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Q&A

'I've Been Playing the Devil for 65 Years'

October 26, 1996|CHUCK CRISAFULLI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The devil has come to Hollywood, and he looks a lot like Jerry Lewis.

Since February 1995, the veteran comic, actor, director and telethon host has been touring the country in a revival of the musical "Damn Yankees," adding a touch of nuttiness to his starring role as the prince of darkness--known in the show as Mr. Applegate. Lewis joined this production during its New York run, finally adding Broadway stage to his long list of show business credits. This week, the production seen earlier this year at the Pasadena Playhouse and the Orange County Performing Arts Center finally arrived in Los Angeles at the Pantages Theatre.

Lewis has clearly taken to the Luciferian role of Applegate--his commitment extends through summer 1998, with possible European runs beginning in the fall of that year. Along with nightly ovations, this stage turn has also brought the comic some of the critical praise that has long eluded him in the United States.

Still, at 70, Lewis does not seem to have mellowed much with age. In conversation, his demeanor ranges from brusquely businesslike to outright testy, and his legendary prickly temper never seems far from flare-up. Then again, dealing with the devil isn't supposed to be easy.

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Question: What's it been like to spend the last year and a half playing Mr. Applegate--the devil himself?

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Answer: It's been great. It's been 578 performances exactly--a year and eight months. But my happiness with this show has nothing to do with this particular role. I've been playing the devil for 65 years.

Q: You've said you feel there's a strong connection between Mr. Applegate and the "classic" Jerry Lewis character--which you've described in the past as "a 9-year-old trapped in a man's body."

A: He's a lot like that. He's a totally mischievous kid. That's what's so much fun about him. There's a silliness about him that makes the show very light-spirited--it's not mean-spirited. The texture of the role began with Ray Walston in the original production. He was wonderfully mischievous. I bring my own bag of tricks to what for me is a role made in heaven--no pun intended.

Q: Do you feel vindicated at all by the good notices the show has received?

A: There were naysayers when I started this. There was a lot of natural negativeness--how could theater ever dare put Jerry Lewis in this role? I loved that. During our recent run in San Francisco, one review said, "The snobs must be furious," because I walk out on stage, take command, I'm good and the show is marvelous. I waited a year and eight months for that, so I sit here before you cockier than a pig in . . . you get the idea. The snobs are furious, and I intend to infuriate some more every time I go out there.

Q: How important was it to you to make it to Broadway after all your years in entertainment?

A: My dad felt a mystique about Broadway; if you didn't do that, you didn't do anything. When I played burlesque houses, he said, "I wish you well--but it's not Broadway." Five years after Dean Martin and I had teamed up, we had contracts worth $100 million--my dad said, "You ain't got it yet." I did a 2 1/2-hour show for Her Majesty the Queen--for the first time in history, she stood up to applaud. I said, "It doesn't get any better than this." My dad said, "It does if you play Broadway." On Feb. 28, 1995, I played Broadway, and when I came out for the last bow, I could hear my father say, "Now you got it, kid." I felt his spirit. And he was right. I've done it all--and there was nothing like that night.

Q: Has being in the show stayed that satisfying for you?

A: Put it this way: After 578 performances, I'm looking at my watch counting down the hours before I can do it again. After that many shows, if you're still looking forward to curtain, it's satisfying beyond comprehension.

Q: What makes the difference between a great night and an OK night for you on stage?

A: They're all the same. I go to the theater. I get dressed. I do a show. You perform 65 years, it's pretty easy to go out there.

Q: Has your Applegate evolved as you've spent more time with him?

A: Without a doubt. Of course. I've found my own extension of the character while staying within the integrity of the play. You bring a persona to the show that makes it look different, but in fact you stick with the material. All I'm doing is bringing some polish to an already impossible-to-improve role.

Q: What would you say is the biggest difference between the devil and Jerry Lewis?

A: There is none. We're just as mischievous, and just as silly. And if you put the two of us together, I end up getting paid big bucks.

* "Damn Yankees," Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees, 2 p.m. Tickets: $25-$49. (213) 480-3232.

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