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July 30, 2014

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At 85, Jerry Lewis remains a true Las Vegan

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Terry King

Jerry Lewis, shown during an interview on his yacht in San Diego in October 2010.

It is mid-October, and it is smooth sailing for Jerry Lewis as he lounges in his home-away-from-home, the yacht Sam’s Place, docked in the San Diego marina.

The craft is named for his wife of 32 years, SanDee. “Sam” is a catchy nickname. She was with Lewis for the entire MDA Labor Day Telethon, when Lewis nearly collapsed at the end of the show while singing the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to close a broadcast in which he helped raise just under $59 million.

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Jerry Lewis, interviewed on his yacht in October.

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Jerry Lewis holds his head in shock after hearing of the $11 million pledge to fight muscular dystrophy Monday afternoon during the final hour of the 45th Annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon at the South Point.

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With a rubber chicken laying next to him on the table, Jerry Lewis continues to crack jokes Monday afternoon during the 20th hour of the 45th Annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon at South Point.

Jerry Lewis Interview

Entertainer Jerry Lewis, Muscular Dystrophy Association national chairman, smiles during an interview at the South Point Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2010. The 2010 Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon starts Sunday at 6 p.m. and concludes on Labor Day at 3:30 p.m. MDA is the nonprofit health agency dedicated to curing muscular dystrophy, ALS  and related diseases by funding worldwide research. Launch slideshow »

Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon Preparations

Jerry Lewis shoots a photo of his band to determine the height of their platforms during rehearsal for the 45th Annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon Sunday night at the South Point.  This year's telethon hopes to raise $70 million to surpass 2009's earnings of $60 million in the fight against muscular dystrophy. Launch slideshow »

Jerry Lewis 2010 MDA Marathon Preview

Jerry Lewis. Launch slideshow »

That wrenching, not-a-dry-eye-in-the-house performance marked the end of the telethon as a marathon event, as MDA officials have since cut the show back from 21½ hours to six. Lewis’ role in the showcase is not yet specified, though on Tuesday, MDA spokesman Jim Brown said in an e-mail: “Jerry Lewis is National Chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, a volunteer position he's held for decades. Jerry has been invited to appear and perform on the 2011 MDA Labor Day Telethon. MDA is looking forward to having Jerry and many other top stars performing on that six-hour, prime-time event.”

For the final weekend-long MDA event, Lewis certainly worked himself ragged, cracking the whip in meetings, rehearsals and even the telecast itself. He used the time in San Diego to recuperate emotionally and catch up on his sleep.

So there was no particular agenda for this yacht-staged interview. The telethon had ended more than a month ago. Lewis has several projects in the hopper. He’s the focus of a documentary being filmed by Gregg Barson. He’s been busy with read-throughs and casting for the planned musical version of “The Nutty Professor” in New York. He’s been writing a screenplay, keeping the details under his vest.

The conversation lasts 90 minutes. It is at once funny and freewheeling, explosive and candid. Lewis can still shout and swear to hammer home a point, especially when talking of how corporations have rendered Vegas impersonal. But he also easily downshifts to nearly a whisper as he remembers the more touching moments of his partnership with Dean Martin.

Lewis is one of the few remaining links to the age of Rat Pack swagger in Vegas. He remains loyally, even defiantly, a Las Vegan at the core. The mass of material collected on this day will hold for a time, simmering until the right moment.

And that is today, when Jerry Lewis -- a man who has raised more than $2.5 billion for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and was a member of what may have been the greatest comedy team in history -- turns 85.

Some highlights from a moment captured in time, on a sunny San Diego afternoon:

**

“I usually never ask Sam about my performance (at the MDA Telethon). If you’re an old pro, you know how well you’re doing when you’re doing it, and your inner government spanks you if you’re not doing well. But I really, really asked her about that thing I couldn’t handle, and that was falling apart in that last number. When I bent over, I was able to say, ‘Dear God, let me finish this song.’ I had the awareness, on the air, to do that.”

