gentleman at the right is seated just off the aisle at the Jennifer Lopez show “All I Have” at Axis at Planet Hollywood. Delivering him to this spot in this 4,000-seat venue has been an odyssey requiring a scooter trek from the Planet Hollywood porte-cochere to Gordon Ramsay BurGR inside the hotel, back through the casino, around to the rear entrance of the theater and onto a specialized lift to hoist this individual to an aisle leading to his row.

It’s a nutty journey, fittingly enough.

At one point, the subject of all this attention intentionally slams his scooter into an elevator wall upon entry. “Just making sure I made it in all the way,” he cracks. All the while, he is flanked by a team of hotel security officials who keep the curious at bay.

As he moves through the hotel, this becomes a more challenging and urgent task. Whispers of “Is that really him?,” and he is tailed by a phalanx of folks trying to take photos of him with smartphones. This hubbub prompts him to say, “It’s hard for me to get out and do things because it’s such an ordeal.”

At his seat, he grips the handle of a walking cane, subconsciously handling this stick of support as if it’s a microphone. He is eager for this show to start, but it won’t for several more minutes.

During the wait he muses about what is, for him, a rare hang at a production show on the Strip. He leans close and says, “At dinner earlier, I was having trouble concentrating because of the outfits the waitresses were wearing. I didn’t want Sam to know that, so I played it very smooth.”

Sam is his wife.

“Yes, you were very smooth,” I say back to him. “I don’t think she noticed anything.”

“I was smooth, and very cool, too,” he continues. “You noticed how friendly they were to me?”

“They were,” I say. “Did you get any numbers?”

“Yes, I did. I got four,” he says. “Three for me, and one for you.”

Ah! You got me. A classic setup and punch line. In this moment, just five weeks before his 90th birthday, the living legend Jerry Lewis has still got it.

“It is a hell of a big number — it’s a monster.”

Seated on a sofa at his home in Las Vegas, a month after he was dazzled by J.Lo, “J.Lew” recalls the show and how he was “totally impressed” by Lopez’s thundering presentation at Axis. He came into the show as a Lopez fan, for her work on the new NBC drama “Shades of Blue,” and there is an effort underway for the two to meet when Lopez returns to Planet Hollywood in May.

As usual, he is playing with a couple of his doggies, Paulie and Lola. An orange cat, Callie, also makes repeated cameos.

Lewis has hardly spoken of his birthday, which is to be celebrated with a private gathering of friends and family Wednesday night in Las Vegas. Even Lewis’ immediate family has awaited some revelation about how he really feels about marking this moment.

What is certain is few who are in his class in the history of entertainment are still living. Tony Bennett and Don Rickles are but two who are approaching that age who still perform ticketed shows.

“I have not taken that moment to explain what this feels like,” Lewis says. “It’s really strange because I can tell you things that have changed in me since 1980, or ’81, to now. I’m blind. I can’t hear. I don’t walk too well. See what I mean? I’m having trouble sleeping, and my hands fall asleep every 15 minutes or so (laughs). Every day is another something that comes along.”

It might seem a sad recitation of a litany of maladies, but it is not. Lewis is just imparting the naked truth.

“I was looking at myself in the mirror after I got out of the shower this morning, and I thought, ‘I’ve used all of this up for the past 89 years,’” he says, shaking his head. “It’s going to break down. But I am happy to know that, mentally, I am very sharp.”

He is that, but in a way that is scattershot. Lewis’ mental capacity has always been to be at once focused and fragmented, with multiple ideas pin-balling around that brilliant brain. He once told me, “Right now I am talking to you, but I am also thinking about a video edit I need to do later.”

He has an explanation as to how he has remained mentally acute.

“I think it has helped that I am so curious about what has been happening to me, and that I have enjoyed watching the changes through my life, you know?” Lewis says. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to me next. Maybe next month it will be something else, but I have always been curious about everything around me. I am intrigued by everything, and that keeps my brain working.”

“I could still take a fall, right now, like nobody’s business.”

There is some “legacy” convo to cover with Lewis as he turns 90, about how he would want to be remembered. I ask about his live performances and how the skills he famously developed in his career — tap dancing, physical comedy, clowning — seem mired in another era.

“It’s a hell of a question, why things change, and sometimes I watch clips of myself at the Sands or Sahara or wherever it is, and I think, ‘That guy is right on the (effing) money!’ ” he says. “My dad was a stickler for teaching me the pratfall. There is something magical about taking a good fall, and when it works, when you get that laugh, there’s no better feeling in the world.”

The result for working all that magic, of course, is Lewis is forever shaped like a question mark for the damage he has done to his spine. He often winces when he speaks, unable to mask that discomfort. But Lewis insists that the physical toll has been worth it. “To get that laugh, at that moment, can give you five years of anticipation.”

Lewis says that the comedy team of Martin & Lewis belongs at the top of the list of all-time greats, which is not a surprise given his unbending pride of their 10-year partnership from 1946-’56.

“If you want to go all the way back, you start with Charlie Chaplin, you start with Charley Chase, Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton and all of the old-timers,” he says. “We belong there because, every single old-timer will give you something, whether they know where they are going with it or not. ... But my partner and I, we gave everything we knew how to give.”

