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This story first appeared in the Dec. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
The concept of making a Holocaust film in which a Jewish-Italian waiter and his son are sent to a concentration camp, where the father convinces the child that the evil goings-on are all part of a fun game, is an impossibly far-fetched idea. But 1997’s Life Is Beautiful won three Oscars. In 1972, Jerry Lewis directed and starred in a film about a German circus performer who insults Hitler and is sent to a concentration camp, where he then is ordered to entertain Jewish children headed for the gas chambers. That far-fetched idea, however, didn’t win anything.
Lewis himself has spoken of how “embarrassed” he was by how “bad, bad, bad” The Day the Clown Cried turned out. The project began when publicist-turned-TV producer Joan O’Brien wrote the script with L.A. Examiner TV critic Charles Denton. It was picked up by producer Nathan Wachsberger, who got Lewis involved.
Lewis was working feverishly at the time. In February 1972, THR reported that he’d just finished a month’s engagement at Caesars Palace; that his film company had a dozen projects in development; and that he’d be hosting an NBC talk show. (All while he was addicted to Percodan.) Lewis dove into Clown with a fanatic vigor, losing 35 pounds on a grapefruit diet and begging Italian director Vittorio De Sica to act in the film. (No dice.) But it was all for nothing: The financing was insufficient, and it turned out that Wachsberger no longer owned the script rights. When the screenwriters sued, a Swedish court seized the footage, and Lewis left Scandinavia with a rough cut.
If all that wasn’t enough to ensure a film disaster, Lewis has said he didn’t know how to handle the material. “It could have been wonderful, but I slipped up,” he said in 2013. “I didn’t quite get it.” Seven minutes of the film have surfaced online, and this year Lewis donated a version to the Library of Congress with the stipulation that Clown not be screened until 2025. Lewis would be 99.
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