**

“(Hosting the telethon each year) is very emotionally draining, to turn and see a couple of children who are going to be on the show, they’re doing something to raise money, then turn to my left, and I see two children who can’t walk. You go through those changes for an entire year. Plus, losing some of my kids in the last three, four months wiped me out. Sam said, ‘Honey, you know it’s going to happen. It’s been happening. It’s your 61st year. You’ve buried them, you’ve kept them alive, you’ve taken care of them.’ You cannot tell your emotional system what level it should go to. Your emotional system will take you to the level that it believes you’ve just demanded.”

**

“I’ve never answered that question (of why he chose the MDA for his charitable efforts), ever. The important thing is that I’m doing it, not why. Does the ‘why’ of it change anything? No! And it’s my personal ‘why,’ and it’s going to stay with me until they put me in the vase.”

**

“I have a loyalty that runs in my bloodstream, when I lock into someone or something, you can’t get me away from it because I commit that thoroughly. That’s in friendship, that’s a deal, that’s a commitment. Don’t give me paper -- I can get the same lawyer who drew it up to break it. But if you shake my hand, that’s for life. And that’s the way I have done business. I had a handshake with (Paramount Pictures executives) Y. Frank Freeman and Barney Balaban to do $700 million worth of films on a handshake.”

**

“When I arrived in Las Vegas, I felt I was embraced by it. My partner and I played Las Vegas in September of 1947, and we rode horses. There was no car for us. We took the desert and made it a miracle.”

**

“Gambling is part of the human condition. I love it. I have the best time gambling. I’ve been winning fortunes, and I’ve been losing them, and I am as happy as a pig in (manure). It’s fun. There are a lot of people who want to go to a place where they lose, they are having fun, and if they win, it’s great, and they move on.”

**

“When Dean and I opened at the Sands, we had a dealer who was a very nice man who owned a plumbing company in Philadelphia. But he lost it all at the crap table. He lost his business, and he couldn’t get out of Vegas. So he had to take a dealer’s job to earn enough money to get home. He took the job but never went home. … Everybody wanted to go to his table. Everybody knew everybody in those days.”

**

“At the Sands, Dean and I would go on at midnight, and we’d finish at about 10 after 2. We’d be over at the Sahara by 2:30, onstage with Rickles and Sinatra and Sammy Davis. We’re all onstage at the same time doing a show the joint never anticipated and the people sitting at the bar never dreamed would happen. And it happened every night. Frank would say, ‘We’re going to Caesars tonight.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Louis Prima is there!’ We’d do three hours after we’ve done our shows. We’d get to bed at about 20 to 7. We’d walk outside and it was like an atom bomb blast. Our eyes could not take the (bleeping) sun, because you are in this dirge all night. My tongue felt like a carpet. … I am drinking Cokes, I’d have a beer, a coke, and that was it. Frank, he was taking Jack Daniels intravenously (laughs). You know, we had a wonderful time. And what we did bettered the city. … We were like priests, taking care of the city.”

**

“Want me to tell you what would make Al Jolson turn over in his grave? That’s to see a marquee outside of a hotel, a huge marquee, saying, ‘Prime Rib $9.’ That (bleeping) marquee was put there for Andy Williams, or Steve and Eydie, or Frank, or Dean and Jerry. Prime Rib? What are you doing? You’re using that to advertise a steak? … You’re charging people $200 night to come to a town that has a steak on the marquee? (Slams a fist on table). Let’s go see steak tonight! It just boils my ass!”

**

“I happen to believe in the human condition so strongly that I don’t have to make up games to play with people. Here’s what I think: If it’s good, let’s go for it. If it needs work to be better, let’s work on it. I really am opinionated, but not for long. I have found myself coming off of what I think of something because the guy I’m talking to makes better sense than I am. I have so many points of view, I can’t keep track of ’em, because I talk to too many people. … I’m not so opinionated that I won’t budge.”

