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Battery-Powered, Jerry Lewis Is Back in Action

Recovery* Driven nearly to suicide by chronic pain, the comedian was saved by electronic spinal implants that give him relief and renewed hope for the future.

July 05, 2002|BOB THOMAS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

LAS VEGAS — On his 40th birthday in 1966, Jerry Lewis gave a lavish party for himself at his Bel-Air estate. Although his films were panned by most critics, they made big money for Paramount, and all the big shots were there.

Studio chief Barney Balaban announced grandly: "Just tell us what you want, and we'll give it to you." Without blinking, Lewis replied: "I would like the negatives of all my pictures after 30 years."

The executives agreed, and on his 70th birthday, the first negative arrived.

Since then, no doubt motivated by Eddie Murphy's successful version of Lewis' 1963 comedy "The Nutty Professor," six studios have bought remake rights to Lewis movies: "The Bellboy" (MGM), "The Errand Boy" (Disney), "Cinderfella" (New Line), "The Patsy" (Fox), "The Family Jewels" (Paramount) and "The Ladies' Man" (Columbia).

"I think it's nice that Hollywood recognizes what I did 40 years ago wasn't too bad," Lewis says in a slightly smug reference to his greater recognition abroad--especially in France--than at home.

At 76, Lewis--and his legacy--remain remarkably robust despite his penchant for controversy and a recent bout of severe back pain from "years of pratfalls" that had Lewis considering suicide.

The irrepressible clown, filmmaker and fund-raiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. just keeps going and going--not unlike the pain-blocking batteries now implanted near his spine.

Lewis is already preparing for this year's MDA telethon, has a 20-year contract to entertain at the Orleans Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas and occasionally hits the lecture circuit.

He has no plans to make any new films, but he does have options to appear in the remakes, as he did in "The Nutty Professor."

Lewis also has a $1.5-million contract with Random House for a memoir about his storied--and stormy--partnership with Dean Martin. He started writing the book in 1996 and has completed about 1,300 pages, which he estimates is just one-third of the story. Movie rights have been sold to HBO.

Jerry Lewis, his wife, SanDee (known as Sam), and their 10-year-old daughter, Danielle (nicknamed Dani), live on a shady street not far from the Las Vegas Strip. The two-story family home is spacious but not as grand as the palaces Jerry occupied in his Hollywood heyday. (He was married to band singer Patty Palmer from 1944 to '81, and they raised five sons.)

His haven is the office, its walls and shelves covered with photographs of Jerry with celebrities, caricatures and paintings of Jerry in clown makeup and costume, and family photos.

The wide desk and the floor around it are littered with sheets of paper with notes about his life with Martin.

Lewis is late for an interview. He and Sam were attending a program at Dani's school. Dani performed an imitation of ... Jerry Lewis, of course, and the proud papa ("She is the air in my lungs") deems the performance a hit.

When Lewis finally breezes into the office, the first impression is a shock. His cheeks are puffed out to twice their usual size. He also lacks the slimness of his prime. He says one of his medicines has caused the excess poundage.

His voice is strong and exuberant, but he seems more serious than in previous interviews; not once does the squeaky, little-boy character emerge. His gravity is perhaps understandable. In the past couple of years, Lewis has been plagued by devastating physical ills.

Pain Reaches Crisis Point

The low point came several months ago when his back pain grew so intense that he couldn't sleep, began losing his eyesight and couldn't walk more than a few feet. Medical help, including morphine, was of no avail, and Lewis plunged into a deep depression.

"I really thought about what gun I was going to use," he says.

The turning point came as a result of a daily ritual he and daughter Dani have. Each afternoon they discuss the events of the day, and he often gives her a new word to learn. One day last year it was "courage."

On an afternoon in March, Dani found her father at his lowest ebb--body slumped, head bowed.

"Daddy," she said, "you're going to get better if you start using your courage."

"When she hit me with that line, I felt like I was struck by something from heaven," Lewis recalls. "It turned my mental attitude right around. I said, 'Let me get this fixed.' "

He consulted Dr. Michael DeBakey, the famed Houston heart surgeon who performed the first implantation of an artificial heart in 1966 and Lewis' life-saving double bypass in 1982. DeBakey, still practicing at 93, suggested implantation of a new device from Medtronic Inc., the Minneapolis company that invented the heart pacemaker.

Lewis had surgery April 8 in Houston to have a battery-powered pulse generator implanted. Two wires deliver electronic impulses from the device to the spinal cord, where electrodes are embedded to stop the nerves from relaying pain messages to the brain. When Lewis left the hospital five days later, he was able to walk down a 200-yard corridor.

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