by Alan Swyer
(AP Photo/Julie Markes)
The actual interview consisted of two questions:
Q: “Where were you born?”
A: “Newark, New Jersey.”
Q: “Which hospital?”
A: “Beth Israel.”
Instantly a smile I’d seen on TV and movie screens for as long as I could remember lit up Jerry Lewis’ face. “Me, too!” he exclaimed, grabbing my hand and shaking it as hard as he could. “This, boychik, was meant to be.”
With that, all the prepping I’d done, all the hypothetical questions I’d asked myself, and all the middle of the night what-if’s that had gone through my mind were rendered meaningless, as were my pre-meeting jitters and fears. Thanks to Jersey geography, I had managed to enter the world of show biz, even if that only meant holding the hand of an aging comic who, flattered by the offer, had consented to teach a college course on directing.
What I didn’t know was that for all his bombast and cockiness – and when not performing, or guesting on a talk show, or doing the annual telethon he hosted, Jerry was legendary for both – the notion of having to prepare a syllabus, which would then serve as the foundation for a proposed book on filmmaking, was far more daunting and fear-inducing than making a movie, headlining in Vegas, or guest-hosting the “Tonight Show.”
Despite all his travels, acclaim, and wealth, for Jerry, who barely made it through high school, universities were terra incognita. Presidents, Popes, and paparazzi were easy for him – “old hat” in his terminology – as were casts, crews, and even casino drunks. But college students were another matter altogether, and Jerry, I soon realized, was terrified.
Nor were the people around him any help at all. His agents did nothing but, as he put it, “blow smoke up my ass,” telling him incessantly what he wanted to hear, which was how wonderful he was. Even worse were the staffers at his office in Century City, whose primary functions, other than fawning relentlessly, were doing his bidding and, when he felt the need to vent over something real or imagined, bearing the brunt of his wrath.
The office itself seemed to me less an actual workplace than a shrine to King Jerry, where, when the spirit moved him, he could gaze at awards, plaques, and above all countless likenesses of himself. There were photos galore, some of him playing venues around the world, others with notables from show biz, politics, and sports. There were paintings done by artists whose oeuvre would never be mistaken for that of Renoir or Matisse. There were sketches and caricatures from various admirers and publications. And to top it off there were laminated headlines and reviews of his films, stage shows, TV appearances, and especially his annual telethon, many from Variety, but also from countless other publications.
New to Los Angeles and newer still to the world of stardom and celebrity, but not the least bit new to the world of academia, I found myself in a singular and, in the eyes of some, privileged position. On the one hand it was incumbent upon me – a guy in his early twenties hoping someday to write and direct movies, whose only other source of revenue was teaching French at a tiny local college – to pump up a star known everywhere in the world. Yet I was also, to the dismay of those around him, allowed to use a word no one else could utter without being fired: “No.”
Hearing “No” was anathema to Jerry – a word reserved exclusively for his use, and his use alone. What remained a constant source of amazement to me was not so much the arrogance of such a stance, but that, thanks to the almost hermetically sealed world he inhabited – which included not just his staff and representatives, but also his doctors, lawyers, tailors, chef, and his various hangers-on, acolytes, and groupies – his wish had become a reality. Because of his celebrity, his wealth, and his influence, Jerry could create his own set of rules.
Yet I, through ignorance initially, then through a desire, conscious or otherwise to flaunt my position, did – and continued to do – the unspeakable, the unpardonable, the unconscionable. With ever-increasing frequency and delight, I said “No” to Jerry.
The first time was entirely innocent. In the presence of several staffers, among them Joe Stabile, an ex-band leader whose title was president of Jerry Lewis Enterprises, but whose actual duties seemed to consist of boosting Jerry’s Rat Pack credibility by looking and sounding like a Jersey mob boss, plus accompanying the funny man company on the golf course, Jerry mentioned to me one afternoon that he was thinking of having each session of the class catered.
When I laughed, Jerry glared. “Don’t you think it’s a great idea?” he asked.
Instantly, Joe Stabile and the others gasped, certain that Mt. Jerry was about to have an eruption that would register on the Cal Tech seismograph. But while Jerry’s face turned first red, then violet, then blue, and his jugular began to throb, somehow the explosion never came. Instead, he picked up a pencil, broke it in two, then to the amazement of one and all, took a deep breath.
“Why not?” he asked with as much equanimity as he could muster.
“It’s a seminar, not a night club.”
“What about the presents for the students?” he asked tentatively, bringing forth for my viewing pleasure a pile of pads with a Hirschfeld caricature of himself on every page, plus Jerry Lewis attaché cases and pens.
Aware that he was losing face in front of his minions, I did my best to smile. “Great ideas,” I said, overstating the case and easing the tension in the room. “But better, I think, as going-away presents after the final class.”
“What about guests?”
“You mean guest speakers?” I asked, assuming Jerry meant actors, directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, editors, and maybe studio execs or producers.
