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Sunday 21 January 2018

Nutty but nice

All his old playmates are dead, from Frank Sinatra and Lenny Bruce to his former stage partner Dean Martin, but last month Jerry Lewis emerged from semi-retirement to announce he'd be directing a stage play based on his most famous film.

Now 86, he has survived everything but a biblical plague. He's broken his back, had heart surgery, wrestled with prostate cancer, pulmonary fibrosis and type one diabetes, but still he rumbles on, a relic from a bygone age -- a comedy god to some, a half-forgotten dinosaur to others.

His musical version of his film The Nutty Professor opened in Nashville on July 31 to pretty warm reviews. And he was in typically ebullient form at a recent press conference, telling one journalist his question was so long it might as well be a "commencement speech" and mocking his own age by saying: "I haven't heard anyone in five years."

But when asked why The Nutty Professor was opening in Nashville rather than on Broadway, he was only half joking when he said that "nobody else would take us".

The provincial setting must be odd for someone who was once the biggest comedy star in the world. It's hard at this remove to appreciate just how famous Lewis was.

After he and Dean Martin teamed up in 1946, they quickly emerged as the hottest live ticket in post-war America. They became TV stars, made 16 movies together and their unique comedy routines were admired across the world.

After an acrimonious split in 1956, the pair embarked on solo careers. Lewis's initially went well, and in the early 1960s he wrote, directed and starred in a string of comic films on which his lofty reputation rests.

To a whole generation of comics and actors he remains an inspiration and a god. Alec Baldwin describes him as "the Marlon Brando of comedy" and Jerry Seinfeld believes that "if you don't get Jerry Lewis, you don't really understand comedy".

Which is all very well, but modern audiences can find his gurning, pratfalls and childlike persona grating and might be forgiven for wondering if Lewis was really as good as they say.

I think he was, but appreciating him at this remove isn't easy, and his caustic and chaotic personality hasn't exactly endeared him to everyone down the years.

Lewis was born into showbiz. His real name was Joseph Levitch and his Russian Jewish parents were entertainers. His mother Rachel played piano and his father Daniel was a Vaudeville MC.

By the time he was five he was performing alongside them on the legendarily brutal Catskill club circuit, where he learnt that comedy was the best way to mollify a hostile audience. At 15 he developed his own act, which involved miming to records in a hammy and exaggerated fashion.

It was funny, but not funny enough, and by 1946 the routine was wearing pretty thin. In July of that year Lewis had been booked to play the 500 Club in Atlantic City, but the mobsters who ran the joint didn't like him -- he was Jewish, funny-looking and his dummy act was bombing.

In desperation, he contacted Dean Martin, a slick Italian crooner he'd worked with briefly the previous year. Within a few days they put together an act that involved Lewis clowning around and interrupting Martin while he half-heartedly attempted to sing a love song. Loosely scripted, their show was a kind of deliberate shambles, but it worked.

The contract between Lewis, who was gangly, loose-limbed, foghorn loud and semi-hysterical, and the ultra-cool, unflappable Martin made their show compelling, and within weeks of getting together they'd swapped that mob club in Atlantic City for New York's Copacabana.

They signed a movie deal, became regular hosts on TV's Colgate Comedy Hour, and the money started rolling in. By the turn of the decade, the world couldn't get enough of Martin and Lewis, and their live shows created the kind of frenzy that would later be accorded The Beatles and Elvis Presley. In 1951 alone, the pair made $11m.

They were feted by the rich and famous, and Orson Welles said they were so funny "you would piss your pants".

But behind the scenes things were not running smoothly. Thanks to Lewis's relentless ambition, Martin's movie parts started shrinking. Martin saw what was going on and grew weary of Lewis's aspirations to comic genius, which he referred to witheringly as that "Chaplin shit".

Lewis was a control freak, and he and Martin began rowing openly on film sets. They separated for good on the 10th anniversary of their 500 Club debut after playing a farewell gig at the Copacabana.

After that, they didn't speak to each other for 20 years, and though there was a certain rapprochement before Martin died in 1995, they never worked together again.

While Martin went on to become a Rat Packer and bestselling singer, Lewis became more and more serious about comedy. After making a series of solo films with producer Hal B Wallis, he struck out on his own in the early 1960s with a string of personal projects.

Lewis made his directing debut with The Bellboy (1960), a largely silent comedy set in a Miami hotel. He was hilarious as a timid young man who gets a job in a women's boarding house in The Ladies' Man (1961) and had his biggest solo hit with The Nutty Professor (1963).

He continued writing and directing comedies, but by 1967 his slapstick had begun to look dated. By then he was past 40 and no longer fit enough for physical comedy. He'd also become increasingly unstable, and was addicted to painkillers.

According to biographer Shawn Levy, he openly cheated on his first wife and had surveillance equipment in his Bel Air mansion so he could spy on her and his children.

In the 1980s his portrayal of a sour talk- show host in King Of Comedy was widely praised, and he was brilliant as an ageing stand-up in the 1995 film Funny Bones.

In his later years, his main public appearance was on the Labour Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, which he helped establish and hosted for 40 years. Some deemed his attitude to disability patronising, but his charity raised an estimated $2.6bn.

Lewis has fallen out with everyone, and also out of fashion. But at his best, he was as good a clown as we've ever seen. Take a look at his boss pantomime in The Errand Boy, the typewriter sketch in Who's Minding the Store? or the conducting sequence in The Bellboy and you'll see what I mean.

There are aspects of Buster Keaton and Chaplin in Lewis's physical comedy and a strong dose of Harpo Marx anarchy. The result -- at its best -- is unique and sublime.

The French think he's a genius and awarded him the Legion d'Honneur. They may just have a point.

pwhitington@independent.ie

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