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Lighting it up

At 84, Jerry Lewis is still stubborn and spirited. Fighting muscular dystrophy is a top priority, and he also has stage and film projects in the works.

September 03, 2010|Chris Lee

LAS VEGAS — On a recent afternoon, comedy legend Jerry Lewis cracked open a diet soda and dimmed the lights inside a casino ballroom to drink in the spectacle of Charlie Chaplin impersonating Hitler.

A scene from Chaplin's 1940 Nazi satire "The Great Dictator" flickered across a bank of monitors, part of a video montage Lewis was editing together for his signature cause, the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. Telethon. The 211/2 -hour annual event has raised $2.45 billion for "Jerry's kids" to date; its 45th edition kicks off on some 170 television stations Sunday evening.

Watching Chaplin spoof the Fuhrer as a power-drunk buffoon, Lewis alternately howled with laughter and provided a master class commentary about Chaplin's filmmaking "genius" and the balletic brilliance of his physical comedy.

"You're getting the opportunity to see greatness here," the comedian said to a quartet of digital video editors in the room.

But then, Lewis' filmmaking know-how and funny guy skill-set were on conspicuous display as well. He cracked curmudgeonly jokes, barked orders on how to re-cut the film and made critical observations about Chaplin's "continuity" and scene blocking. The kind of thing you pick up after writing and directing more than a dozen films and starring in scores more.

"Jerry, we're in the presence of you," pointed out editor J.R. Boyd.

Television's most venerable telethon host entered Living Legend territory long ago and his comedy dominance -- particularly in his partnership with Dean Martin throughout the '40s and '50s -- paved the way for absurdist jokemeisters such as Andy Kaufman, Jim Carrey and Jack Black. But at age 84, Lewis isn't just sliding by on past triumphs.

Keeping busy

In December, Lewis said, he will go back in front of the camera for the independent drama "Max Rose," his first starring movie role in a quarter-century.

He still crisscrosses the country by private jet to perform 21/2 -hour stand-up sets a dozen times a year.

And November 2011 will mark the performer's ambitious Broadway musical adaptation of his landmark comedy "The Nutty Professor."

The elastic-faced movie star is simply unwilling to let senior citizen status limit him to fundraising for muscular dystrophy, the umbrella term for debilitating neuromuscular diseases affecting more than 1 million Americans, though he makes it clear that remains at the top of his agenda.

"Being old doesn't mean you've lost your spirit. And that's what this is about," Lewis said, hunching forward in his chair at Las Vegas' South Point Hotel and Casino to make his point.

"It's spirit and energy and the desire to do good work for people who don't stand a chance if I don't."

Nonetheless, Lewis feels pressure to fulfill his mission before his final curtain call.

"I have to finish what I've started," he said. "I want to do it before I leave."

These days Lewis scoots to his appointments on a Rascal scooter and likes to literally ride circles around those in his employ. He has ascended the pinnacle of showbiz over a nearly 60-year run as a stand-up comedian-singer-writer-actor-director-producer-movie and TV star.

Named a commander in the French Legion of Honor in 2006, he's still a subject of national adulation in such countries as Japan and Australia; Lewis won the Jean Hersholt Oscar for his humanitarian efforts in 2009 and has even been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his work as chairman of the MDA.

He's got two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and has also lived to see his accomplishments memorialized in the CBS TV biopic "Martin and Lewis," as well as his backlog of television work such as "The Colgate Comedy Hour" and "The Jerry Lewis Show" rereleased on DVD.

"When I take stock, it's overwhelming," Lewis, never one for false modesty, exclaimed .

Health woes

But along the way, he also has suffered a litany of health problems, many related to his extreme lifestyle. Besides prostate cancer, diabetes and open-heart surgery, there's the nasty case of viral meningitis Lewis got performing in Australia, pulmonary fibrosis thanks to his longtime five-pack-a-day smoking habit (Lewis ballooned up to 280 pounds for several years consequent to a medicine he took for the condition), chronic back pain from chipping his spine during a pratfall at the Sands Casino, as well as accompanying bouts of addiction to prescription painkillers and even suicidal depression.

"I was horizontal for five years," Lewis explained of his battle with pulmonary fibrosis. "Now, when someone says, 'How are you?' I say, 'I'm vertical! What's better than that?' "

Lewis arrived for an interview with an entourage that included a manager, publicist, bodyguard and personal photographer, as well as a childhood friend who has known the performer since he was 6. Ignoring a Times photographer's instructions, Lewis immediately began to play around with the lighting set-up and strike a series of increasingly goofy poses.

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