EDITORIAL : The first feature-length film I ever saw was “The Nutty Professor,” more than 45 years ago, at a movie house that disappeared a generation ago from 32nd Street in Union City. It was there that I discovered one of my greatest idols, a man who grew up no more than 10 miles from me. It was then that my personality was forged.
The iconic 1984 photo by Eddie Adams
Newark’s own Joseph Levitch always had that smart-ass tilt of the head, to go with the greased-back hair and the dimpled chin.
He’s 84 and can still let loose with a “laaaaaa-dee” now and then.
But the Irvington High School graduate is more than just a funnyman from another era. He’s a living memorial, the likes of which we, nor our children, will ever see again.
And every Labor Day weekend, for as long as I can remember, he’s done God’s work on the 21-hour Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon .
“People who do comedy seem to be very free and have total abandon and [people] may fear being attacked by that,” the spastic comic who came to be known as Jerry Lewis once told Dick Cavett.
“Anybody wants to go out and show off, which is what we do. I think it starts with what are we doing once we get there….”
Lewis took to solo-ing, developing some amazing chops as a director.
He also produced a classic scene in American film comedy history:
But Lewis clearly was more comfortable with Martin.
His work on the “Jerry Lewis- Dean Martin Colgate Comedy Hour” could, at times, be painfully funny.
Fans of Christopher Walken’s “The Continental” might be surprised to discover this bit (even Lewis loses it near the end). This might be one of the funniest routines you’ve never seen:
Personal fave: Jerry’s 1965 TV drum solo battle, on the Colgate show, with the legendary Buddy Rich:
“The Nutty Professor” was hysterical film-making in its own right — with Lewis starring and helming. The dance scene at the prom, the hangover in class are but two memorable moments. So is the first time he ever walks into “The Purple Pit,” the college bar where Stella Stevens makes the rest of the femmes look like cattle.
“What’ll it be, hmmmmmm?” (check out the Mr. Peanut)
Lewis had an eye for talent, as evidenced by pegging Stella Stevens as Buddy/Professor Kelp’s love interest:
But there was a dark undercurrent to Jerry’s updating of the “Jekyll and Hyde” tale. Much as Lewis would deny it, his “Buddy Love” character was clearly a caricature of his former partner, full of swagger, smooth-as-silk style and self-confident mysogyny.
Still, Lewis insisted Buddy Love was a “conglomeration of every son of a bitch” he’d ever met and had nothing to do with Dean.
“Now watch, baby. Every move a picture…”
Despite the over-publicized fallout with Martin, Lewis and he found peace in the later years. Lewis even wrote a book about it: “Dean And Me.”
“Without him, you couldn’t have had the crazy kid,” Lewis told Matt Lauer after Martin’s death. “I couldn’t have gone anywhere without him. He reeled me in at the right time. He knew when I was gonna breathe. And nobody ever saw that.”
Which can only lead to the inevitable, taken from the 1976 MDA Telethon.
In 60 years of raising nearly $2.4 billion toward find a cure to the neuro-muscular disease (that’s right: SIXTY), one moment stands out for the national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and the viewers, thanks to the only person who could have brokered such a peace, Mr. Francis Albert Sinatra:
45 years the telethon has been televised. And in that time, remarkable advances have been made in the treatment of MD. And while other telethons have come and gone, Jerry Lewis’s now remains alone. And even though the economy could put this year’s $60 million tote-board goal out of reach, it doesn’t mean Jerry — who to this day has never disclosed the reason for his involvement — won’t give it all he has.
If you haven’t already, tune in for awhile.
At the very least, catch the show’s close, when the now-fragile vaudevilian will take another crack, with his hope in his heart, at “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
At that moment, please recognize, if you will, the gift the spastic clown from Newark has brought — not only to those who once had no hope, but to us all.
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