“I meant friends.”
“Like when we comp people for Jerry’s live shows,” Joe Stabile added.
With all eyes upon me, I searched for the right way to get my message across. “The class, as I understand it,” I said hesitantly, “is for ten carefully selected students. So what we want to do, starting Day One, is set a tone.”
“Which is?” asked Jerry.
“That it’s an honor and a privilege to be there.”
Seeing smiles appear, first on Jerry’s face, then elsewhere around the room, I continued with more confidence. “There’s a saying about academia that all too often is true. Those who can do, do. Those who can’t do, teach. These ten lucky students are getting an opportunity to learn from someone who can do, and does.”
Jerry beamed. “That’s why I love this boychik!” he exclaimed, putting an arm around me.
That was a moment the others in the room would never forget. And for which, I came to learn, they would never forgive.
The first class went well. Despite a measure of nervousness and awkwardness from the students, who were unaccustomed to being in the presence of a star, and from the star himself, for whom the groves of academe had been elevated into some exalted place, two hours went by swiftly and, except for what I considered to be excessively biting humor at the expense of a janitor who made the mistake of opening the door, surprisingly comfortably. There was no doubt that Jerry was a master at working a room and, when the spirit moved him, putting others at ease.
I presumed, therefore, that there would be a glow in the aftermath, a sense of accomplishment, of a hurdle having been overcome. But instead of a smile, or even a sigh of relief, what I got from Jerry was a question. “So what do you think?”
“I think it’ll be clear sailing from here.”
“How did I do?”
Recognizing that Jerry was fishing for compliments, I couldn’t help but see him as an overgrown kid, begging for approval. Then it dawned on me that above and beyond whatever insecurities he possessed, after countless years doing films, TV specials, and live shows, he was accustomed to and – more poignantly – in need of reviews.
“You were great,” I said without significant exaggeration.
“In what way?”
“Your command of the material. Your rapport with the kids. Your sense of when to punctuate the points you were making with a story or a joke.”
“There’s always a but.”
Studying Jerry, it became clear that he wasn’t going to let me off the hook. “Well –” I stammered.
“Except for the janitor –”
“Fuck the janitor.”
“I guess you could say the vocabulary.”
“You mean depth-of-field… above-the-line… pay-or-play… shit that’s technical, or show biz?”
“No, the jargon’s fine.”
“Then what the hell are you talking about?”
“You’re goddamn right, honest!”
“What about ’em?”
“Why use ’em where they’re not needed?”
“You saying I’m backward?” Jerry snarled, his face turning red. “Ignorant? Stupid.”
“I didn’t say that –”
“But if you’re even thinking it, get your ass out of my sight.”
Taking a deep breath so as not to say what was really felt, I forced myself to speak softly. “If you’re gonna play mind reader with me –” I said slowly.
“Then you’re on your own.”
To Jerry’s amazement, I handed him the paperwork for the class, then started toward the door. Other than the noise generated by my footsteps, there was not a sound to be heard until a voice shattered the silence. “Wait!”
Turning, it was impossible for me to miss the look of embarrassment on Jerry’s face. “What’s wrong with big words?” he asked like a kid who’s been scolded.
“Nothing when they’re used correctly.”
“And I don’t?”
To my surprise, Jerry thought for a moment, then grinned proudly. “See that?” he asked no one in particular. “He’s the only one who tells me the truth.” Jerry smiled for a moment, then icily pointed a finger at me. “But just so we’re clear, nobody walks out on me.”
I let Jerry’s words hang in the air for a second or two, then once again started for the door.
“What the fuck are you trying to get me to do?” Jerry screamed.
Jerry’s grimace turned to laughter, then he ambled over and gave me a hug.
Evening phone calls from Jerry started coming my way, tentative and infrequent at first, then with greater confidence and regularity. Occasionally there was something substantive to be discussed – a question about rescheduling a session, or getting film clips of Chaplin and Buster Keaton, or grading. But more and more the conversations were turning into what Jerry dubbed Schmoozefests, where he would ramble on about a film he’d seen, an article he’d read, a notion for a script he might commission or write, or, at least once a week, what he viewed as the scourge that was destroying American culture and ruining its kids – rock & roll – by which he meant everything from Bo Diddley and Little Richard through the groups he dismissed as “scruffy Brits” and on to Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Rather than argue with someone who had no idea what he was talking about, I quickly took to cutting him off when he started a rant.
Though from time to time Jerry would ask for input on topics other than music, or for an answer to a specific question, it soon became clear that, for the most part, the man who was accustomed to being the center of attention was simply in need of someone to talk to.
That’s when I first came to recognize that despite his numerous family members, his staffers, his friends, and his fans, Jerry felt sadly, painfully, monumentally alone.
It was during one of these mostly one-sided gabfests that Jerry took me by surprise with a question. “When was the last time,” he asked, “that you saw me play live?” By answering truthfully, that I’d never actually seen him on-stage, my fate was sealed.
