For all the compulsions and neurosis and complex disorders that drive wandering young people to become famous, Jerry Lewis had the most of anyone I ever met … and they’re still there… at 85, as alive and powerful as when he was 6, untempered, uncontrolled and untreated.
Esteem-challenged “victims” of the show-biz “solution” often mellow with the years, with self-study and discipline, with therapy and a need to be “a hit” OFF-stage. NOT JERRY. Perhaps because success came early (nobody “fixes” themselves on a roll upward); perhaps because his better-halves never demanded it (family pressure has tamed many a loose canon); perhaps because his excesses plainly DWARFED his healthier impulses, his mammoth needs overwhelming all other options.
JERRY LEWIS WAS NOT ABOUT TO “FIX” ANYTHING JERRY LEWIS DIDN’T FEEL WAS BROKEN. And to his professional misfortune … motion picture-wise: Some believe he could’ve been Peter Sellers if he’d listened to some of the few courageous voices around him who tried to get him to “cut it in half” when the cameras rolled. (Only Marty Scorsese had the clout to squeeze such a performance out of Jerry in “The King of Comedy," which he never duplicated … only demonstrating the enormity of the blinding compulsions that drove the desperate boy from Newark, New Jersey.)
So, Jerry was magnetized to places where Jerry ruled, no matter where, no matter who was left behind in the trip. Enter the MDA people in 1952 and 6,000 M.D. kids whose palsied shuffle (some believe) too much resembled the twisted, stuttering buffoon Jerry Lewis effected stage and on screen.
THIS WAS JERRY LEWIS HEAVEN. He could not only run the show and do no wrong, stay on forever and answer to nobody, he could save the world at the same time, and where else can you find that job description? There, he was even safe from box-office demands and cut-throat reviewers. With time and the inevitable slide from bankable doings, “Jerry’s Kids” became more and more “necessary” to, among a host of others, Jerry himself … the perfect marriage of supply and demand: Muscular Dystrophy and Jerry Lewis.
Now I realize that most of what I’ve said here describes an incurably selfish, driven, love-starved neurotic … in some contradiction to the absolute HUMANITARIAN (“a Jonas Salk”) I liken the man to further on down … and I steadfastly stand by both descriptions.
VACANT SOULS THAT DRIVE MEN TO MOMENTUS DEEDS ARE AN AMERICAN TRADITION. Ask Freud and Jung. Read Ray Charles and Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson and John Lennon, even John D. Rockefeller, Bill Clinton and Abe Lincoln, and a gazillion rags-to-riches, far-side-of-the-tracks transports who were merely filling the empty gap in their young hearts when they went on to own the earth … Donald Trump, John Wayne, Al Jolson … and Jerry Lewis, probably the President of the “Geek wins Gold” club.
And I can tell you 44 stories of mean and hurtful acts our King of Comedy committed during my years of proximity there. (My wife Shirley Jones opened for Jerry in Las Vegas some years ago and we had backstage box seats to the Jerry Lewis person/performer circus for two weeks – some stories would curl your hair.)
NONE of which trims ONE IOTA of truth or passion from the mountain of kudos I heap upon the skinny kid with the screechy voice who grabbed onto a gold right derby-ride and had it all … from whom the planet’s familiar Indian-Givers now wish to take it all back.
And I say “no fair."