Jerry Lewis at the Orleans

Entertainer Jerry Lewis performs at the Orleans Showroom Sunday, November 18, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Jerry Lewis: Nevada Broadcasters Association Lifetime Achievement Award

Jerry Lewis listens as he is presented with the Nevada Broadcasters Association Lifetime Achievement Award at Red Rock Resort on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011. Launch slideshow »

2010 Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon

The 2010 Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon at South Point. Ace Young, Nigel Lythgoe and David Archuleta are pictured here. Launch slideshow »

“To raise $2.6 billion, to raise that much money, what do you need to discuss? There is nothing more.”

Lewis’ active career as a full-time spokesman for the Muscular Dystrophy Association was effectively unplugged six years ago. The acrimony of that divorce remains evident, and Lewis still shows his fighting side when referring to the administration that cut him loose.

The person with whom Lewis long feuded, longtime MDA President and CEO Gerald C. Weinberg, is clearly the target of Lewis’ comment, “I’m just waiting for one of the executives to have a heart attack.” (Weinberg retired in 2011 after 54 years with the MDA and was assigned a consulting role with the organization.)

Lewis laughs as he delivers that barbed comment, as those who have long observed the telethon realize the reason for Lewis’ ouster was his heated relationship with Weinberg. Lewis then shrugs and goes on to say, “I couldn’t do another telethon, no. No more. I can’t give it any more than I gave it, to build a band or work up material, no.”

Even so, Lewis did cut a video clip for the MDA in January, promoting the organization’s new logo and motto for a media event at Carnegie Hall in New York. Lewis is once more willing to speak on behalf of the MDA and lend his powerful name and image to the organization.

“We’re talking about doing something like that, but we haven’t come up with what it would be,” he says. “I don’t want anybody to plan anything because I don’t know yet, but I do know that we will aim at that target and see if we can make it work.”

Millions of Lewis’ fans know him expressly for his work on the telethon, and might never have seen him otherwise on TV, or any of his movies, or in live performance. Is he OK with that singular affiliation, the “Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon”?

“Why not? People can say, ‘He’s over here for this reason, and he’s over there for that reason.’ You can put me wherever I belong,” he says. “I think that whatever you say, there is not much more I can do. When you touch hearts in that way, the people you touch love you for the rest of your life.”

“I would like to be remembered for good work, and I’d like to be remembered that parents felt comfortable bringing their kids to my movies.”

“I feel I have been a part of some very wonderful films, and I have had it in mind when I was on the set, every day, that what I am doing has meaning,” Lewis says. “I have felt during the making of my films that what I’m doing goes a very long way, and I’d better respect the performance and how much work goes into the performance.”

Proving such, Lewis famously collapsed for a “cardiac event” after running the long staircase in “Cinderfella” in just under 10 seconds. He spent four days in an oxygen tent after that performance. The skills he developed in his stage career, the clown miming in the boardroom scene in “The Errand Boy” (where he lectures an unseen staff to Count Basie’s “Boss in Hoss Flat”) and the seductively comic dance scene with Sylvia Lewis in “The Ladies Man,” stem from his stage career.

“I do watch these movies, I watch myself in ‘The Nutty Professor,’ and I’m sitting there laughing,” he says. “If I’m laughing at myself there on the screen, I am doing it right, and I think I did it right.”

Lewis’ fascination with the camera, both for video and stills, dates to his youth, and his eye for capturing movement led to an exhibit of his abstract photos taken in the ’60s and ’70s, titled “Painted Pictures,” at UNLV in 2014. He just bought a Canon EOS 7D and toured the company’s headquarters to gain tips on how to operate that equipment.

This has been a lifetime passion. In the early days with Martin, Lewis says, “We got our first check as a team, and I went right to the camera shop and got my first camera. Dean, of course, became the model. Finally he said, ‘I don’t want to take any more pictures!” I said, “Just do what you do. You won’t notice me. I’ll be like the furniture.”

“If Dean were here now, we’d talk for three hours, then go onstage and do something we’d never done before.”

Lewis still has a strong unit of friends and family. Sam, of course, and his daughter Danielle, who is about to turn 24 and is so clearly the apple of her father’s eye. “The beauty has just walked into the room,” he says as Danielle arrives in the living room, filled with paintings and Lewis memorabilia, near the end of this chat.

I ask Lewis of who is not around today he misses most. There is no hesitation in his response.

“Dean,” he says. “I wish he was here, oh, yeah. What I learned from him was like going to Brandeis or Purdue or Columbia, Yale, any of those. When we joined up, he knew as much about show business as that cat over there (a reference to Callie, lounging on the couch). But he was a miracle that God put in my life, and working with him was a feeling I’ll never, ever forget.”

Lewis still performs, having appeared for a couple thousand fans at Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center at the Villages in Orlando, Fla. In the show, Lewis rolls out old film clips, tells jokes and usually sings “Smile” at the end.

Lewis talks of his capacity to still perform and laughs. “Nine-oh! Woo!” he calls out. “I’m like George Burns. My friend George, I told him I was going to make it to 100, and he said, ‘Go ahead, see if you can beat that.’ ”

Lewis has known them all. He becomes suddenly reflective once more, as he faces this “monster” number.

“It is telling you it’s almost over,” he says as the little dog Paulie pushes his nose into her master’s hand. “That hurts. It hurts to say that. It hurts to think, ‘I’m not going to see my friends, my family, for much longer.’ I am approaching the thrill of being 90. I will have a good time, but I don’t have any misgivings about it. The only negative part is it’s almost over.

“But I’ve seen enough. I really have. I don’t know how else to look at it.”

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