There are certain genes, I have come to realize, that are missing from my DNA. For one, even as a child I was never been big on war toys or films. Nor did I – or do I now – have any inclination to see Disneyland. Or much interest in the Beatles. Or the slightest bit of curiosity about Las Vegas.
That’s why, having agreed to make the trip there due to Jerry’s urging, I got such a kick out of what took place when, together with three friends, I showed up, hungry and road-weary, at the casino where he was playing, then got on line for the show.
Ahead of us was a guy who looked like he had been sent by central casting as a Vegas sharpie, with his shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest to reveal gold chains with all sorts of pendants. Clearly fancying himself a sport, with lizard skin shoes and carefully blow-dried hair, Mr. Slick eyed our scruffy foursome with complete disdain, then announced to his companion, whose cleavage was of historic proportions, that, unlike certain other people, he’d be getting the best seats in the house.
“Watch a pro in action,” he said to the woman who was definitely not his CPA as the two of them inched closer to the ticketing area.
Conspicuously revealing a roll of bills the likes of which I could never have matched, Mr. Slick palmed several, then handed them to the casino employee at the desk. “Front row would be nice,” he announced, all the while sneaking a contemptuous glance at me in my work shirt and jeans.
“I’m sorry,” said the casino employee. “The front tables are entirely booked.”
Determined not to lose face, the would-be sport peeled off some more green. “Then maybe this will help you find an opening.”
“Not tonight,” was the employee’s response. “VIP only.”
“Then give me the best you’ve got.”
“I’ll do what I can,” said the employee, pocketing the cash.
But instead of following the woman assigned to lead him and his date to their perch, Mr. Slick chose to linger, leaning toward Miss Cleavage. “I want to see where these clowns wind up,” he muttered, watching as, together with my girlfriend, I stepped up to the desk.
“Mr. Lewis was hoping you’d make it!” the employee exclaimed upon hearing my name. “He picked a special table for you.”
I couldn’t resist a smile knowing that we were being watched as we and our two friends were led to a choice front row spot.
With my musical tastes running, then and now, to Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, and Thelonius Monk, sitting through the opening act, the Osmond Family, was a test of endurance. But both the wait and pain were worth it, for Jerry’s performance was better than I ever dreamed possible. Though it was a different kind of cinema that lured me to Hollywood – “The Hustler,” “The Apartment,” “The Lady Eve,” and “His Girl Friday” – in contrast to friends who dismissed Jerry’s movies as silly and puerile, I’d always liked them immensely. But years of watching Jerry on screen, and on talk shows, and then getting to know him, didn’t prepare me for the timing, the grace, and the intelligence he displayed on stage, or for his breathtaking range. There was physical comedy, verbal humor, old-fashioned schtick, and even mime, all with a brilliance that seemed effortless. Most importantly, except when he got an unneeded laugh at the expense of a heavyset guy who had the audacity to sneeze, Jerry was hilarious in all sorts of ways: smart funny, silly funny, goofy funny, and even – surprise – funny in a sentimental sort of way that made him seem even more multifaceted, more multidimensional, and more human than I would have dreamed possible.
Backstage afterward, Jerry was uncharacteristically gracious, ducking praise and thanking me and my guests for having made the trip from L.A.
“You’ve got smarts and loyalty,” he whispered to me as we prepared to leave his dressing room. “That’s what I need more of in my life.”
Soon manila envelopes started to arrive — a script here, a treatment there, sometimes a newspaper article or a clipping from a magazine. I wasn’t supposed to do what in Hollywood is called “coverage.” That kind of synopsizing was done by a studio, or Jerry’s agents, or a part-time reader he employed — and at times, with contrasting opinions and not-quite-overlapping narratives or accuracy, by all of the above. My task was to provide a sounding board for Jerry, who often wanted to discuss what he took to be the merits, or lack thereof, of a given project, though on occasion I was also called upon to provide suggestions about what might make it better, or more appropriate for him.
It was time well spent. Aside from giving me a greater sense of how the movie business worked, it also enabled me to become familiar with screenplays, both technically and artistically. To be ready for the evening calls, I had to learn to think in a new way not just about structure, character, dialogue, mood, and tone, but also about real world considerations such as shooting schedules and budgets — all of which, I discovered, began to inform my own fitful attempts at writing. Plus, given the kind of material submitted to or for Jerry, I was gaining confidence for another reason. Since most of what was submitted to him ranged from so-so to downright awful, I couldn’t help but feel that even as a novice I could do better.
Another change was that instead of phone conversations, our evening talks started taking place at what I called Fort Lewis, a walled estate that had been built, Jerry informed me on numerous occasions, by Louis B. Mayer. But despite the grandiosity of the place, and the security cameras that abounded, there were touches of hominess provided by Jerry’s wife, Patti, a shy woman who had let her hair grow white, which meant, I came to learn, that in public she was often mistaken for Jerry’s mother.
