Peter Bogdanovich Remembers Jerry Lewis: "So Much More Than a Terrific Performer"

Jerry Lewis Peter Bogdanovich 2005 - H Getty 2017
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The filmmaker and writer about film reflects on the passing of his friend of more than a half-century.

Peter Bogdanovich, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and writer about film, knew Jerry Lewis for more than a half-century and wrote about Lewis in the longest chapter of his book Who the Hell's in It?

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Jerry Lewis ducked a lot of bullets — he's had so many things wrong with him over the years — but I just didn't expect to hear that he had died. I thought he was going to make it to 100, which he said he was going to try to do. It's just shocking and sad.

Jerry was remarkably funny, and he was a good friend to me. I've known him for 56 years. I watched him shooting The Ladies Man when I was out here in Los Angeles for the first time in 1961. I was taking notes because I was going to do a piece about my trip to Hollywood. Esquire finally published it in 1962, and there was a short but amusing column about Jerry in that piece, so the editor of Esquire asked me if I would do a profile of Jerry because he liked what I had written. I said "Yes," came to California and spent three weeks with him. They published the piece, which was called "Mr. Lewis Is a Pussycat," and he loved it. It was his favorite piece for years, and in fact he mimeographed it, if anyone remembers what a mimeograph is, and he sent it out to everybody. And we were friends from then on.

I had been an abject fan of Martin and Lewis when I was a kid. I just thought they were terribly funny. None of their movies captured the kind of chemistry they really had. The movies were OK, but they didn't capture what they had on live television, for example, on The Colgate Comedy Hour. To give you an example of how kind Jerry could be, I was very unhappy about the way a picture of mine had been released, and I was in a depression. He said, "Let me cheer you up," and he sent me tapes of all 28 Colgate Comedy Hours that they did. And, sure enough, they cheered me up. They were terribly funny; there's some great stuff in there, particularly when they go off script and just ad-lib and break each other up.

Jerry was so much more than a terrific performer. He was a very generous friend who loaned people money and never asked for it back, and who also did that Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon for years. He also directed some pretty funny pictures — The Nutty Professor was a damn good movie. But, above all, he was very funny. He was one of the few comics of the talkie era who reminded you of the silent era, where the visuals were funny, as opposed to just verbal humor. He will be missed.