Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The nutty professor makes the grade -- Sept. 17, 2015 column


In the first “Back to the Future” movie, time-traveling teen Marty McFly tells his eccentric friend Doc Brown, who’s living in the 1950s, that in 1985 Ronald Reagan is president.

“Ronald Reagan the actor?” Doc Brown asks incredulously. “Then who’s vice president—Jerry Lewis?”

That was a big laugh line 30 years ago. The former actor actually had become president, and everybody knew that funny man Jerry Lewis was unsuited to be vice president.

Those were the blissful days before Donald Trump. We’ll consider his comic possibilities another time.  

Today, many young people don’t even know that Reagan was an actor. Jerry Lewis, though, remains one of the most durable entertainers of the last century. Among his movie hits: “The Nutty Professor,” “The Errand Boy” and “The Bell Boy.”

The guy’s a survivor, literally. He has weathered two heart attacks, prostate cancer, diabetes and other health problems.

At 89, he’s still working, performing on stage and on screen. He plays Nicolas Cage’s dad in an upcoming crime thriller movie, “The Trust,” and recently signed on to appear in a National Lampoon flick, “Dead Serious.” He was the lead in “Max Rose,” a 2013 dramatic film. Critics say his stage show these days verges on the insulting, and they haven’t warmed to the serious Lewis. 

No matter. The Library of Congress announced Monday that it will preserve Lewis’ comedic contributions to American life in perpetuity. It has acquired more than 1,000 items -- films, TV clips and paper documents -- spanning Lewis’ career of more than 70 years.

“This collection will give the world a more complete picture of his life as a performer, director, producer, writer, recording artist, author, educator and philanthropist,” said James Billington, the Librarian of Congress.

The Jerry Lewis Collection includes films of TV and nightclub appearances with and without Dean Martin, home movies, 34-mm prints of his films and movie test footage. It will be in good company. The library has collections of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Bob Hope and Groucho Marx.   

Collections are stored and preserved at the library’s Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Va. To celebrate, Lewis will perform Oct. 9 at “An Evening with Jerry Lewis,” a ticketed show at the State Theatre in Culpeper.

Lewis still loves to perform. “If I get more than three people in a room, I do a number,” he said in a statement, adding, “Knowing that the Library of Congress was interested in acquiring my life’s work was one of the biggest thrills of my life.” 

Lewis met Dean Martin in the 1940s when both were performing separately in Atlantic City. They formed a duo club act in which Martin sang and Lewis interrupted with silly remarks. They became “the most popular duo in cinema” in the 1950s, according to the “Historical Dictionary of the Eisenhower Era,” which says that before the two went their separate ways in 1956, they had 17 comedy box office hits.  Martin died in 1995.

Everybody doesn’t love Lewis – except for the French, who may be his biggest fans. 

The French government gave “the French people’s favorite clown” the Legion of Honor medal on his 80th birthday. Lewis went tie-less, wore slippers and hammed it up with “a virtual slapstick routine,” the Associated Press reported.

In this country, though, he alienated about half the population in 1998 when he said that women can’t be funny.  A woman comic sets him back, he said.

“I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies into the world,” he said. He and his first wife had six sons before he divorced her. Lewis later said women could be funny – but not if they were crude.

Lewis and Martin hosted the 1956 Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon, and for the next 55 years Lewis volunteered as the event’s national chairman, raising nearly $2 billion. The association announced the telethon’s end in May.    

To us, Lewis may seem silly and dated, but Americans still desperately need a laugh. Even the Founding Fathers recognized the power of laughter.  

“Trouble knocked at the door, but, hearing laughter, hurried away,” Benjamin Franklin said.

Thanks for the laughs, professor.   

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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