Jerry Lewis has always had a near-clairvoyant instinct for how his characters will be perceived by the public—with the glaring exception of his most famous creation, Buddy Love, the swinging alter ego of the bucktoothed Professor Julius Kelp in The Nutty Professor. In Lewis’s script, Love was a “rude, discourteous egomaniac,” his delivery as oily as his slicked-back hair. Yet to Lewis’s surprise, America adored him—his skinny suits, his pink dress shirts, his supreme arrogance.
“He was so vile,” Lewis says on the commentary track that accompanied the DVD release in 2005. “And then I got all this mail from women: ‘I love Buddy Love!’ ”
In the upcoming Lewis documentary, Jerry Seinfeld offers a theory about why. After noting that Lewis “wanted to take the worst qualities of the worst people he had ever met and make them into this very unsympathetic character,” Seinfeld says this: “Jerry is incapable of not putting love into everything he does. Buddy Love, as mean as he tried to play him, is lovable.”
The observation sounds schmaltzy at first, but that’s not how Seinfeld seems to mean it. He’s getting at something fundamental about Lewis, whose films—as well-thought-out as they were—seem fueled less by intellect than by basic urges, needs, desires. In other words, by pure id.
Scorsese understood this when he asked Lewis to star in his 1983 film, The King of Comedy. Lewis plays Jerry Langford, a late-night-talk-show host who is being stalked by aspiring comic Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro). Pupkin yearns for fame; Langford has it and yearns for privacy. Lewis plays him bitter, reclusive, angry. His performance is searing. And autobiographical.
“Originally my name in the script was Robert Langford,” Lewis tells me. “I said, ‘Marty! We’re going to be shooting in New York, Marty. Do yourself a favor and call him Jerry Langford.’ He said, ‘Why?’ ‘Because everywhere we go in New York, your construction workers and cab drivers will validate that it’s Jerry.’ And that’s what happened. If you remember, in the movie, whenever I was in the street: ‘Hey, Jerry.’ ‘Yo, Jer.’ ‘Hey there, you old schmuck.’ It worked great for us. Whenever I went to New York, that’s what happened. It still happens.”
Jerry Lewis gets out of the shower some mornings and looks at himself in the full-length mirror with awe. “I say, ‘I’ve used all those things there for eighty-five years.’ They’re going to break down.” Not yet, though. Not quite yet. He knows what Chaplin would have said about a clean finish: “Get out of there now. You’ve got the laugh. Go!’ ” Still, he’s not ready. “I’ve got so much to do,” he says.
There’s the project with Travolta, who confirms he’s developing The Family Jewels “with my daughter and me in mind.” (The reason: “Jerry Lewis was the biggest comedy star in the world when I was growing up,” he says, calling Lewis an “inspiration.”) There’s the Nutty Professor musical, which Lewis has already cast and is determined to see on Broadway next year. There are sick kids in Australia that need his help.
Today, Lewis is all about survival. He gave up his decades-long habit of smoking five packs of cigarettes a day in 1982, when he had his double bypass. He’s had prostate cancer, two heart attacks, and viral meningitis; he continues to manage diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis, the latter of which requires him to sleep with oxygen (and to carry it with him when he flies). He says his wife and daughter keep him alive, putting him to bed by nine thirty every night, making sure he eats, loving him.
Lewis is going to last to 101, he says. He has to. “My schedule for my demise is all laid out on paper,” he says, ticking off his agenda: four years to watch his daughter get through college, two or three more years to “help her find a nice young man,” and then about a decade of “kicking back and doing whatever work is easy for me to do. In the sixteenth year, I’ll be one year older than Burns. I’ve got to beat George Burns, because I told him I was going to.”