Happy birthday, Jerry Lewis

lewisA few months ago, a friend and I discussed one of those pop culture questions that go just right with a pint of beer. Which living celebrity has been famous for the longest period of time?

We quickly altered the rules to celebrities who have actually achieved something other than being born; this caveat eliminated royalty (Queen Elizabeth II, known around the world since her childhood in the 1920s-30s) and the children of now-deceased celebrities (for instance Isabella Rossellini, famous long before she became a model-actress thanks to her mother being Ingrid Bergman).

Mickey Rooney, long the hands-down reigning champ, had already died by the time of our conversation. The best we could do initially for a date-to-beat was 1949, when Kirk Douglas made the film Champion and received a nomination for Best Actor. Hockey icon Gordie Howe then trumped Douglas, as in 1948 Mr. Hockey began to make waves for the Detroit Red Wings. Baseball star Yogi Berra, though debuting a year earlier, really gained fame as an All-Star catcher in ’48.

To our horrified fascination, we then hit upon an incredible truth: the man with the longest life as a celebrity was actor/director/telethonist Jerry Lewis.

Lewis and then-partner Dean Martin began making regular TV appearances in 1948. But the team had a claim to national fame at least a year earlier, when their music-comedy act made them nightclub headliners.

How did a figure as divisive as Lewis survive all comers to achieve the highest level of Fame Longevity? Certainly not by living right or taking it easy—Lewis famously battled substance problems and a litany of ills and, in Dino’s words, “The boy loves to work.” Work Lewis did, on a long series of films starring himself or even multiple versions of himself. At one point he held the most expensive contract for an actor in film history. And when his cinema career ran out of gas, Lewis maintained a high level of fame as the face of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Its telethon made him as much a Labor Day institution as grilled food.

Eighty-nine years ago today, Joseph Levitch landed in this world of sorrow, and added a fair amount of laughter to it; whether you laugh with him or at him depends on your sense of humor. To honor the occasion, we go to Chris Fujiwara’s book on Jerry Lewis from UIP’s critically acclaimed Contemporary Film Directors series. Lewis provided Fujiwara with an interview that delves into the art of being funny:

CF: Is that related to what you meant when you wrote that nothing is more dramatic than comedy?

JL: That statement comes from doing comedy. In order to make your audience laugh, you have to dramatically change who you are. I won’t trip over that piece of wood on the stage if it’s me walking there. But Jerry will, or Stanley, or the Idiot, or whatever we call him in that moment. He has to trip over it. Now, he has to turn into something that isn’t truly him, so we’re taking a piece of vanity and rubbing it out, a little ego, burying it, sandpapering all that down, and bringing up all of the gargoyles. Because in England they say what he does is grotesque. The first time I read that, I was heartbroken, but they say, “No, that’s a compliment.” Okay.

When I stand in front of an audience on New Year’s Eve, let’s say, years ago, and I see the young man and his girl, man and his wife, girl, boyfriend, couples, lovers, all that wonderful stuff ringside. I’m standing up there alone and making a fucking fool of myself to entertain all of them. There’s nothing more dramatic than that moment, Chris. It’s very dramatic. Because I have to call on something that’s not what I want to be at that moment. I want to be there with my girl or my wife watching some other schmuck make a fool of himself. But I never ever thought of what I did as demeaning. What I thought of it was: other than me at that moment. So it’s very dramatic.

I love when somebody said, “Did you ever think of doing drama?” What? Do you really think that Jack Nicholson does drama? He reads material, he’s directed in the scene, and he plays it as a very good actor. There’s nothing dramatic about that. He’s a very good actor reading the words and not bumping into the furniture. When you ask a comedian if he ever would do anything dramatic–he’s done it from the day he decided to make people laugh! He’s far more dramatic than any dramatic actor. Sir Laurence Olivier said to me, “I wish I knew your drama.” He knew what I was talking about. Red Skelton would have given his soul to walk out on the stage accepted as George C. Scott was. Uh-uh, it’s not in the cards. That’s not what they pay you for. Get back behind the clown, mister. Very dramatic. You don’t have to ask Sir Gielgud to be dramatic; you ask him to act and learn the words and do the scene. Of course it’s called a drama because it’s a story of a man who lost his son, and it’s terrible. But it’s not as dramatic as this.