The Nutty Director

Jerry Lewis in conversation with Peter Bogdanovich
by David Schwartz  posted February 20, 2009
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For fans of Jerry Lewis—and no, they don’t all live in France—February 22, 2009, is a big occasion, the night he’ll accept a long overdue Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscars. For cinephiles, November 22, 2008, was an unforgettable evening as well. Jerry Lewis was interviewed onstage by Peter Bogdanovich at a Museum of the Moving Image event, "The King of Comedy." As the title indicates, it was not an evening for false modesty (or for humanitarian behavior for that matter, as evidenced by Jerry’s humorously pointed treatment of some of his interviewer’s questions).

The 82-year-old performer, director, and writer talked candidly and unabashedly about his remarkable career. Far from a rehash of old anecdotes, the evening was a riveting piece of live theater, with Jerry’s commanding personality, crisp timing, and razor-sharp wit on full display. Bogdanovich, a renaissance man himself who has interviewed and written about such great directors as Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford, on his way toward becoming a major director in his own right, has been a friend and admirer of Jerry Lewis for 45 years. He was a gracious host who found himself in the role of comic foil, steering the conversation from Lewis’s partnership with Dean Martin to his general approach to comedy, to his evolution as a film director.

The program was the perfect coda to an event that took place 20 years earlier; in 1988, Lewis was the subject of the Museum’s very first retrospective. At the time, he was busy in Vancouver with the filming of his guest appearance in the TV series Wiseguy. It took 20 years to arrange this program, and it was well worth the wait. An excerpt from the conversation follows. —D.S.

To listen to the entire conversation between Jerry Lewis and Peter Bogdanovich, visit Pinewood Dialogues Online.

Peter Bogdanovich: How did you start directing, Jerry? Didn't you do some home movies first? I take it you did Sunset Boulevard and you called it Fairfax Ave?

Jerry Lewis: Yeah. [laughter]. We did half a dozen satirical, ah...Fairfax Ave was Sunset Boulevard. OK. Then we did The Reinforcer.

The Reinforcer?

Yeah, we shot the credits over a jockstrap [laughter].

I'd love to see some of those.

Yeah, so would a lot of people [laughter]. I had—the home movie company was Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis, Jeff Chandler...

Dean...

Dean, of course, John Barrymore Jr., Mona Freeman...

Your own stock company?

Yeah. My doctor was on the sound. My doctor that took care of me loved to be in the movie business. He was on the sound. I said, "What happens if someone has a heart attack?" And he said, "Well, you're gonna hear it very good!" [laughter].

Anyhow, we did Come Back, Little Shiksa [laughter]...and I had so much fun that I wanted every one that had actual relation to the product...the ones that really did Come Back, Little Sheba were invited to a premiere at my home and I cut the picture with that date in mind, and we had about 900 people in my theater at home and we ran Come Back, Little Shiksa. Dean was playing the drunk, naturally, and Janet Leigh was playing the wife and we had—we had an instance there where John Barrymore was supposed to play the young stud and we get a call the morning we were about to shoot and they said, "He got held up in San Bernardino. He can't make it," and I said, "Don't worry about it," and so I had Janet get on the phone, we did the phony ring, she said, "Hello? What? Chuck was killed on Pico Boulevard? He was hit with a four iron? Oh my god!" We got rid of him! We went on [laughter] and we finished, and it was terrific fun. Then I went to New York and Paramount wanted me to give them another film because I had already shot Cinderfella and I had...

And they wanted to open in the summer and you wanted to open at Christmas...

Right. And that's why they wanted to see me in New York, and I knew that I had made what I thought was a great family package. We went right to the recordings and all of the graphics and the artists' work that I had, and Walter Scharf's score, and I had a date at Christmas time for families to see it, and Barney Balaban says to me, in his office, he said, "Jer, we gotta have a Jerry movie in the summer." And I said, "Well, Barney, I made this film with families in mind for Christmas," and he said, "Well, geez, you gotta let me take it for the summer," and I said, "Don't. I'll give you a movie for the summer, OK?" He said, "What are you talking about?" I said, "Look at the date"—on his calendar on the desk. I said, "It's January 3rd. I'll give you a movie for the summer, which means I have to deliver it May 30th." That meant I had to finish it, score it, edit, do it all. And he's looking at me like I'm insane; he said, "Are you telling me you are really going to commit to this?" I said, "I'll give you my handshake on it." My whole deal with Paramount was a handshake, never had a contract. I said, "Barney, got a handshake." I went down to Florida that night, leaving him, and I had opened the next night at the Fontainebleau. And I then proceeded to write The Bellboy. That night I did two shows and went to my suite and started to write. And in nine days I had 160 pages, OK? I had a crew sent from Hollywood, I put everything together locally, and I was shooting 27 days after I said to Barney, "You're gonna have it."

