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COVER STORY : The Devil Made Him Do It : Sure, Jerry Lewis had played on Broadway before, but he'd never played Broadway . That was before 'Damn Yankees' came along.

February 26, 1995|Robert Strauss | Robert Strauss is television critic for the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press.

NEW YORK — Jerry Lewis is swirling in the vortex of two Dannys.

"She has become my total center," said the man who, at one time or another, was the highest-paid nightclub comic, the highest-paid television entertainer and the highest-paid film director in the world. "And that, as you might imagine, is a large change for me."

Lewis is talking . . . and talking . . . and talking about his adopted daughter, Danielle, who will be 3 next month. The producers of "Damn Yankees," who have brought Lewis in to revive their revival of the 1955 Broadway musical hit, want him to spend a lot more time pushing the show. They took the unusual tack of closing the show for two tourist-less winter months before reopening it, to put Lewis in the role of the devil who barters a Washington Senators fan's soul so the fan can be transformed into the batting hero who helps the Senators beat the hated New York Yankees.

They've rented a plush-on-plush suite in the Waldorf Towers, high above Park Avenue, so that Lewis can chat up reporters in style. Preceding Lewis is a reputation that he'd rather have reporters on the room-service menu, preferably de-boned. But when he talks about and shows off photos of his pigtailed, smiling little Danni, it's clear that the fabled Lewis temper-toting fangs have receded.

"It's a wonderful change. The feeling of total and complete selflessness is incredible," said Lewis, propping photo after photo on top of his briefcase. "I just don't want anything to get in the way of this concentrated love. I'm so connected to her and she's such a daddy's girl. We have such a bonding that I never had with children before."

Lewis, who turns 69 on March 16, four days after "Damn Yankees" reopens (previews begin Tuesday), was 18 when his first son, erstwhile rock star Gary, was born. He and his first wife, Patti, had five sons, but he said he never got close enough to them.

"When you are younger and have kids, you are so busy with yourself. You want everything for yourself," said Lewis. And for a little bit, he rewinds back a few decades, thinking about that other Danny: Danny Levitch, his father.

"He taught me everything I know," Lewis said. Except that as a father, Danny Levitch was busy with his own life. He and his wife, Rae, were small-time entertainers, mostly in the Borscht Belt. When they could, they took their only son on tours. But the boy was left in the care of his grandmother in Irvington, N.J., a suburb of Newark, where he honed his act--inspired by his father--as class clown. Danny Levitch pushed his son, getting him bookings from the time he was 5, when Jerry's whole act was singing, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"

In fact, Jerry's whole act was trying to please his father, an act that didn't end until Danny Levitch died in 1982. Stories of Jerry's nearly futile attempts have become legion: The time he bought Danny a custom Cadillac and wrapped it with 25 yards of ribbon and heard Danny say only, "How come it's not a convertible?" The time, at age 55 no less, when Lewis came off stage after 90 minutes of stand-up applause and was greeted by the unsmiling Danny, saying, "You were OK--for an amateur." The time Lewis finally got to Broadway. . . .

But wait, that's now.

"I played the Palace. I played the Paramount. I played the Roxy. I played the Capitol," said Lewis, rat-a-tat-tatting legendary houses he sold out when he and Dean Martin were the nation's comic darlings between 1946 and 1956. "But that's not \o7 Broadway. \f7 That's film houses. That's vaudeville houses. This, this will be Broadway.

"And the wonderful part about this is that I would have been disappointed if the show would have moved to one of the side-street Broadway houses," said Lewis, between gulps of Diet Coke. The Marquis, where "Damn Yankees" is ensconced, is at Broadway and 45th Street. "I'm really getting the thrill of my life in that it is on Broadway. You have to drive your car down Broadway to get to the theater. I love that."

And then he softens his gleeful rant a bit.

"My dad is looking up over a cloud, giggling," said the only son, still trying hard to please. "He never got to Broadway. His dream was to see me on it. But he knows, I guess."

The dream started in earnest in the summer of 1946. The postwar boom was about to strike and fun was in the air. Skinny D'Amato, as the owner of the 500 Club, the top fun purveyor in the East Coast's summer fun town, Atlantic City, N.J., took a flyer on a rubber-faced 20-year-old comic, Joey Levitch, who had recently stage-named himself Jerry Lewis.

"Atlantic City was still a class operation in '46," said Lewis. "It was just incredible; flowers along the streets. It had medians where beautiful flowers were kept immaculately. In the winter, they would have horse sleighs in those medians. It was a magical city."

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