- Nov 15, 2001
- Real Name
- Neil Middlemiss
The late comedy legend Jerry Lewis was the ruler of the box office. He rose to the top of the box office as part of the beloved duo with crooner Dean Martin, a partnership that lasted 10 years and numerous films and other appearances, Lewis would eventually go solo and enjoy continued and extraordinary success. During his career, Lewis made a number of films with Paramount Pictures, 10 of which have been included in a new DVD collection. Since 1995, Jerry’s son, Chris, has handled his father’s film and television distribution, which include beloved classics such as The Nutty Professor, The Bellboy, and Cinderfella.
Home Theater Forum sat down with Chris Lewis to talk about his father’s remarkable comedic legacy, the release of the new Jerry Lewis 10-Film Collection from Paramount, and the honorable way he has followed his father’s example.
The Jerry Lewis 10-Film Collection is available to own on DVD now from Paramount Home Entertainment.
HTF: This collection of 10 films of your father's helps keep his films available to the masses. With the changing media landscape, is it easier keeping his films available and in the entertainment option sphere for audiences?
Chris Lewis: Well, you know, it's easier in many ways because of all the digital downloads, the digital media. Some of my children, they don't even own DVDs any more. They're pulling things off all sorts of web-based channels and things like that. But the older generation-- I include myself in that being 60-- I like to have the hard copy so I can put it in whenever I want and not worry about Wi-Fi and things like that. I see this as something that's going to be kind of like an heirloom. The family takes it, buys it, shares with everybody, puts it away, and it's always there.
HTF: I understand that. I just turned 43, and if I don't have it in my hands, it doesn't always feel quite as real to me.
Chris Lewis: Right. Exactly.
HTF: What is perhaps the greatest challenge in managing your father's remarkable library and, by extension, his legacy?
"I see it as an honor to be involved in preserving his legacy. And it's something that I like to share, just how much these things meant to him and how much he wanted to share them with the people of his time and future generations."
Chris Lewis: Well, I think the easiest answer is the sheer volume of work he did. I mean, my dad was a workaholic because he absolutely loved what he was doing. So his creations were not just something he was doing for money. It was an extension of himself. He grew up idolizing Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. He wanted to be those people. He wanted to emulate them to the best of his ability. So, when you have something that so much of his heart, soul, and everything went into, it's very special. And, to me, I see it as an honor to be involved in preserving his legacy. And it's something that I like to share, just how much these things meant to him and how much he wanted to share them with the people of his time and future generations.
HTF: You've handled your father's film and television distribution since '95. And this collection of 10 films together represent a wonderful selection of his films. What went into choosing the films in this collection? And what do you think is perhaps the underdog or the most under-sung gem in this collection of 10 films?
"[T]hat was really my dad's breakout film where people said okay, he can be a stand-alone star and didn't need the incredible talent of Dean Martin next to him to make him successful."
Chris Lewis: Well, it was a collaboration between us and Paramount talking about the films that were the most sought after, the ones that people would write to us and we would hear about over the web or in letters over many years. And of course, Paramount knows which ones have sold the best, which ones have the most penetration into the market. And then reaching back and including some things that have done well in the past but maybe haven't gotten as much attention, I should say, in recent years, say, The Delicate Delinquent, possibly The Stooge.
Now The Stooge was released in 2004 as a part of a DVD set. But I don't believe Delicate Delinquent was in there. The Stooge was my dad's favorite Martin and Lewis film. He liked that one the best, himself. And The Delicate Delinquent was his first film as a solo artist. It was actually written for Martin and Lewis. And then Darren McGavin stepped in and played the part that Dean was supposed to play. But that was really my dad's breakout film where people said okay, he can be a stand-alone star and didn't need the incredible talent of Dean Martin next to him to make him successful.
HTF: I was watching a scene from The Bellboy and was reminded of how expert your father was at reacting; to people, to situations, to calamity. The comedic timing in responding and reacting to external events, to me, is part of his genius. With slapstick, physical comedy, vaudeville, there's a universality to that kind of comedy. It played incredibly well in Europe, in France in particular, as you know, and the likes of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and other seem so timeless. Where do you think your father got that immense, innate sense of comedy and comedic timing?
"[M]y dad was one of the most incredible, natural athletes, you'd ever see. You look at the dancing that he and Martin did in their early films. My dad never took a dance lesson. He was just extremely athletic."
