Oscar E Moore

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Jerry Lewis starred in Damn Yankees on Broadway: Mitchell Maxwell remembers working with the icon

August 26th, 2017 by Oscar E Moore

Jerry Lewis passed away last week.

If you are of a certain age, that is a notable item for throughout his long and public life he was a man of consequence. He was indeed worthy of a “front page obit” and if you were of that certain age or wished to revisit another time, another era you may have taken a few moments to read about that life.

True he was a polarizing figure.  He had nearly more enemies than fans yet whatever one felt about him it was always infused with passion.  He caused you to feel!  Good or bad he was only capable of provocation.  He was not beige.

I have nothing to add to the hundreds of obituaries that have fueled the papers and news outlets since his death.  They were accurate and told of both the bright and dark sides of Jerry.  They painted him as the man he was, brilliant, quixotic, driven and defined by chaos.

Yet, in all that I read there was no point of view or understanding about this great and deeply flawed man.  The dissemination of his life was practically void of feeling offering no sense of loss.  It was simply news.  And that is more tragic than his passing.

I met Jerry Lewis out of a mutual need dealing with commerce.  I was the lead Producer on a wonderfully received revival of the Broadway Musical DAMN YANKEES, I needed a replacement for the star part of “The Devil” and Jerry was in need of a job.  In show business that makes for a perfect match.

When I mentioned to my partners, associates and our director the idea of Jerry Lewis the response was varied to put it mildly. Passionate? Indeed.

Some thought it brilliant, others a train wreck, while one person on the project of great import refused to work with him if hired, stating “Jerry Lewis is an idiot, his humor is that of an idiot . . .” and then he got even more uncomplimentary from there on.  And yet as the man in charge I offered him the part and subsequently I hired him. From that day on my life changed.

Meeting Jerry for the first time was tantamount to an old western gunfight.  Two gunslingers sizing one another up before the draw followed by one poor soul laying dead in the dirt.

We met in a conference room at Lincoln Center during a matinee of CAROUSEL and in turn our meeting was accompanied by the glorious score from that classic show.  Apropos I guess.

He was dressed in a dark expensive suit, sunglasses (indoors) spit polished back mini boots and a scowl.  A few steps behind him were three callow cowed Junior agents from the William Morris Agency. Lewis looked like a mobster the three young agents searching for an exit.

We talked.  And then some more.

He had seen the my show the night before and offered high praise.  I was grateful.

He then said “Jerry would do the show if the price was right.” I wondered whether referring to himself as Jerry was an attempt at mirth but there were no smiles in the room and I realized it was simply weird.

The price Jerry quoted for “Jerry” was an absurd number and the meeting took a sour turn.  In a moment of irony as I spoke the words “if that is Jerry’s bottom line I will have to pass”  CAROUSEL ended and the cast was taking their bows to tremendous applause.  I was certain they were cheering my resolve.  It was a mirage, the applause was indeed for the show upstairs and Lewis walked out calling me a “putz”.

I sat in the now silent and empty conference room for a long while and wondered what I would tell my partners of the meeting.  I had taken a stand to hire this legendary actor and there was to be no deal.  I felt a bit the fool.

Late that night I received a call from “Jerry”.  He was hostile asking if I knew “who he was” and that he was the “biggest star in the history of movies.  That the fallout of my error in judgement would end up closing my show and ruining my career.”

Respectively, I replied.  “Mr. Lewis, you may be all that and more but my nine year old son never heard of you.”

The phone went dead.

The next morning turned out to be a snow day and my son had the day off.  We went to the park and slid down the mountain at least ten thousand times.  We returned home red faced and hungry.  Waiting for us with the doorman was a box from Jerry with a card inside that said  “for your son, my of introducing him to Jerry”.  The card sat nestled in dozens of VHS tapes of movies starring Jerry Lewis.

I have said meeting Jerry Lewis changed my life and that change began on the that snowy afternoon as my son and I watched “The Jerry Lewis Film Festival” while eating pizza.

Jerry Lewis was in fact brilliant.  He was also an idiot. In many ways he was contemptuous of his audience.  He refused to not get a laugh and was shameless in his pursuit of that laugh or frankly any laugh.  It was both sad and glorious.  His ambition leapt from the screen and it was exhausting.

We spent hours with Jerry that day, VHS after VHS were punched into the tape player and we watched him on the TV screen.  We laughed often and stayed up way past my son’s bedtime, after all Jerry was a big star and it was a snow day.

I learned something from him that at times served me well and allowed us to have a productive and loving relationship for some ten years.  What I learned (and had never behaved in such a manner in my life before or since) was that he didn’t care about anybody or anything except himself.  I was frightened by this, it was born through his insecurity and I was struck in awe by his hubris.

Obviously we made a deal or I would have no story to tell.  And in doing so I stared him down and got my price and he got his job. I never worked harder on any show than I did over the next few weeks getting him into DAMN YANKEES.  He would call all hours of the night.  Hostile, cajoling, frightened and with endless ideas of how to change the show for the better.  He was kind and professional with everyone else involved with the production yet with me he was always angry except when scared, which was an often and welcome respite.  At those times I talked him “off the ledge” and assured him he was funny.  Imagine having to convince this man, the comic genius of a generation that he “was funny”.

Jerry loved to lecture, tell stories, jokes:  to hold court.  We would sit in his dressing room post curtain, drinking expensive red wine with Sinatra wailing on the boom box and he would often say, “Comedy is a man in trouble” or “comedy starts with pain” and as I grew to know him, to help birth his Broadway debut and protect him from doubt I too owned his pain.  He couldn’t hide it behind the goblets of red, or the stories of the icons he knew or behind a facade of manic humor.  I saw he was terrified.  All day every day.

Jerry missed three shows in the four plus years he worked for me.  He often performed in terrible pain when his back went out and his salve was the applause as he walked downstage for his electric bow at the end of the show.  He behaved poorly and often, spending the show’s money without consent and causing conflict.  He also showed unbelievable kindness to his cast members that I am sure they will hold in their hearts forever.

For me it ended some ten years after our first meet.  The cause is mine to own, to take to my grave but suffice it to say it was because of his petulance, his need to create chaos, to hurt others in order to wield “his power” and I was no longer of use to him.

I felt more relieved than sad.  I had lived with his demons for almost a decade and frankly I had my own which needed attention.

Now that he is gone I choose to remember only the good.  I was the man who brought Jerry Lewis his dream to play Broadway and at great cost to me.  I was told (between hostile diatribes) that he loved me and that I was brilliant and visionary and who doesn’t want to hear that?  I saw him hold an audience in his hand and own them, bring them joy and forget their troubles but unable to forget his.

He was magic.

Yet like all clowns he hid his sadness behind a mask.  His was one of anger and discontent keeping everyone at safe distance.   I wish he passed away without the pain but rather still embracing the adoration he was given seventy years ago when he exploded on America, all crazy pratfalls, silly voices and pleading underneath it all for an unconditional love.

He will be missed and remembered.  I can only hope for a very long time for comedy is “pain cleansed by the passage of time”.

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