It is 1996. Jerry Lewis is playing the part of Mr. Applegate in the revival of the 1955 Broadway play Damn Yankees. Applegate is the devil in this Faustian tale with a baseball theme. While on the road with the show in Palm Beach Lewis gives an interview wherein he complains about the fact that in this day and age there is an establishment on Worth Avenue known as the Everglades Club that does not permit Jewish members. Lewis explains to the interviewer:So on stage in the play, every night in West Palm, I got them. I do a line where I'm talking to Lola as the devil and I say,`Your problem is that you didn't grow up with real killers like I have: Attila the Hun, Marquis De Sade, Betty Crocker' - that's the joke...Well, just for the West Palm audience, I changed it to, `If you had grown up with real killers like I have: Attila the Hun, Marquis De Sade...the Everglades Club. The audience rocked because they understood! I couldn't have gone through West Palm that week without saying something - because I would have been as guilty as them if I wouldn't have spoken up.Since 1949 Lewis has raised over one billion dollars in the fight against muscular dystrophy, most notably with his annual Labor Day telethon which he first began locally in New York in 1949. The 1998 telethon alone raised over $52 million. In fact much of the younger generation is more familiar with this humanitarian aspect of Lewis than with the history of his life as a unique and controversial comedian.
Lewis was born Joseph (or Jerome) Levitch in Newark, New Jersey. His parents, Danny and Rae were entertainers working in and around the New York Borscht circuit. Lewis was on stage at the age of five singing the depression-era song "Brother Can You Spare a Dime." His career in vaudeville was unspectacular until July 25, 1946 when he performed on stage with the smooth crooner Dean Martin.
The Martin & Lewis "schtick" was based on the difference between the suave, sophisticated, masculine Martin and the zany, juvenile, effeminate Lewis. Their chemistry of contrast was so successful that for the next ten years the Martin & Lewis team was one of the hottest acts in the entertainment world. Between 1949 and 1956 they made seventeen films together. After their well-publicized breakup Lewis went on to a distinguished career as a solo actor, film director and producer. He is credited with being the first director to utilize videotape for immediate feedback on a film set. He taught graduate film classes in Los Angeles; George Lukas and Steven Spielberg were among his students. In 1971 he published a filmmaking textbook called The Total Film-Maker that has been used in a number of college-level film courses.
The Internet Movie Database provides the following statistics relevant to Lewis' movie career:
- Acted in 63 films
- Directed 17 films
- Produced 14 films
- Wrote 11 films
- Composed 1 film score
Somewhere along the line in the 1960s the French became enamored with Lewis the film "auteur." New Wave film maker Jean-Luc Godard said that Lewis was "the only American director who has made progressive films, he is much better than Chaplin or Keaton." Jack Lang, a former French minister of culture called Lewis "a child's friend and a model for adults." The French seem to appreciate Lewis more then his own countrymen. His brand of lowbrow, some say puerile, comedy does not appeal to everyone. Nevertheless his films have grossed an estimated $800 million.
Lewis has harvested a number of awards. In 1977 he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in trying to find the cure to Muscular Dystrophy. He was inducted into the French Legion of Honor in 1984 and the Broadcast Hall of Fame made him a member in 1991.
In a 1999 address to the Bakersfield (CA) Business Conference Lewis said reflectively,This might help explain Lewis' rather bizarre comments about women at the February 12, 2000 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen (CO) where he was receiving yet another award. As the crowd sat in stunned silence Lewis at age 73 rocked the boat with a misogynistic reply to a question about women comedians:I have kept the child in me alive. I'm nine [years old] and I've been nine since 1935 and I will always be nine.Lewis, who is twice married and has seven children (six sons, one daughter), has sent film scholars and fans racing back to the screening rooms to discover and uncover the metaphors of his misogyny. We are left wondering where it gushed from. After all he doesn't approve of the racist attitudes of the well-to-do goyim in Palm Beach; so why would he view the role of women so narrowly?'I don't like any female comedians. A woman doing comedy doesn't offend me but sets me back a bit. I, as a viewer, have trouble with it. I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies in the world.
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