Monday, March 20, 2023
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Jerry Lewis starred in Damn Yankees on B'way: Mitchell Maxwell remembers - Part 1

Jerry Lewis passed away last week.

If you are of a certain age, that is a notable item for throughout his long and public life he was a man of consequence. He was indeed worthy of a "front page obit" and if you were of that certain age or wished to revisit another time, another era you may have taken a few moments to read about that life.

True he was a polarizing figure. He had nearly more enemies than fans yet whatever one felt about him it was always infused with passion. He caused you to feel! Good or bad he was only capable of provocation. He was not beige.

I have nothing to add to the hundreds of obituaries that have fueled the papers and news outlets since his death. They were accurate and told of both the bright and dark sides of Jerry. They painted him as the man he was, brilliant, quixotic, driven and defined by chaos.

Yet, in all that I read there was no point of view or understanding about this great and deeply flawed man. The dissemination of his life was practically void of feeling offering no sense of loss. It was simply news. And that is more tragic than his passing.

I met Jerry Lewis out of a mutual need dealing with commerce. I was the lead Producer on a wonderfully received revival of the Broadway Musical DAMN YANKEES, I needed a replacement for the star part of "The Devil" and Jerry was in need of a job. In show business that makes for a perfect match.

When I mentioned to my partners, associates and our director the idea of Jerry Lewis the response was varied to put it mildly. Passionate? Indeed.

Some thought it brilliant, others a train wreck, while one person on the project of great import refused to work with him if hired, stating "Jerry Lewis is an idiot, his humor is that of an idiot . . ." and then he got even more uncomplimentary from there on. And yet as the man in charge I offered him the part and subsequently I hired him. From that day on my life changed.

Meeting Jerry for the first time was tantamount to an old western gunfight. Two gunslingers sizing one another up before the draw followed by one poor soul laying dead in the dirt.

We met in a conference room at Lincoln Center during a matinee of CAROUSEL and in turn our meeting was accompanied by the glorious score from that classic show. Apropos I guess.

He was dressed in a dark expensive suit, sunglasses (indoors) spit polished back mini boots and a scowl. A few steps behind him were three callow cowed Junior agents from the William Morris Agency. Lewis looked like a mobster the three young agents searching for an exit.

We talked. And then some more.

He had seen the my show the night before and offered high praise. I was grateful.