Forever ready with milk and cookies, which Jerry always took the time to point out were tasty, fattening, and homemade, Patti would great me warmly, then disappear into another wing of the spacious dwelling, only to return at some later point to ask if there was anything else we needed.
I can’t, or won’t, deny that there was something flattering about the one-on-one sessions with Jerry. Having always felt like an outsider, not just in Los Angeles or when I lived in Paris, but also growing up in blue collar New Jersey – and even in my parents’ house, where I never fit in – it was strangely comforting to be accepted into Jerry’s own inner circle.
Though there was a fair measure of rambling and free association on Jerry’s part in our conversations, there was also, more and more, a surprising amount of back-and-forth. Though getting to voice my feelings about scripts, films, and at times the world, was, in today’s parlance, “empowering,” of greater importance was the amount of knowledge I was acquiring. I was getting a tutorial about scripts, about how Hollywood worked, and about Jerry – his life, his understanding of comedy, and even his demons.
I started jotting down what I dubbed JERRY’S RULES ON COMEDY.
1. The audience wants to like you. Whether it’s a movie, TV, or live on-stage, they want to have fun, which means they’re ready, willing and eager to laugh. They’re yours to lose, so don’t lose ’em! Make the right first impression by giving them something immediately, and the reward is sustained good will.
2. All humor is based on a man in trouble. It’s not bombastic Oliver Hardy or self-assured Bud Abbott who’s funny, but put-upon Stan Laurel or flustered Lou Costello. Jackie Gleason is a laugh riot in the “Honeymooners” not because of his posturing and his schemes, but because he’ll ultimately have to face the music: his wife Alice. Then there are Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in “Some Like It Hot,” who have the misfortune of witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and can only escape by donning dresses and joining an all-girls band.
3. Schtick works best in threes. Once may be missed for all sorts of reasons: inattentiveness, a sneeze, or simply because the gag went over someone’s head. Though twice is better, it’s not enough, since the audience is still not sufficiently familiar with the joke, which guarantees that the response won’t be fully satisfying. But three times is perfect, for the audience is both comfortable and primed, making the laugh not just a treat, but a satisfying and shared experience. Yet going for a fourth time can backfire since it risks wearing out your welcome and making the gag both tiresome and stale.
4. For whatever reason, certain words are intrinsically funny. Chicken is funny, but pork is not. Spaghetti is funny, but pasta is not. Casserole and thoroughfare are laugh-inducing, while sauce pan and street are bland. And mother-in-law, probably because of Rule #2, invariably gets a guffaw or even a scream. So learn the ones that bring a smile and use ’em!
5. Don’t worry about everyone, everywhere, getting each and every joke, gag, or bit. If an environment of funny has been established, and sufficient laughs are being generated, lots more will come, sometimes in unpredictable or unlikely places. So don’t pander, don’t condescend, and above all don’t force things or be a laugh whore.
The acceptance I was getting from Jerry was a refreshing change from what I was accustomed to at home. When, for instance, it was discovered that I was headed to California with the hopes of some day making films, my parents, instead of accepting the news, proposed that I instead go to law school. When I demurred, their suggestion turned to urging, then demanding, and finally to pleading. When I asked why law school was suddenly so important, my parents eyed each other, then my mother spoke. “So you’ll have something to fall back on.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I responded, more resolved than ever to head west.
It was only after a month of our evening get-togethers, on an evening I showed up a little early, which meant that Jerry was just climbing out of his Olympic-sized pool, that it finally dawned on me that for some time I’d been used. Greeting me with her customary smile, Patti, with a tray of milk and cookies, led me into her husband’s study. There she thanked me not just for the profession help I was giving Jerry, but also for accompanying him to the Chinese restaurant on Vine that gave her heartburn, and for late-night snacks at the 24-hour deli on Fairfax whose name she could never remember.
When Jerry joined me for our nightly chat, I surprised him by ducking his forays at conversation until he finally realized that something was amiss. “What’s on your mind?” he asked.
“And midnight pastrami.”
Jerry thought for a moment, then burst into laughter. “And you’re pissed?”
“Because I was making you the ‘beard?’ Or because I didn’t tell you?”
“Mr. High and Mighty!” he exclaimed, shaking his head. “You know what kind of company you’re keeping? I’m the one who used to beard for Frank and Sammy! And they did the same for me.”
“Frank and Sammy who?”
“You know damn well, Frank and Sammy who! Life’s a battle, kiddo, and nobody gives you nothin’. You wanna get somewhere in this world? And especially in this town? Then lemme give you the best lesson money of all. Take what you can, when you can, and never let anyone ever stand in your way!”