Chris Lewis: Well, my dad was one of the most incredible, natural athletes, you'd ever see. You look at the dancing that he and Martin did in their early films. My dad never took a dance lesson. He was just extremely athletic. So his reaction time was much faster than just about anybody. He absolutely adored the physical comedy of Chaplin, and Stan Laurel, and people like that. So he always wanted to be like them. I met a gentleman who had known my dad when he was soda jerk, his first job ever when he was 14 years old. And [my dad’s] throwing the scoops of ice cream up in the air and trying to catch them with his hand before they make it to the cone. Well, he knew he was going to get fired, but he had everybody on the other side of the counter laughing at him, which is what he was hoping for. He was practicing it going back to being a teenager. It was just him. It was his natural talent. It's something you can't learn. You can't really practice. But he did. He practiced it every day of his life.
HTF: It's perhaps a product of the era in which they were filmed, but in the color films there's a boisterous brightness to the color palette in so many of them. It's almost cartoon-like in the bold and bright colors. I've wondered if that was from an affinity to the “anything can happen” nature of cartoons? You spoke of your dad's athletic ability and his abundant energy, so I wonder if there was something about the comedy that was almost like a live-action cartoon. More grounded, of course, and not pursuing the same sort of laughs as cartoons pursue, but it seems like your father was a living cartoon. And when you see those bright and boisterous colors, it sort of lends itself to that, don’t you think?
"[O]ne of my dad's favorite teachers and directors was Frank Taschin, a cartoon director back in the 1940s. They first worked on the Martin & Lewis film Artists and Models in '55. He treated my dad as a cartoon character and they just hit it off."
Chris Lewis: Oh, absolutely. As a matter of fact that's very astute of you. Because one of my dad's favorite teachers and directors was Frank Taschin, a cartoon director back in the 1940s. They first worked on the Martin & Lewis film Artists and Models in '55. He treated my dad as a cartoon character and they just hit it off. I mean, they hit the nail on the head with that, where they could be just as silly as they wanted to be. And the bright colors just lent the perfect background to that. So, [yes], that's exactly what it was.
HTF: One of the owners of Home Theater Forum, was a huge fan of your father, he adored him. He got to see your father speak in conjunction with the release of a The Nutty Professor’s 50th Anniversary release, and it meant so much to him to be in the same room as Jerry Lewis. And his admiration is not a unique or isolated story. There are people across the globe that would count your father as a hero. But he was your father. Was it hard sharing him with the world?
Chris Lewis: No. I wouldn't say so. When we were younger, it was hard that he was away and traveling a lot. But it was something we were always very proud of. If we were in a room of people and they were standing cheering for him, we were standing and cheering, too, because we were happy for him getting that kind of accolade. There's nothing he liked better than being recognized for his good intentions and his creative talent. Because that's what I was always so proud of, was the level of creativity. And you can see it. If you have an astute eye and you're looking at his films, there's a lot of creativity behind what he does. That's something we were always extremely proud of.
"I always did want to be like my dad and do the things that he was doing. But what I was most proud of was his ability to help people and change the world in a positive way."
HTF: I'd be remiss if I didn't touch upon how you supported the MDA Labor Day Telethon for 38 years, and your work through as the CEO of the American Wheelchair Mission, where you've helped provide wheelchairs free of cost to thousands upon thousands of individuals throughout the world. My son was diagnosed with Down syndrome shortly after he arrived in the world, just over six years ago. And in those earliest days, it was the volunteer organizations that showed up to say “you're not alone”, “here are some resources to help you understand what Down syndrome means, here is a network of people and events that you can connect to”. So, I know personally the power of dedicated organizations who step in and step up to help in times of need or with people who have needs. Tell me about what draws you to that work, and what it means to you?
Chris Lewis: Well, having grown up watching and being a part of my dad's muscular dystrophy telethons, it really showed me how rewarding it can be by just holding someone's hand or telling them that you're there to help them. And it's something that I always wanted to continue. People say, "How come you didn't follow in your dad's footsteps?" And I say, "I really did." But it was more in the stuff that meant more to me, which was helping people. We were just kind of led down that path, led by example. And I always did want to be like my dad and do the things that he was doing. But what I was most proud of was his ability to help people and change the world in a positive way.
HTF: Oh, that's terrific. Well, thanks for speaking with me today. All the very best with this release of your father’s films. Thank you.
Chris Lewis: Thank you, Neil. I appreciate that.