"Television will eat your creative process alive. Something new was gone in an hour," he said. "It is just a hungry machine that needs product. We were very careful in the early days of television. (Martin and I) would not commit to NBC for more than eight ("Colgate") shows a year by design. We delivered 40 shows in five years, so it didn't eat us alive. We came out unscathed, but I can't say that for a lot of people."
By the end of the Paramount contract, the revisionists were getting to Lewis. His 9-year-old didn't look good on a man in his 40s, they said. Lewis continued to do Vegas dates, a little TV and some touring, but directed and appeared in only two movies between 1970 and 1983, when Martin Scorsese asked him to take the role of a talk-show host who is the target of the demented obsession of a bad stand-up comic (played by Robert De Niro) in "The King of Comedy." The straight dramatic role stunned, and pleased, Lewis' critics.
"I stretched at the right time," said Lewis. "If a comic makes the stretch prematurely, he damages his career a bit. (Working with Scorsese and De Niro) was, though, an exercise in working with perfection."
He did another dramatic turn in a five-week arc of TV's "Wiseguy," where he played a garment executive torn by his sordid past and his love for his son. But unless you've watched his beloved Muscular Dystrophy Telethon each Labor Day, or have caught one of his Vegas stints or brief road tours, that's about all you've seen of Lewis' work in the last 15 years.
Lewis, who also has a film opening this year, the Disney comedy "Funny Bones," in which he co-stars with Leslie Caron, had good reason to slow down. He had open-heart surgery in 1983 and a short bout with prostate cancer in 1992. He admits to an addiction to Percodan through the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he used the drug to mask the pain from a bleeding ulcer. He lost millions in an attempt to set up a chain of "family" movie houses, the Jerry Lewis Theaters. He divorced Patti in 1980 and three years later married SanDee (Sam) Pitnick, a short, pretty woman now in her mid-40s. They adopted Danielle the day after her birth in 1992.
Lewis and Sam moved to Las Vegas in the mid-1980s to get away from the hectic pace and gossip mills of Southern California.
"We loved that we were able to find a home in the oldest residential section of Las Vegas, called the Scotch 80s. We love it because it's quiet and that we can travel in less than six minutes and be in the most glamorous strip in the world, which we don't do often, but it's there," said Lewis. "I had worked Vegas so much that it was very, very conducive to good scheduling and, besides, I've always kept the telethon there."
Ah, the telethon, the thing that makes Lewis both beloved and reviled. Several years ago, some advocates for the disabled started protesting Lewis' baby, the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, which in truth aids research into several dozen neurological diseases. They said that Lewis portrayed the disabled as pathetic creatures, and to raise money for them that way was embarrassing, counter-productive and evil. Lewis only exacerbated the problem when he wrote an article in Parade magazine saying that he would consider himself only half-alive if he were paralyzed or confined to a wheelchair like some of those he's called "Jerry's Kids" over the 45 years of the telethon.
Lewis has kept secret the reason he started working for the Muscular Dystrophy Assn., but he said the telethon was a success from its inception, even if he originally thought it a dubious idea.
"I was taking a ride in a bus to a basketball game in Princeton, N.J., (with an MDA executive) in mid-January, 1948. He was talking to me about the prospect of a telethon and I said, 'Jesus Christ, I don't even have a TV in the house yet,' " Lewis said. "But finally we did the first one in 1950 out of WNEW in New York. We did four hours only, but we knew we had paydirt. We only raised a few thousand dollars that night, but we kept at it, adding stations. By 1970, I had 213 stations locked up, the most comprehensive independent television network ever and since."
Despite the protests, Lewis is proud of his work with the telethon. He said that he does phone conferences or hospital visits several hours a day and will leave "Damn Yankees" in August to prepare for this year's telethon. (He will be back in the fall to go on a planned national tour of the show.)
"It wound up being very important, wouldn't you say? To date, 1 billion, 400 million dollars. That's not bad, I would think," he said.
But, of course, it isn't enough, not for the guy who thrived on 20-hour days.
"I've done everything . . . except this," said Lewis about "Damn Yankees." "Except Broadway. And this character, I've been playing this character in other guises all these years. He's a mischievous kid, just an older one."