Jerry walked to the bar and poured himself a glass of the Meursault he drank every night. Downing it in one gulp, he lit a Gauloise and took a puff, then stared at me with eyes that were suddenly like lasers. “Want to leave, boychik? Want to check out and be one more gawker on the other side of the velvet rope? There’s the door.”
When I made no attempt to move, Jerry chose not to gloat. “Since this is the Honesty Hour,” he said, “have a seat and give it to me straight. At this stage of my career – and my life – what kind of movies should I be making?”
Treading carefully, since Jerry was sensitive about his advancing age, I pointed out that instead of continuing to do what he’d always done, it might be time to try something not just different, but bold.
“Like what?” Jerry bellowed. “Shakespeare, for Chrissake?”
“If you can find a way to take people by surprise.”
“And who in hell ever did that?”
“Lubitsch,” I replied. “With Jack Benny.”
“Watch a film called ‘To Be Or Not To Be.’ And while you’re at it, take a peek at another one with somebody who’ll surprise you.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“And you say that you know movies?” I asked, rubbing it in.
“What picture we talking about?”
“One you might have seen if Frank and Sammy hadn’t been ‘bearding’ for you.”
“A Face In The Crowd.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
Jerry paced for a moment, then pointed a finger at me. “If I didn’t love you, boychik, I’d be really pissed right now.”
“Guess I’m lucky, huh?”
“You’re still sore about the ‘bearding’.”
“Can’t put anything past you.”
“But these two films, they’re good?”
For the next two weeks the constant refrain from Jerry was, “I’m gonna surprise you, boychik,” to which I paid little attention because I was busy with other things, not the least of which was an impending trip to Jersey to attend a friend’s wedding.
On the evening of my departure an excited call came from Jerry. “Get your ass out here, buddy-boy!” he shouted.
When I explained that I couldn’t – that I had things to do before catching the “red eye” – he demanded my flight info.
Knowing that something was in the offing, I wasn’t entirely surprised, when a friend dropped me off at the airport, to discover that people were gawking at the celebrity in their midst.
“Hope you’re not planning to sleep,” Jerry said as he approached then handed me a script. “I’m expecting a call the minute you get there.”
“Anything else while we’re at it?” I asked only half in jest.
“Sure,” said Jerry. “Expect to be proud.”
It’s still not clear to me why I was apprehensive. Whatever his shortcomings, Jerry was decidedly not stupid. Self-important, certainly. Under-educated, no question. Guilty of living in an almost hermetically-sealed world, no doubt. But when it came to gray matter, native intelligence, and innate smarts, Jerry was anything but deficient. In fact, in many ways he was brilliant.
Perhaps my misgivings owed less to a lack of faith in Jerry, or even to my doubts about the ability of those around him – his agents, his staffers, and his hangers-on – to recognize or come up with material that was bold or interesting, than to the gnawing sense that it was my prodding that might have been a catalyst for something I would come to regret.
On the plane, I held off taking the screenplay out of my carry-on bag for the first half of the trip, then yielded to a sense of responsibility that far exceeded curiosity or hope.
Immediately my stomach began to sink, and not due to turbulence or changes in altitude.
In those days before iPhones and Androids, avoiding calls was infinitely easier, especially when my travel accommodations often meant crashing with an old girlfriend or couch surfing. As a result, it took a day-and-a-half before Jerry tracked me down in the East Village.
“Thought you could duck me, huh?” he asked after introducing himself to my friend Nancy, who was too stoned to do much but giggle as she handed me the phone.
“I wanted to wait until I wasn’t busy or jet-lagged.”
“You just didn’t want to tip your hat.”
“Can’t put anything past you.”
“But admit it. You were surprised.”
“I was surprised.”
“Emes, okay? Ever think yours truly would come up with something like this?”
“What do I know?”
“How about the critics?”
“How about we talk when I get back?”
“You’re still ducking.”
“I just don’t want to talk about it now.”
“Perfect! The nudnik dares me to find something different – something out there – something bold. But when I surprise him by coming up with a killer, guess who doesn’t want to know.”
“Did you or did you not read it?”
“I read it.”
“And is it amazing, or what?”
“Jerry, please –”
“Enough horseshit. Do you or do you not think it’s great?”
With Nancy watching me grow more and more exasperated with each passing moment, I felt something inside of me snap. “No, it’s not great,” I blurted. “It’s not even good.”
“Why not earth-shattering? Devastating? Overwhelming?”
“It’s all that and more.”
“Whatever you say.”
There was a moment of silence before Jerry spoke again. “Know what I bet?” he asked.
“I bet you think you can do better.”
“So when do I see your masterpiece?”
“When it’s finished,” I said, instantly regretting my words.
I didn’t contact Jerry when I got back to California. Nor, knowing that the repeated calls coming in morning, noon, and night were almost certainly from him, did I answer the phone for the first few days after my return. So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised one afternoon when, while trudging back, tired and sweaty after an hour of full-court basketball at a playground nearby, I spotted an incongruous-looking black Mercedes parked in front of the ugly stucco building in the ghetto-adjacent neighborhood where I was living.
