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Jerry Lewis’s last starring role was in the 2013 drama, Max Rose, in which he played the title character, an aging Jewish jazz musician who questions his whole life when he learns that his late wife of 65 years may have been unfaithful to him. Despite no significant film credits to his name when he first approached Lewis, writer-director Daniel Noah convinced the star to join the film, which was unveiled as a work-in-progress at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013 and was ultimately released in 2016. Lewis, Noah explains, was looking for that one serious role that had eluded him all his life, and, it would turn out, could be very much like the grandfatherly figure he played onscreen.
How did you go about convincing Jerry Lewis to appear in your film?
I had had him in mind. We started to inquire about him. We were told he was retired, that he had no agents or representation. So we just sent a letter to his office in Vegas, a very short letter, thinking we would never hear back from him ever again. He read the letter, he called Lawrence Inglee, my producer and said he’d read the script. We sent it, and a few weeks later he called and committed to it. I’d been doing a lot of writing for hire. I’d been working for a number of years writing TV pilots and developing films and nothing was getting made, so I shifted my focus to independent film, and Max Rose was definitely the first project I set my sights on. So Jerry definitely took a huge chance on me. I had really nothing to represent me except the script that I’d written.
So why do you think he decided to do the project?
I think a combination of factors. Timing was one of them. He had had pulmonary fibrosis and been told he wouldn’t survive it and he did, very much to his surprise. I think he felt he’d been given an extra chapter in life, and he wanted to do something with it. When we first started to meet and get to know each other, he told me he’d accomplished nearly everything he’d set his mind to in his life except a deep, dramatic performance. That was the one thing he felt he’d never done. He spoke to me about how he’d talked to his father quite a bit about it before he passed away. He had felt disappointment that he’d never done that for his dad before he lost his dad, and when the script for Max Rose came to him he felt that his father had sent it to him.
Describe the character he plays.
The character is an aged, Jewish jazz musician, who was based on my own grandfather. In many ways, there was not a lot of information about Jerry outside the monkey character, his identity as an auteur, his identity as a philanthropist that would suggest that he would be a good choice for the part. It was really just intuition. When I got to know him I was stunned that he was exactly like the character. He would even joke with me, “Did you have hidden cameras in my home? How did you capture me so perfectly?” It was something neither of us could explain. When we were prepping for the film, he said to me, “The only thing that is going to ruin this movie, is if I try acting.” The character you see in Max Rose is very similar to who Jerry was.
Given his experience as a director, did he try to tell you how to do things?
He was great. He told me at the top he would stay on his side of the camera. I think it takes a master filmmaker like him to understand these things only work when everyone stays in their own lane. So he did everything we asked him to do without any resistance. If anything, there were times, I’d ask him for help and he wouldn’t help me. He’d say, “That’s your job, kid.” Like if I asked him to look at a shot, he was very immersed in his part of the experience, the acting part. He didn’t want to be thinking about the directorial aspects of it.
What was it like for him to take the film to Cannes?
It was overwhelming. Jerry in France is like The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night. He was not a young man, but there was a lot of interest in him and he hung in there. He was very excited to be back at Cannes, because Cannes had a special place in his heart because he’d been there as a young filmmaker, so it was a bit of a return for him. But it was exhausting. We had to be sure the pace was manageable for a man his age, but he was fine.
Have you kept up with him in the years since?
We’ve known each other for close to 10 years now. I met him when he was 82. It took a very long time to raise the money for the film, and there was a lot of anxiety about a movie about people in that age group and whether audiences would expect a comedy with Jerry Lewis starring. But in many ways, the relationship we had started to replicate the relationship that I had with my grandfather, who the character was based on. We would talk every Sunday, sometimes for just a couple of minutes, sometimes longer. And I would go out and see him in Vegas or on his boat in San Diego before he sold it.
Did the news of his death come as a surprise?
He’d been in the hospital, so I can’t say it came as a surprise. I’m very sad and very grateful. I’ve often thought of the film My Favorite Year when looking for a way to express what it was like to be friends with Jerry Lewis, to have him take me under his wing and welcome me into his family the way he did. There were always two levels to it: One was a bit of awe that it was surreal. But at the same time, I think the reason he did the movie is that we had a very strange kinship with each other, which maybe I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to understand. I think we both recognized something very deep and intimate in each other that was familiar.
So how will you remember him?
I think Jerry was the most remarkable man I’ve ever known and probably will ever know. He was unbelievably complicated and shockingly self-aware. There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t implement some lesson I learned from him, both professionally and personally. There was every color of the rainbow in that guy — he was an actor and a writer and a director and a philanthropist and an inventor and a father and a husband and a friend. He could be warm. He could be wonderful. He could be mean. He could be vulnerable. He could be kind. He was so unbelievably complex. But he spoke often about, and he wrote about, his internal government: He knew there were many different people inside of him and the key to his success was that he realized when he was young that his job was to decide at any given moment which one of those people to put in the cockpit.
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