The Dyed-black hair is now fully gray, the face jowly and furrowed, but Jerry Lewis keeps going at a pace that would make much younger men wheeze. At 86, he still travels the U.S. to do a one-man stage show (the latest, in early July, at the FireLake Grand Casino in Shawnee, Okla.); pops in and out of New York City for events at the Friars Club, which keeps coming up with new ways of honoring him; gets rushed to the hospital; recuperates; and bounces back for more.
Now America's most outspoken clown is pursuing one last, and some would say impossible, dream: to direct his first Broadway musical. The show is The Nutty Professor, based on his 1963 movie about a nerdy chemistry professor who transforms, Jekyll-and-Hyde-like, into a sleazy, lady-killing lounge singer named Buddy Love, and it has brought him for much of a very hot summer to Nashville, where he's mounting a production of the show at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. The musical is better than you might expect, with a tuneful score by the late Marvin Hamlisch, a solid book by Rupert Holmes and a terrific lead performance by newcomer Michael Andrew, reprising Lewis' famous dual role under the guidance of the man who created it. "I'm walking a mile in an out-of-body experience," says Lewis. "This kid is going to be the biggest star ever on Broadway."
If so, it will be a triumph for Lewis as well, following what surely was the most humiliating blow in his long, protean and often combative career. A year ago, he was unceremoniously dumped as host of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) telethon, his annual Labor Day showcase for 45 years. The breakup was abrupt and mysterious. First the MDA announced that Lewis was retiring from his on-air role but would make a goodbye appearance at the end of the show. Then, after a few weeks, came a curt announcement that he would not appear to say goodbye after all and had resigned as the MDA's national chairman.
The circumstances have not been explained, and Lewis still won't talk about it. "That's not a place I want to go to," he says when I raise the subject. "Because if I go there, you'll never get me back." But bitterness obviously remains. "It's not that I don't want to talk about it. But I have already ingested all that I want from that whole f---ing adventure." Clearly he was forced out, and the cancellation of his farewell spot apparently came after he and the MDA brass couldn't agree on its length and format. (Jerry wanted it live; the MDA wanted it taped.) Without him, the telethon seems to be withering. This year's show will be a mere three hours long (down from last year's six and from 21-plus in the Lewis era), with no announced host and no tote board tallying donations. "We honor Jerry Lewis, we admire the work he's done for us, and we respect his decision to retire," says interim MDA president Valerie Cwik. Yet nowhere in the press announcement of this year's show is the name Jerry Lewis mentioned.