“Guess one of us hadn’t made it yet,” was Jerry’s acerbic greeting as he gestured toward the surroundings.
“Nice to see you, too.”
“So what’s wrong with the script?”
“Nothing. It’s wonderful.”
“And my agents.”
“And the guys in my office.”
“So why bother with me?”
“You don’t think it’s meaningful?” Jerry asked. “Profound? Moving?”
“How come my opinion matters?”
“Because it does.”
“Then try these adjectives: insipid… treacly… exploitative.”
“Give me that in English.”
“It made me want to puke.”
“You don’t think the subject matter is important?”
“A stand-up comic who finally gets acclaim –”
“I’d call it fulfillment –”
“By doing schtick in a concentration camp?”
“Think what he’s doing for morale.”
“Morale, my ass. It’s tasteless grandstanding.”
“And by the way, aside from being horrendously written and hopelessly on-the-nose, the script is arguably the most offensive thing ever written.”
“But how do you really feel?” Jerry asked, clearly rattled but still managing a semblance of a smile. “Listen, can we go inside?”
“So you can look around then tell me again that I haven’t made it?”
“Somebody’s feelings are hurt.”
“Somebody’s tired of this conversation.”
“But when do I see it?” Jerry demanded.
“The script you’re working on.”
“Who said I’m working on a script?”
Ten Jerry-free days ensued: no calls, no evening gab-athons, not even an appearance on my part at his weekly class. The respite was surprising, novel, and not the least bit unpleasant despite an ever-increasing awareness of the phone not ringing.
The feeling was akin to the silence and emptiness after a break-up, or the death of a close friend, in that the absence seemed somehow abrupt, unnatural, and, frankly, weird.
Each and every new day brought with it a strange kind of suspense, as though something inside of me expected Jerry to pop up when I turned a corner, or to accost me at a coffee house, or to surprise me on my daily visit to the taco joint nearby.
Though I assumed the estrangement would come to an end at some point, what I could not have anticipated was the way that it happened: a courier showing up at my doorstep, packet in hand.
Inside I found a round-trip ticket to Washington, D.C., an engraved invitation to an event at the Kennedy Center, plus a hand-written note from Jerry that said simply, “Hope you’ll join me.”
No sooner did I read the invitation – which listed the public figures who would be honored on the evening in question, among them Duke Ellington and Jerry Lewis – then the phone rang.
“Can I count on you?” Jerry asked immediately.
“It’s not my kind of thing.”
“But why wouldn’t you want to be there for me?”
“Really want an answer?”
“I get embarrassed when you start with the malaprops.”
“I know big words, goddamnit!”
“Sure. But the only one you get right is delicatessen.”
Despite himself, Jerry laughed. “And if I promise to behave?”
“Give me one good reason why not.”
“I don’t own a suit.”
“How could that possibly be?”
“Easy. So thanks, congratulations, and give my best to Patti.”
With that I hung up.
Three days later another courier showed up at my apartment. But instead of handing me a packet, this time what he gave me was my very first Italian-made suit.
Again the phone rang as if on cue. “Now you’ve got no excuse,” Jerry proclaimed proudly.
Trapped, I searched for a way to minimize the potential awkwardness and maximize the fun until at last a plan came to mind. After dutifully attending the ceremony, I would rush to the hotel and change into jeans. I would then rendezvous with an American girl I used to see occasionally in Paris, hopefully spend the night with her, and finally meet up with a friend from my hometown for breakfast before grabbing my suitcase and heading to the airport.
Though long-winded, the ceremony was far from excruciating. I admit that it was a kick to see Duke Ellington accept his award. And a couple of the other honorees were pleasant surprises, their words heartfelt. As for Jerry, it was clear that he had decided it was appropriate to be dignified rather than funny, which made him seem a bit arch. But I was pleased that nothing he said was awkward, ill-advised, or embarrassing. And I couldn’t help but be flattered by his one joke, which came at the beginning of his acceptance speech when he gazed at the audience and, with a wink in my direction, said, “Something tells me I’m not at my favorite delicatessen.”
At the reception that followed, I waited for an opportune moment, then told Jerry I was heading to the hotel.
“Wait,” Jerry responded, “then we’ll go back together.”
When what Jerry promised would be a “little bit” proved to be anything but, I approached him again, making it clear I wanted out.
“Five more minutes,” Jerry promised. “Then we’re definitely gone.”
It was substantially more than five minutes before Jerry finally was ready to depart. “Somebody’s hoping to get lucky tonight,” he said, reading my impatience. “We’ll head back, we’ll talk a little, then you’re off.”
Several more hugs, air kisses, and assorted other farewells interfered with our journey toward the exit, then still more as we ambled toward the limo.
“Surprised you, didn’t I?” Jerry asked me as the limo driver got us out of there at last. “No mishaps, no grandstanding, not even any of those — what do you call ’em?”
