You walk into Jerry Lewis’ house and your knees buckle under the weight of it all. The talent, the history, the sustained assault on radio, television, stage and film for the better part of 70 years—it all presses on you the way a cathedral slumps onto you. It makes you want to genuflect. But instead of stained glass there’s the Norman Rockwell artwork used to make the Cinderfella poster.
It’s all a little surreal. Especially with a timid little Chihuahua, Lola, peeking up from under the coffee table. There are four more somewhere in the house. The bishop plays favorites.
Lewis leans on an elegant, silver-headed cane when he walks into the room. He has a little help, but he doesn’t look unsteady. Those gray-green eyes can freeze you in place, but he’ll stick a quick line between your ribs and give you a little half-smile while you bust up. That’s the mic drop.
At one point the conversation turns to The Colgate Comedy Hour, the NBC variety show that ran from 1950-1955, on which Lewis and partner Dean Martin were part of the regular hosting rotation. That show is the best representation of the duo’s work you can still get on DVD—loose, wild, fast and gut-punchingly funny. It hummed with preternatural energy.
“I was 20,” Lewis wails to the room. “I’m 90. Jesus Christ, every time I say it I think I’m going to faint.”
Comedy genius and nine decades pair well. Mel Brooks just celebrated his 90th. Don Rickles crossed the threshold in May, Shecky Greene the month before. Shelley Berman is 91, Carl Reiner 94. Some more than others, but most of them still work. Lewis is the one still taking star turns.
The latest is Max Rose, a little indie from writer/director Daniel Noah who wrote the part for Lewis and lured the legend to his first feature since 1995. It’s a melancholy flick that dwells equally on loss, regret and the pain of watching an elderly relative slip away. There’s a momentary break in the grief-storm two-thirds of the way through the film, though, where Lewis’ titular Rose puts on jazz records with fellow nursing home patients (including one played by soon-to-be-nonagenarian comic genius Mort Sahl) and the actor breaks out the old pantomime.
Suddenly, you’re falling backwards to 1960 and ’61, to Cinderfella and The Errand Boy’s ballet-precise pantomimes of Count Basie, and it all clicks.
“We talked about it before he put it down,” Lewis said. “I told him the way we should go with it, and that’s the way we did it. He wrote the script with me in mind, and that’s very easy to see. When that happens, you’ve got to bring your own juice. It was a piece of cake making the film. All I had to do was bring the body and the memory. It was very, very easy for me. Everything I did before that was tough. There’s nothing tougher than physical comedy in the world. When you become a physical comic, you’d better practice, and you’d better know what you’re doing.”
Those old bits, he said, would take eight to 10 weeks to nail down. When they were done they were so perfect it hurts. Watch his hands during the Errand Boy scene. Lewis might have idolized Charlie Chaplin, but he had all the body control of the Little Tramp, with the hands of a magician. If Lewis didn’t grow up onstage, he might have made a great pitcher.
Physical comedy, though, isn’t really in the cards anymore. That doesn’t mean he’s setting the career aside. He’s working on three scripts, he says, that are in various stages of rewrite. He won’t say what they’re about, but he’s adamant he doesn’t miss doing the physical stuff.
“I’ve done it for 58 years,” he says. “It’s nice to get the hell away from it for a while.”
He’s 90. It makes all the sense in the world, but it induces more melancholy than anything that could happen in another movie.
Max Rose Jerry Lewis, Kerry Bishé, Kevin Pollak. Directed by Daniel Noah. Not rated. Opens Friday at Regal Village Square.