Jerry Lewis on 'Argo,' Old Hollywood and his Fans in France

Jerry Lewis Kerry Bishe - H 2013
Lightstream Pictures

Jerry Lewis Kerry Bishe - H 2013

The 87-year-old actor, who recently wrapped independent film "Max Rose," talks to THR about working on movies during the Golden Era: "Everything about it was gentle. It wasn’t killer-activity."

Actor Jerry Lewis wrapped Max Rose on Monday, an independent film that producer Lawrence Inglee (Rampart, The Messenger) hopes to have ready in time for Cannes. The film, which teams Lewis with comedian Mort Sahl for the first time, is a drama – with funny moments, of course – that delivers the message, as Lewis puts it:  “You don’t throw away old people.” Lewis said he liked the script so much that, in order to make the movie, he put off rehearsals for The Nutty Professor, a stage play he’ll direct on Broadway this spring. Four days before the movie wrapped he spoke to THR at a Culver City location some in the industry refer to as “the oilfield house.”

THR: What do you think of Hollywood’s message movies nowadays?

Lewis: I don’t see a lot of message stuff … with the exception of Argo, which I thought was a marvelous film … the work is starting to get very much more credible … Years ago, when Burt Lancaster did Birdman of Alcatraz, there wasn’t a hell of a lot to talk about. The man is in a cage for 24 hours a day with birds. So what more can you say? Is it meaningful? If you like birds it’s meaningful.

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The Hollywood Reporter: What do you miss about the Golden Era?

Jerry Lewis: Everything about it was gentle. It wasn’t killer-activity like it is today.

THR: Speaking of which, you said something controversial 15 years ago that Hollywood still talks about today, about not liking female comics. Judd Apatow cursed you out and Tina Fey criticized you for it recently.

Lewis: What I said was, I can’t see women doing this (makes a rude gesture), and I can’t see women – who can produce a child – and take that great, wonderful development and stick it on a stage – I just have a problem seeing motherhood turned into Phyllis Diller.

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THR: Do you think Hollywood is too touchy about politically incorrect things that people say?

Lewis: Hollywood has always been touchy. What do you wanna talk about, St. Louis, Mo? There’s no fun there. But Hollywood, yeah, let’s go get those bastards, boy.

THR: You still feel free to say whatever you want?

Lewis: You just have to be prepared to answer for it. The thing I tell a good newspaperman when I’m driven to this question, ‘what are you going to do future-wise,’ I say, ‘I’m 87, what kind of future have I got?’

THR: What do you think of the jokes about how popular you are in France?

Lewis: France is number eight. You gotta go to where it’s hotter than there: Australia, the Netherlands, Spain, Brussels – off the top of my head – Germany, Italy. France is about eighth. And they’re strong. I mean, when I arrive in Paris, the front page of their biggest paper says, ‘Jerry is here.’ And it’s in French, so now my staff is telling me, ‘you know what that says?’ I say, ‘it looks like it says men’s room, forward,’ I don’t know… and it’s wonderful.”

THR: What do you think of actors making political speeches at the Oscars?

Lewis: It doesn’t belong there. I think we are the most dedicated industry in the world. And I think that we have to present ourselves that night as hard-working, caring and important people to the industry. We need to get more self-respect as an industry.

THR: How has the industry lost self-respect?

Lewis: When you get a fat lady from Cleveland whose husband died, weighing 497 pounds, and he left her $7 million -- she’s gonna produce a movie. She doesn’t have the faintest idea what to do, but she’s gonna produce a movie. And she puts up the money and they start, but somewhere along the second or third week they can’t find any of the crew because they didn’t want any part of this piece of crap. That goes on all the time.

THR: Who are you referring to?

Lewis: No one specific.

THR: Is it true you taught George Lucas and Steven Spielberg at USC?

Lewis: They were in my class, but I doubt that they learned anything from me. They were well equipped at the time they came into the class. Steven said one night, ‘I get more information from a Jerry Lewis evening than I do from a university.’  Steven had just released Amblin, his first important film. And I had Randy Kleiser who did Grease Peter Bogdanovich reviewed the class, and whenever he complained about something, I’d say, ‘you probably learned that from me.’ We had eight great years at my warehouse, which gave me room for 900 people, but I only had a class of 25. They’d come in at 7 p.m. and at a quarter after 3 we were still at it.

THR: What’s your favorite film?

Lewis: Dr. Strangleove. You don’t get a lot after that.

THR: What actors and directors who have passed away do you miss most?

Lewis: I guess all of them. I feel like I’m betraying somebody if I say, because they all did great work. The fact that they said, Day One, roll em, you know, that’s it.