James Lipton Recalls His Favorite Jerry Lewis Moment: "He Was the Ultimate Live Performer"

The Errand Boy Still Jerry Lewis - One Time Use Only - Alamy - H 2017
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"Jerry's comedic imagination knew no bounds," says the 'Inside the Actors Studio' host as he fondly remembers his last conversation with the comedy legend on set.

When Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin were riding high, they were the two biggest stars in the world. They were bigger than The Beatles, they were bigger than Elvis — no one has ever reached the pinnacle of what they reached in fame and popularity. They were the last of a generation that was soon to be replaced, but during the time that they were at their peak, there was nobody who equaled them in popularity.

They were the perfect duo. Dean was the ultimate cool, and Jerry was the ultimate uncool. Dean was imperturbable, and Jerry spent his life trying to perturb him. Jerry was a prankster.

I used to see them on the set. Jerry had photographs of Dean before Dean had his nose job, and when reporters would come to interview Dean, or when anything good would happen to Dean, the moment would come that Dean dreaded when Jerry would trod out the pictures of Dean Martin with his old nose.

Live television was born to give Jerry Lewis a platform. Why? Because he was the ultimate live performer. He didn't know what was coming next. He was pure inspiration. The definition of a genius is someone who does naturally and without effort what the rest of us have to study to do, learn to do, try to do. He just does it, impromptu, off the top and instantly. I asked him when he was on Inside the Actors Studio, "Jerry, can comedy be taught?" And he said: "Yes, it can. You can learn how to be funny, but the great comedians are those who have it in their DNA. And if you're born with that, then it's gonna happen."

Jerry's comedic imagination knew no bounds. It was limitless. My favorite of all the things he ever did was a scene in The Errand Boy in a boardroom, and there's some very jazzy music playing, and he's sitting behind a desk and then he pantomimes to the music. And it is three minutes of the most concentrated, purist and most brilliant humor of his career. It's my favorite Jerry scene.

Directing requires a different part of the brain. You have to be objective, you have to be analytical. And he was able to do that, too. He wasn't a great director, but he was certainly a very good director, and he was a very inventive one. He invented the video assist. Previous to that, directors didn't know what they had until they saw the dailies. But because he was going to appear in scenes that he was directing, necessity was the mother of that invention. The video assist, which was attached to the camera, enabled the director to look at the scene immediately after he'd shot it, see what he had and didn't have.

There are obviously a lot of performers he influenced. Maybe people don't know who Jerry Lewis is, but they know Eddie Murphy or Robin Williams. He inspired one extraordinary performer after another. He led the way for them. And even when they left him behind, and when show business changed and comedy changed and it seemed to shut him out, he couldn't be shut out because of all of the people who had been born out of his genius. At the end of the show we did together, I inevitably came to that question, "If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?" And he thought, and then he said he would like to hear God say, "Wanna do it again?" And if I may be frank, I wish to God he could.

Read more from THR's cover story on Jerry Lewis:

Carl Reiner on 7 Decades of Laughter With Friend Jerry Lewis: "He Was a True Genius"

Dean Martin's Daughter on Jerry Lewis' Bond With Her Father: "They Were Like Brothers"

Jerry Lewis and the Time the Oscars Ran 20 Minutes Short

Jerry Lewis Drew Ire Over His Comments About Female Comedians

Why the French Loved Jerry Lewis, aka 'Le Roi du Crazy'

This story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.