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Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis

Norman Lear On What Went Wrong With Jerry Lewis After He Became A Star

by Billy Ingram

An ego out of control, a deeply unfunny man was my impression of Jerry Lewis when I was growing up in the 1960s & 70s. Whenever I saw him on a talk show he was always very serious but would occasionally break out into some manic, spastic expression that seemed more forced than funny.

In an interview with the Archive of American Television, legendary TV producer Norman Lear (All In The Family, et al) recalls practically the very moment when Jerry went from comical genius to megalomania, with an overwhelming need to be in control of every little detail of every production.

Norman Lear was a writer in 1950 for the very first [Dean] Martin & Lewis Colgate Comedy Hour TV special. “The next day,” Lear says, “That part of America that had seen the show, which was appreciable, were talking about it the next morning to that part of America who hadn't seen it. But everybody was focused on some extraordinary hour they spent because Jerry was a piece of real genius at that time, and the show was just an explosion.

For the comedy duo’s second TV outing, Lear was on board as well. “After that second show, David and his wife and I were in a Chinese restaurant and I was weeping into my noodles because one of the sketches, I thought, had something to say and Jerry had gone completely off the script and brought the house down. And that's what David and his wife were trying to tell me, ‘Be grateful. It's the biggest success in the world.’”

After three years, Lear decided he was done working for Lewis as the comic grew increasingly egotistical and difficult to work with. “I mean, it's easy to talk about,” Lear says. “Because I think the world has watched Jerry turn from comedian to god. And as soon as he started to become godlike, it became very difficult.”

 

There was friction between the co-stars that would eventually lead to Dean and Jerry going solo. “There was always a competitive friction, one sided.” Lear says. “Dean was competing with nobody. Jerry, when we were in rehearsals at the Paramount caterers in New York, there were times when Jerry would come into work, we'd find him lying in a corner in a fetal position. His doctor, Marvin [Levy], would be flying in from California, and all that was going on was that Dean was hilarious.

“Dean was hilarious. Dean had a finger, or maybe it's two, two little fingers that could make me laugh, just the way he moved his finger. I mean, Dean was really terribly funny. Jerry was an original piece of genius, but I've seen it happen with other comedians. I don't know what that phenomenon is but, suddenly, they become so knowledged about everything and have to control everything and are spouting about things they know really nothing about. And we watched that happen to Jerry, that adorable genius was lost in this…”

Jerry Lewis’ most intriguing project, and potentially the worst movie ever (if you believe the few who’ve seen it) was a film he shelved in 1972, a Holocaust drama The Day The Clown Cried. There was talk after Lewis died in 2017 that the movie would finally see the light of day.

 

From Wiki: The Day the Clown Cried is an unfinished 1972 Swedish-French drama film directed by and starring Jerry Lewis.[1] It is based on an original screenplay by Joan O'Brien and Charles Denton, from a story idea by Joan O'Brien, with additional material from Jerry Lewis.[2] The film was met with controversy regarding its premise and content, which features a circus clown who is imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.

In 2015, the comedian donated a copy of The Day The Clown Cried to the Library of Congress on the condition that it not be screened in any form until 2025.

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