The Inside Story of Jerry Lewis' Final Interview

I wish I had a do-over.

Turns out I did Jerry Lewis’ last interview. I wish I had a do-over.

Last year, The Hollywood Reporter decided to do a special package in our end-of-the-year issue on 10 stars who were still working in their 90s called “Creative Until You Die.” The idea was not only to celebrate their longevity but to try get a sense of what made them creative and vital long past a time when most of their contemporaries had retired.

The group included Don Rickles, Norman Lear, Betty White and Jerry Lewis. Each person would be photographed and videotaped for a short 10-15 minute interview. The idea was to get them talking about aging and creativity as well as to reflect on their career.

I offered to fly to Las Vegas to interview Jerry Lewis. I knew he had a reputation for being a tough interview, but a chance to talk to a comedy legend who had been the biggest box-office draw of the 1960s and knew Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and other legends was an opportunity not to be missed. We decided to do the photo shoot first and then the interview, so if the conversation flowed well we wouldn’t feel rushed to stop to get the photos in.

Bad idea. Lewis didn’t like the amount of equipment or the number of people in the house. He offered a non-stop barrage of criticism, ignoring all of the photographer's attempts to loosen him up with small talk as he shot him. At first I thought Lewis was just acting — that being grouchy was a gimmick — but he seemed to be getting angrier and angrier as time went on. (I learned later that he was tired from touring and trying to squeeze the interview into one of a few off-days in his schedule might have been asking too much of a 90-year-old man.) I started to get nervous. Usually you try to engage in some small talk before the interview, build a rapport to relax both yourself and the subject. But there was never a chance with Lewis. When we sat down for the interview, he glowered at me. I had a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. I had batted around opening questions with the editor of the package, Peter Flax, and we had decided to start with, “Have you ever thought about retirement?” as a good-natured challenge. Others had taken it that way (Cloris Leachman said, “Fuck that.”). But Lewis just said, “Why?” and glowered at me. It went downhill from there, resulting in seven painful, unproductive minutes. At the time, I was unnerved by his anger and worried if I stopped he’d walk out.

In retrospect, I wish I had turned the cameras off and asked Lewis if there was anything I could do to make him happier. I would have told him about the other interviews and about how we were trying to figure out the secret to remaining vital for as long as possible. I would have told him how genuinely interested I was in what Vegas was like 50 years ago and in his stories of Hollywood in the '50s and '60s. I don’t know if that would’ve made a difference. Jerry was pretty worked up, and I’m not sure anything would’ve calmed him down. But I wish I had tried. I wish I had a do-over.