"I'm 9," Jerry Lewis said, his voice abrubptly taking on the pre-adolescent screechiness that is one of his comic trademarks.
"When I get in front of an audience, I'm 9," he said, returning to his deeper, normal voice. "I'm 9 and I've got one thing on my mind, and that's mischief."Lewis enjoyed his greatest American success in the early 1960s with comedy movies such as "The Errand Boy," "The Bellboy" and "The Nutty Professor," and is revered in Europe to this day.
In personal appearances he sings, pantomimes, does some of his patented, spastic Jerry Lewis schtick, even takes up the conductor's baton -- something he's already done with "the LA Philharmonic, the Cincinnati Symphony, the Cleveland Symphony, the Philadelphia ...I can't remember them all," he said.
"What I do is a conglomeration of things," he said recently. "I come from a show-business family, you know, and my dad -- who was my hero, my mentor, the greatest performer I've ever seen -- taught me the most important thing about the business is to go out there and sweat. And that's what I do.
"The audience is entitled to that from a performer," he said. "I hate it when I go to see a performer and I can tell he's doggin' it. I'm mid-Victorian and idealistic about an audience, and I should be. They've made me a lovely life. Why shouldn't I respect them enough to either do it correctly or else not do it at all?"
In a telephone conversation from his Las Vegas home, the 64-year-old entertainer, who literally grew up onstage in his parents' vaudeville act, came across as a bundle of contradictions: a man by turns humble and self-promoting, sentimental and jaded, prudish and profane.
Lewis mentioned that he can scarcely resist an opportunity to put people on.
"Geez, I wish I could tell you what I do on airplanes, and in airports," he said. "We travel first-class, and we travel top-drawer, and we get VIP treatment and all that stuff, but when you're traveling back and forth from Europe, and from Europe to New York, New York to L.A. and back to Vegas -- you do that six, seven times in a couple of months -- if you don't try to get some humor out of this, you go nuts."
Since the late 60s, Lewis had made his living mainly from personal appearances, particularly in Europe and Japan. He had just returned from doing a week of concerts in Spain, basically "85 minutes of mime," he said. "I am told I am one of maybe three performers in America who can appear in any country in the world -- and I'm not talking about rock acts. I'm talking about a Red Skelton, if he wanted to, and ...well, it's hard to come up with a third."
One of the things that always amazes him is how the Spaniards go crazy over the way he speaks fractured Spanish, the Germans over his fractured German.
"You should see what happens in the Japanese audiences when I do the Japanese character," he said. "You would think you can't do that stuff, but they love it, absolutely love it! When I did the concert in Osaka, the promoter said, Mistuh Rooie, you musta do Japanese I see you do in Ras Regas.' I said, Oh, man, you don't want me to do that.' He said, No, prease, I tell all my friends.' So I did it and they loved it. They don't mind, if the intentions are good."
Lewis' movie career revived when he played the smarmy talk-show host Robert DeNiro kidnapped in Martin Scorcese's 1983 film "The King of Comedy." Since then, he has appeared in several dramatic productions, notably an acclaimed seven-episode stretch on CBS' "Wiseguy." He is working on the script for a "Nutty Professor" sequel that he hopes to start filming next spring.
He said he more or less gave up films in the '70s because it was impossible to get a project financed "if you didn't have four-letter words on the first page of the outline." Scripts he was offered were excessively foul-mouthed, he said, or played on the "shock value of Jerry Lewis as a homicidal killer."
"I read 20 pages of one script and got ill," he said. "I'm not a prude. I do all the things other men do, but I do have a personal, internal government that I'm very proud of and that government steers me. And I said to the film industry, If you're gonna go this way, you're not gonna get my wares."
The love the French have for Lewis' movies has been used by a thousand comedians to discredit just about everything French except fried potatoes and tongue-kissing. French critics and even director Jean-Luc Godard ("Breathless") have favorably compared Lewis to classic film comedians Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Even Lewis films that bombed here have made money in France.
What's with the French that a movie marqee on the Champs-Elysees need declare only "JERRY"?
"In France," Lewis said, "people put on a shirt and tie to go to see, oh, 'Baby Boom' or whatever. They have intermissions in an ordinary hour-and-40 minute film. At 55 minutes or 60 minutes, the curtain will come down and you get up and go to the bar and you have wine and talk to your friends about what you've seen. They make it an evening.
"But the French -- and the Germans and the Italians, the foreign market -- didn't respond to Jerry Lewis on the screen as much as they did when Jerry Lewis was directing and writing the material that he was on the screen with," he said. "I did 16 films with Dean Martin, and they were amused. The moment I did my own directorial job, that's when that whole atmosphere opened up.
"The reason for that is that the international market has such a regard for cinema," he said. "They have such hero-worship for the director and writer. They put so much emphasis on the technical, on the director's technique. If the director happens to be the writer, now you're talking about walking on the water. If the director-writer also happens to be the performer, hey, you're at Mt. Sinai.
"That's where they're coming from, whereas in our country, I doubt one of 500 people in any audience can tell you who directed the film they just saw. But you can't fault the American audience for that. I don't. They've been very, very good to me.
These days most Americans probably identify Lewis more with the annual Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association than with movies. The telethons for "Jerry's kids" have raised more than $500 million for research.
Concurrent with this year's telethon, Parade magazine published an article in which Lewis explained how he would beel if he had muscular dystrophy. Some readers took offense at Lewis' attitude and outmoded terminology, especially his use of the term "crippled."
Lewis said he would rather not talk about MDA because he tries to keep his charity work separate from his for-profit performances. But he did have a response.
"I'm insensitive?" he said. "Hey, you've had 41 years to check me out, pal. If you can say I'm insensitive when I've given 50 percent of my time and my life and my dollars to an organization that I believe so much in, c'mon, I don't have to go and defend me.
"If I, in any way, incur the wrath of some group of people, I don't mean to. But what am I supposed to do? It's a catch-22. when I go on the air, I have to give up my sensitivity to a degree..."