Wow.

And I shot it in 30 days. I had people running around like it was a chicken with a head cut off, with actors from here, from New York. I had them sent from California: "No, let that guy do it." I had a bellboy from another hotel playing a rich man in a scene that didn't work, I cut it out. But meanwhile, I finished the movie and I was opening in Las Vegas, at the Sands. I had my editors and my whole gear was brought in downstairs at the Sands. Backstage I was cutting the final edits to The Bellboy. I finished three weeks at the Sands the day after I finished making the edit. I shipped it to Los Angeles, we did the post material in the next six weeks and Barney Balaban had the print ready to go to the theaters on May 29th.

That's amazing. Didn't you tell me they didn't...they didn't believe you could do it so you had to pay for it yourself?

Right. They backed out of the agreement, which was, we make our pictures together on a 50-50 basis. So I said, "Take the contract of our last deal and make it work for Bellboy." They said, "Well, we're a little nervous about it. It's a silent movie," and I said, "Really? You haven't looked at it, have you?" Ah..."Well, we're nervous." And I said, "Well, don't be nervous. I'll pay the tab." I took it away from them and to date that movie has brought me over 200 million in rentals. Every time they hear "bellboy" they go [gagging noise]...[laughter] [applause]. So, they watched the big dog eat! [laughter]. And we played it, played it out, and it was incredible. The whole idea. Nobody believed that I could write that much in that short a time.

Well, it is incredible. I don't know how the hell you did it. That was your first movie as a director for a commercial release. And then you made five or six pictures right one after the other...

Yep.

Is that when you invented the video assist?

1956. I had already invented the video assist.

The video assist is a closed-circuit monitor that enables you to see while you're shooting—it enables you to see what you're shooting on a TV monitor. Jerry invented that and for years was the only person using it. Now everybody in the industry uses it on every picture. How did you come...how did that happen?

Because nobody was doing it. I just thought, if I was going to direct a film of myself, I'm going to have to have that information. I'm not going to direct a film and say to someone, "Bernie, how was it?" "It was funny!" "Print it!" No way, no, sorry. So before I would take the directorial reins, knowing what that meant, I figured I'm going to have a tool that's going to help me that I could trust. I went to see Mr. Morita of Sony. I flew to Japan about 35 times in the next four years and I was working with Hideo, his son, who helped me tremendously in getting the beam splitter, getting the electronic code and making what I had to have to do what I wanted to do. So I put it together, made it work, and the first time I had a chance to work with it was on The Bellboy.

So you can see yourself.

Yeah. Of course.

Amazing.

I used only video monitors. I‘d use 30 or 35 of them on the set. Everywhere I was, I could see where we were when I was shooting and I would either make the entrance or cut it. If it was fine, I'd continue. I'd have all that information wherever I looked. No one could understand how I would know what that meant. Well, you work it out. So, ah...

I remember seeing you on the telethon last year. I was with you. They were shooting you and you didn't like the angle, and I saw you underneath the camera go...telling them. I don't know how you can perform and see yourself; I don't know how you do that.

Well, to save your ass [laughter].

I see [laughter]. I watched you shoot a couple of your movies and I noticed that...whenever Jerry shot a movie it said on the stage door "This Is Not a Closed Set, Come On In." And there was always pandemonium on your sets; I mean you were kidding around constantly...

And we got the picture made. Came in on budget, on the schedule, and I had bleachers for six, seven hundred visitors all the time.

I know. That inspired you, didn't it?

It was great. I'm a ham. I made that audience watch what we were doing and found out that the 180 guys on my crew were just as hammy as me. They loved it! "Oh yes, I'm ah, I'm with Jerry for four years now" [laughter]. I said, "Why don't we get you a dressing room, Eddie?" That was his thing. He loved it. Everyone that worked on it loved it. 

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Courtesy Theo Wargo/Getty Images
Peter Bogdanovich and Jerry Lewis at a Museum of the Moving Image event.
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THE AUTHOR

David Schwartz is the Chief Curator at the Museum of the Moving Image. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Cinema Studies at Purchase College.

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