“Think the goyim even know what a delicatessen is?”
“It got a laugh.”
“From people who order corned beef with mayonnaise. But know what counts? You helped me. And I’m grateful.”
Not another word was said on our trip to the hotel.
Though Jerry repeated his pledge that our time together would be brief, I couldn’t help but cringe, upon entering his suite, when I spotted several chilled bottles of his favorite Meursault, as well as a carton on Gauloises.
“Time for a little heart to heart,” Jerry said as he gestured toward a sofa, then reached for a corkscrew and started to open one of the bottles on ice.
Silence ensued as he filled two glasses. But once we toasted, and I watched Jerry nearly empty his in one gulp, he fixed his gaze upon me. “Am I wrong in thinking that people don’t like me?” he asked.
“I don’t think this is the time.”
“Because you were just honored.”
“Not because you’d rather be elsewhere?”
When I didn’t answer, Jerry lit a cigarette, took a deep puff, then paced for a couple of moments. “I’m a nice guy,” he said.
“Who am I to say?”
“Level with me. Do people like me?
“No one’s liked by everyone.”
Jerry poured himself more wine, which he again downed rapidly. “Okay, hit me. Why don’t people like me?”
“Jerry, this is awkward.”
“Can’t we save it for when we get back?”
“I really need to know,” Jerry said beseechingly.
Instead of answering right away, I stood, stretched, and walked over to the window so as to look out at the city below. Then, after taking a sip of the Meursault, I got up the gumption to face Jerry. “Ask you a question?”
“How do you think you treat people?”
“I have fun with ’em.”
“But do they think it’s fun?”
“Frank does. Sammy does.”
“Whoopie-do. Or should I say ring-a-ding-ding?”
“But what about other people?”
“What other people?”
“Regular people. People trying to go about their business and do their job.”
“How do you think I treat ’em?”
Jerry glared for a moment, finished what was in his wine glass, then lit another cigarette. “You’re killing me.”
“Then let’s table this.”
Jerry poured out what was left in the first bottle, then opened another. “Okay, Mr. Know-it-all. Who am I rotten to?”
“Waitresses. Valet parkers. Shall I go on?”
For a moment, Jerry looked like he was about to cry, but then suddenly he glared. “How come you can say this to me, and the guys in my office don’t?”
“Don’t? Or won’t?”
While Jerry poured, then drank, another glass of wine, I thought about my plans for the night, which were rapidly and, it seemed, definitively, going up in smoke. “What makes you so different from Joe and the guys?” he demanded.
“For them you’re a meal ticket — the last stop on the subway.”
“A point of departure.”
“You mean when you sell that script you’re writing?”
“Whether or not I sell it.”
Jerry studied me for what felt like an eternity, then lit yet another Gauloise. I watched him pantomime a couple of golf swings, down another glass of wine, then sigh. “And the telethon?” he asked.
“What about it?”
“The people you’re talking about. They don’t give me credit for it?”
“You’ve heard the rumors.”
“What goddamn rumors?”
“They think you steal the money.”
“But I don’t take a dime!” Jerry shrieked. Like a child throwing a tantrum, he punched the wall, knocked over a chair, then disappeared into the bathroom. When he returned, drying his face with a towel, he looked petulant.
“You really don’t like that script I gave you?” he asked softly.
“Right now I don’t like anything.”
“Including myself,” I answered. “I’m gonna go.”
“This isn’t getting us anywhere.”
“You’re wrong,” Jerry stated emphatically. “I’m gonna change.”
I said nothing.
“Don’t believe me, do you?” Jerry persisted.
“You’re gonna see a new man. A new Jerry. A guy who’s gonna make you proud.”
“Whatever you say.”
“To celebrate, I’m gonna buy you breakfast.”
“Thanks, but no thanks.”
“You don’t want to keep me company?’
“All I want to do is go to my room, burn these cigarette-smelling clothes, jump in the shower, and get some sleep.”
“C’mon –” Jerry insisted.
In the elevator I was told for the umpteenth time that I would see the new Jerry, and the same promise was repeated both as we trudged through the hotel lobby and as we crossed the street.
Miraculously, as Jerry voraciously devoured black coffee and poached eggs on rye toast while I, green at the gills, pushed blueberry pancakes back and forth on my plate, he restrained from making jokes or flippant remarks at the expense of the elderly waitress, the weary busboy, or even a staring diner who weighed three hundred pounds.
“The new Jerry,” the award recipient intoned proudly as we got up to leave, then again as we reentered our hotel.
Across the lobby we went, then into an elevator, where Jerry’s pledge was repeated anew. But before our ascent began, the door sprang open, and in stepped a young, cute, Midwestern-looking blonde. Mechanically, she pushed the button for her floor, watched as the door closed, then turned and did a double-take as it dawned on her whose company she was keeping.
