He was 82 when we met, and I was 36. My producer, Lawrence Inglee and I, had driven to San Diego to discuss him playing the titular character in the movie I was directing, “Max Rose.” A week before, we had giddily listened to the phone message he’d left us perhaps 150 times. Since word of his interest had gotten out, we’d received multiple warnings that Jerry Lewis was a monster who would make our lives miserable. As we nervously approached the ramp to the boat where he awaited us, we discussed strategies for dancing with the devil, agreeing it would be worth it so long as we got the performance.
I’ll never forget the first time we laid eyes on him. He was perched on a stool, wearing a silk kimono and sharing a lollipop with his Chihuahua. My first thought was, “uh oh.” But during the five hour meeting that ensued, all of our anxieties were put to rest. I cannot explain the chasm between the “monster” I was warned about and the beautiful man whom I was lucky enough to know for the last ten years of his life. He was kind and loving and patient and limitlessly generous with his genius.
During the years it took to finance the film, I would drive out to see Jerry every other month or so. He would serve me lox and bagels in his kitchen and tell me stories from his sets. “I’d want him in a choker but I’d cover him in a wide because I never knew what that crazy monkey was going to do.” It took me a while to realize this was Jerry the Director talking about Jerry the Actor. He referred to his “internal government” – the notion that there were many men inside of him, and that his job was to determine which, at a given moment, he should put into the cockpit. There was chaos in there but he had it organized to flow through a system that produced results.
I tried to teach him how to use a computer. He had been a gadget man all of his life, but the logic of computers eluded him. He once called me shouting, “Daniel, you’ve got to help me! I can’t find my Google!”
He loved to write letters. He wrote letters back to the sick children who reached out to him. He wrote a letter to the Academy outlining everything wrong with the Oscar telecast. He wrote a letter to Obama advising him to brighten up his image by telling a joke once in a while. I’ve got a copy of that one.
Nothing impressed him but sincerity. It didn’t matter who you were or what you’d done so long as you were sincere. But few penetrated the inner circle. He never stopped grieving the loss of Dean Martin. He’d show me his address book with the names crossed out. “All my friends are dead,” he’d say.
We spoke of death early and often. At dinner one night he told us that one of the reasons he wanted to make Max Rose – to die on screen – was as a final gift to his fans. “We were young together, we got old together, and now we’re at the end together and I want to show them that they don’t have to be afraid.” He knew there would be great resistance to seeing him stripped of the clown mask at a time when he was vulnerable and frail, and warned me that it would take time for people to accept it. “Kid,” he said, “the best thing that could happen for this movie is that I croak.”
“Don’t joke about that,” I said. “I’m not joking,” he replied.
But he did joke about death — his plan was to live forever. When asked what he hoped they would say at his funeral, he snapped back, “The son of a bitch is still alive!”