**

“Ultimately, I’m going to put out the best of the telethons. I’ll take the best stuff from Red Skelton, Danny Kaye, George Burns, Burns & Allen, Jack Benny, to provide that kind of entertainment. My feeling is, I want to provide 25 DVDs containing some100 huge stars. Just think: My 60th year of 21 hours a year. I’ve had everybody. Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe. When Sammy Davis performed for 20 minutes, we had to stop the show so the audience could recover, they were exhausted. Wayne Newton closed the show every year. It was incredible, and it should be put out.”

**

“Billy Wilder said to me, ‘Those of us who are hyphenates deserve a couple more beats,’ and I knew what he meant. As a director, you make sure a scene is not beat-heavy. You need just enough beats in the rhythm. Billy also used to say, ‘Whatever you do, is your mark. You don’t have to go out and impress someone. Let them look at your work.’ ”

**

“There was someone on the (telethon) I wasn’t very happy having on the show because the performer is not a pure professional. I went to my crew, and I said, ‘I don’t want that performer doing such-and-such.’ The performer in reference was going to do something on the show that I didn’t feel was in the best interest of the show. I didn’t agree upon the performance being what the performer planned to do. So I said, ‘Dump it, that’s a cut,’ and I walked away from the meeting. The crew followed me and told me I was creating a very, very deep problem for everyone, including myself. So I was not adamant. I changed my mind. My bill of rights tells me I have a right to change my mind. The show is the important thing.”

**

“What I have taught about filmmaking is, shoot everything. Shoot anything. Do not make a judgment call on stuff that could be great. If you have an idle camera, you’re (screwing) up the future.”

**

“Marilyn Monroe was a fabulous dame, fabulous. You would have loved her.”

**

“If medicine had the frauds that we’ve had in show business, we’d have about 200 million less people in this country.”

**

“I’m writing a screenplay right now, and it’s a love story. That’s all I can tell you about it. I was supposed to have retired 20 years ago. Retire to what? I’m having the time of my life!”

**

“I still feel Dean at times. … When I start to write, in my office at home, I play classical music at a very low level, just so I hear it. Over in the corner is a chair, and I swear to God, when I was writing, ‘Dean and Me,’ I felt his presence. When I told that to Jeannie, his wife, she said, ‘I know what you mean, Jerry, because a couple of the children have had that feeling, too.’ ”

**

“Dean was such an incredible human being, so charismatic, you just don’t write someone like that off. My God, he was so underappreciated when we were a team. It was, ‘Jerry, this, Jerry that, Jerry runs the business.’ The whole show was Jerry. One review that broke his heart was when a reviewer went to the Copacabana and never mentioned him. It was tough, but he never said a word. He took 10 years of that.”

**

“We had been a team for four nights, and we were sleeping in the same bed so we could save nine bucks. I dream out loud and he says to me, ‘You’re dreaming out loud again! Let me know when you’re finished so I can go back to sleep (laughs).” Then I say, ‘Paul (Martin’s real name was Dino Paul Crocetti), understand what I am going to tell you right now. In about six months, we’re going to have so much money, we’re not going to be able to count it. He said, ‘From your lips, my friend.’ Just days after we teamed up, I make this prediction because I believed it.”

**

“My partner never had any emotional understanding of anything, or discussions about emotions, and I did it all the time, because that’s where my whole being was coming from. … The only reason he opened up to me is because I didn’t have a problem opening up to him.”

**

“You can’t have a conversation about the great comedians today without mentioning Robin Williams. He is the forerunner of great, great mind comedy. We don’t have many like him. There are very few in his class, those who do wonderful things. Billy Crystal, Steve Martin do wonderful things. Alec Baldwin is blowing everyone’s mind today. He’s incredible.”

**

“I’ve had the opportunity to make a billion people laugh in the world, but nothing compares to my daughter (Danielle’s) smile. When she laughs from her belly, it makes me proud to be a comedian.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow Kats With the Dish at twitter.com/KatsWithTheDish.

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