Knowing that for Jerry this shiksa would be the ultimate test, I hoped that somehow he’d manage to be good to his word. But my prayers were to no avail.
“So tell me, sweetheart,” the supposedly new Jerry said. “Ever go down on a Jewish movie star?”
As the girl turned beet red, I made believe I was invisible.
The next few weeks of my life were largely monastic, with teaching, playing basketball, and late afternoon runs for pistachio ice cream providing the only respite from marathon sessions with the script-in-progress. Except for an occasional note to say he missed me, Jerry gave me what was for him considerable room, which I suspect owed more to an awareness of my hurt feelings than to graciousness or a sense of embarrassment.
Happily, one of the guys who played in my weekly Saturday full-court game turned out to be a literary agent, and one morning after asking what I did, he inquired about the script I was writing. Here I should mention that Hollywood basketball, like most gatherings in Tinseltown, is a world unto itself. It was at a Sunday game, for instance, that another player inadvertently taught me about my new habitat when he asked, while we were at the water fountain, what I did. After giving him a short-form answer, I, so as not to be impolite, asked the same of him. “I’m Gene Hackman’s brother-in-law,” he replied, making me realize that in show biz a relationship could also be an occupation.
Though I assumed I was getting no more than lip service when the basketball-playing agent asked to see the screenplay whenever it was ready, he persisted in inquiring about my progress week after week, which served not as pressure, but as an added incentive.
The first big surprise for me, having heard that alacrity was nonexistent in the movie business, was the speed with which he read the script once I gave it to him. Even more shocking, having being told countless times that “notes” often ranged from silly to idiotic, was that the couple of suggestions he offered were not without merit.
But the biggest stunner was that after giving him the go-ahead to make submissions using the revised version, he called one afternoon to say there were producers who wanted to meet. “With eyes,” he added, toward “maybe acquiring the script.”
So elated was I, especially when a series of meetings followed where my script and was praised, that the nightmare that was Washington was all but forgotten, as was Jerry’s oft-repeated request to see the script once it was done.
But on the day that an actual offer came in – not a purchase, it was specified, but an option plus a fee for a rewrite – I found Jerry at my doorstep when I got home from a lengthy jog.
“Nice fucking guy,” was Jerry’s opening gambit, making it clear he was in the know about the attention the script was getting. “Way to remember and say thanks.”
“What are you talking about?”
“If anyone gets to make that picture, it’s me.”
“But you don’t even know what it’s about.”
“So I’ll find out.”
“Jerry, it’s about a rock & roller.”
“You’ve told me a million times how much you hate that music.”
“So we’ll change it to Frank’s kind of stuff.”
“Please tell me you’re kidding.”
“Do I sound like I’m fucking kidding? You owe me!”
“What did you say?”
“You heard me, boychik. You owe me big time.”
I was sorely tempted to throw a punch, but somehow managed to restrain myself. “If I owe you,” I said as calmly as possible, “it’s for one thing and one thing alone.”
“And what’s that?”
“Making this easy.”
To Jerry’s amazement, I took a deep breath, then turned and walked away, not for the first time, but definitely for the last.
While I’d love to say that my script got produced, was favorably received, and became a giant hit, that was not the case. Instead it got optioned again and again, drawing repeated praise and getting me writing assignments that were occasionally good, but more often bad. Ultimately some other projects I worked on did reach the screen, but always, to my mind, with an asterisk of sorts – if only the script hadn’t been watered down… if only they’d let us shoot in Harlem rather than Toronto… if only the director hadn’t had a tin ear… if only the actor hadn’t been a drunk. In fact it was not until I finally got to direct – when I stopped being only-the-writer, merely-the-writer, just-the-writer, and often no-longer–the-writer – that I could finally watch projects with my name in the credits without cringing.
What did get made, ironically, was the script about which Jerry and I disagreed so acrimoniously, which proved to be not merely his next directing gig, but also his last.
Still unreleased to this day, it has over the years been the subject of much conjecture, with people near and far speculating as to why distribution has never materialized. Though tempted on many occasions, I have never added anything to the various internet forums and chats, not about the script, not about Jerry, and not about our experiences together.
The closest we ever came to crossing paths again was when a screenwriter friend showed up at lunchtime at an office I had in a two-story building in an area with an abundance of restaurants.
“I saw Jerry Lewis going into the Italian place up the block,” she mentioned. “Weren’t you two close?”
“Once upon a time.”
“Want to eat there?”
I thought for a moment, then shook my head. “Let’s have Chinese,” I said.
Not another word was exchanged until the two of us reached our destination. But as we were about to enter, my friend’s curiosity got the better of her. “What was the link between you and Jerry anyway?” she asked.
“We were born in the same hospital.” Not wishing to elaborate, I changed the subject.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. His new short is called “Old Times,” and he’s currently working on “When Houston Had The Blues. “In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel ‘The Beard’ was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.