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home : columnists : columnists September 20, 2017

Remembering Jerry Lewis

By Dick Wolfsie
Funny Bone

I dedicated my performance at Indy Fringe last week to the late Jerry Lewis. Born Jerry Levtich, he traced his ancestry back to Eastern Europe, the origins of classic Jewish literature and the humor that came as a response to the repression Jews experienced for millennia. I never met Jerry Lewis, but my closest friend for almost 60 years, Burt Dubrow (now an independent TV producer in LA), worked with Jerry on several of his Muscular Dystrophy telethons. Burt and Jerry knew each other for three decades. I talked to Burt about his hero and mine.

How would Jerry like to be remembered?

He'd want to be remembered as someone who made a difference. I don't think he felt appreciated for what he did for MD. He raised billions of dollars for kids with neuromuscular diseases.

Did other comics recognize his value?

My favorite quote was from Jim Carey, who said in so many words after he heard about Jerry's death, that there would be no Jim Carey without Jerry Lewis.

Jerry studied all the great comics and spent time with the genius Stan Laurel; he revered him. It tells you a lot about a person when you look at who they idolize. There was a parallel, too: Stan Laurel did all the work on the movies while Oliver Hardy went and played golf. Dean spent time on the links, while Jerry labored on the films-every aspect of them.

Do you think he felt underestimated as a filmmaker?

In this country, yes. In France, no. There, they compared him to Chaplin. The Nutty Professor was one of the biggest films of its time. He didn't get credit until way after.

Why did he not get the credit due?

Slapstick may look silly, but he was meticulous in what he did. If you look at his sight gags in his movies, even the Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis movies, it was all very choreographed.

Shouldn't he have been better known for the film technology he used?

Yes, the video-assist allowed the director to look at a "take" immediately and not wait a day to see it. He could then redo it if needed. The industry recognized this, but the public didn't know about it.

What was groundbreaking about Martin and Lewis?

You had this great-looking guy, smooth and debonair, and then you had, as Jerry described himself, a monkey. No one had ever quite done that kind of act. Jerry wrote it that way and perfected it. The truth is that in their heyday, many have said they were more popular than the Beatles.

How effective was Jerry at establishing that character? Some thought he was just goofy.

That was a compliment to him, that it seemed real. People didn't think there was another side. It was just the opposite. Underneath, he was a smart and articulate man, but he played it well. In fact, you didn't see that other side of him until the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon started...

How about him as an actor?

He did the crazy, jumping around thing so well, no one thought he could act-do anything dramatic. He did the movie The King of Comedywith De Niro. It was so opposite his normal roles that it made him look even better. Jackie Gleason and Robin Williams were examples of longtime comics who became actors like Lewis. Believe it or not, Milton Berle was a great actor.

The MD Telethon was part of my childhood. That's the first time I saw some of those amazing stars and performers...all there for Jerry and for the kids.

Jerry did the telethon between 1966 and 2010, and he raised something like two and a half billion dollars. He was the face of those MD children. He loved those kids...stayed in touch with many of them. That telethon was an event that our generation (Baby Boomers) looked forward to every Labor Day.

Dick Wolfsie has written 12 books and has been a television personality for 30 years. His humor column appears Saturdays in The Times.

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