Jerry Lewis: Always 9

A watch tower of the famous Golden Dome Shiite shrine is left standing alone after insurgents blew up the two minarets in Samarra, Wednesday, June 13, 2007. The Askariya shrine's dome was destroyed on Feb. 22, 2006. The Askariya shrine is among Iraq's most sacred sites for Shiite Muslims, drawing pilgrims from around the world. AP Photo/Hameed Rasheed

This segment originally was broadcast May 20, 2001.

Jerry Lewis could do a show in his sleep.

He's done it 10,000 times -- literally, 10,000 times.

At 75, he could be resting. But he's not. He's rehearsing, reports CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Martha Teichner.

Nothing escapes him, not one detail that could go wrong during the show. For Jerry Lewis, performing is the same thing as being alive.

"As a kid, I wanted to be noticed so badly that I think about that every once in a while. It always goes back to childhood," Lewis observes.

Spend even a few minutes with Jerry Lewis and the crazy kid will make an appearance.

When he was 9, Jerry Lewis was usually left behind while his vaudevillian parents were on the road. He figured the way to get their attention was to do what they did: comedy. He performed with his father at age 12. He was just 20 when he and Dean Martin created the act that made them famous.

They started out in nightclubs, but live television was what made Martin and Lewis household names.

"It was real," says Lewis. "It wasn't prepared, it wasn't rehearsed. It was happening now, so though it wasn't all that funny, it became hysterical because of the elements within where I did it."

Suddenly, they were the biggest act in show business. "Had the most wonderful time," Lewis recalls. "When you're very young, and that kind of stardom devours your brains, you are so into 'I and me' that you don't see the people… When I wrote the first generic layout of what I thought we should do, I titled it 'sex and slapstick,' and that's it. That's exactly what we went for, the sex of Dean, the slapstick of the monkey. You get those two elements together and it's incredible."

Why did he cast himself as "the monkey"?

"That's what it was," he replies. "Organ grinder and monkey. Who's the star of that?"

Call his character the monkey or the kid, love him or hate him, but just say the name Jerry Lewis and almost anywhere in the world, people will automatically think, "Physical comedy."

As Lewis himself explains, "Honey, you can't take a political comic and take him into France. What would he do there? Physical (comedy) is the greatest entree...our international language. They understand what you do."

In addition to the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, Lewis still does about 75 live shows a year -- even after back surgery, meningitis, prostate cancer, ulcers, and heart problems. His son, Chris, travels with him.

At the Soaring Eagle Casino in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., Lewis attracts an audience of more than 2,500 on a weeknight. He can't do his pratfalls any more, so what he does between jokes is a "greatest hits" run-through of his 60 years in show business.

"The beautiful part of an audience growing up with you is that they have images branded in their brain that will never go away, and what you're doing is reminding them of that," Lewis says.

And then, of course, the kid shows p.

"You want me to be what I am chronologically, I could be a 75-year-old crotchety jerk if you want. I don't want to do that. I'm 9. I'm always 9. Nine is innocent, and 9 is brilliant, and 9 is open and free, and 9 doesn't get what most adults get, and that's jaded and snobbish."

The night is as much about nostalgia as it is about comedy, so its centerpiece is video of Frank Sinatra reuniting Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis during the 1976 Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, 20 years after their acrimonious breakup.

Says Lewis, "I never stopped loving him, nor did he stop loving me. When Frank brought Dean out on the telethon, because we hadn't talked for 20 years, that was a marvelous gift. We needed somebody to break the ice."

Looking back now, Lewis is generous, saying of Martin, "He was brilliant, absolutely brilliant, because he would take me to places that I never dreamed I'd go, and he would pull me back. He is my safety net. He was my…caution. He was everything that a comic would need."

And yet he didn't appear to be doing much.

"That's why he was so…so grossly underrated," Lewis explains.

Lewis has no plans to relinquish the stage. Labor Day weekend, he intends to be doing the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, just as he's done for more than 50 years. He is unapologetic to people who complain he's patronizing.

"I'm telling people about a child in trouble," he says. "If it's pity, we'll get some money. I'm just giving you facts."

He reminds his critics he's raised $1.7 billion, that he reaches an audience of 80 million people worldwide. How many 75-year-old comedians can say that their work is seen by their grandchildren's generation?

Does it bother him that today's kids think Eddie Murphy is the nutty professor? Not a bit. Lewis co-produced the remake, which grossed $270 million. He owns the rights to most of his old movies, and more remakes are in the works.

He's laughing all the way to the bank. But you get the feeling that it's having an audience that really matters to him.

"I did a show at the London Palladium...Royal Command performance," he recalls. "At the end of the show, not only did her Majesty stand up and applaud, but so did 4,000 people in the theater. I only saw the man in the second row who didn't stand up... Killed me. Well, that's part of our sickness...the sickness of a performer who's got to have it all."

In the case of Jerry Lewis, a lifelong sickness that would surely be fatal unless treated with massive doses of laughter.
For a Jerry Lewis biography and filmography, go to his listing at Hollywood.com.


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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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