Jerry Lewis, hosting telethon this weekend, reflects on family, career


Jerry Lewis says he just "lost" his daughter, not to tragedy, but to college. She graduated from Bishop Gorman High School and set off for Chapman University in Orange, Calif.

"My gorgeous, almost-19-year-old daughter," he describes her, choking up. "And that house, you can buy it for a song. I don't want to live there now."

Lewis, 84, is so tied to Danielle (he calls her Danni; she's a music major) that he has signed up to teach at Chapman once every two weeks.

Teaching will be old hat to "The Nutty Professor" (who helms his annual MDA telethon this weekend).

Starting in the late 1960s, Lewis taught directing for nine years at USC to Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Peter Bogdanovich, Randal Kleiser and other filmmakers.

Now he's going back to school with Danni.

"I'm just so happy she's this close" to Las Vegas.

He's seen seven other kids move out.

"It's always rough, but not like it is with a daughter. I'm sorry, it's different."

Last year, one of his sons, Joseph, died from an overdose. But we're not talking about that today (my choice). We're talking about Danni.

He worries: "Is she going to be OK?"

"Sam, my wife, she says, 'Will you stop pontificating?! She's going to college. We knew that the day we got her.' "

Danni's adopted.

Lewis was pleased with Danni's education at Bishop Gorman.

"She was the only Jewess in the goddamn Catholic school," the comedian jokes, and to make sure we all know he's joking, he adds, "No, it's all OK. ... It's a good school."

Lewis has lived in Las Vegas for 35 years. But Vegas figured prominently in his life even before he moved here.

After the end of his partnership with Dean Martin (they performed from 1946 to 1956), about six weeks after their final show, Lewis was vacationing in Vegas when he got a fateful offer.

Sid Luft (Judy Garland's eventual manager-husband) asked Lewis to fill in for Garland. Judy was ill and missing shows in her Vegas gigs.

Lewis wasn't sure he had solo material yet, since he and Martin had just broken up. But he signed up, knowing it would be the first thing either Lewis or Martin did after splitting.

Lewis doesn't remember much of what he did in the hourlong show, except Judy, unable to perform, was in the crowd and the crowd laughed.

"And every laugh got me another idea. Then I got Judy. I brought her onstage and sat her down. I said, 'These people paid to see Judy Garland. Let them look at you while I'm doing it!'

"It was perfect," Lewis says.

Then the crowd commanded, "Sing!"

Lewis looked at the conductor and asked: What would Judy do? The conductor said Judy would sing "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody."

So Lewis sang it. He knew it by heart.

"My dad taught it to me. My dad impersonated (Al) Jolson for years. So when I sang it, I sang it with my dad's feeling for Jolson. It was so (expletive) electric. I've never faced an audience quite like that since."

Later, Lewis told his dad how well the song went. His dad told him to record it. Lewis did. His "Rock-a-Bye" was a huge hit that year and helped further solidify his burgeoning solo career.

Yet many fans wanted him to get back together with Martin. The comedy duo had been part of a national healing immediately after World War II.

"The world needed some friendship. None of us knew what in Christ was happening -- the Japanese, the Germans, the Pacific -- and now it's all over.

"And now they see two guys that are getting paid to love one another."

Lewis recalls one of their bits.

"Dean would say, 'Did you take a bath this morning?' I would say, 'Why? Is there one missing?' "

Oh, such silly jokes. Lewis says: "That's gonna give us $40 million? You bet your ass it would.

"The audience was enjoying how he and I did that," he says. "I knew my partner's breathing. I knew his heartbeat, and he knew when I was gonna sigh. When two men know one another like that, there's no telling where they're going to take that energy."

He never had a partner like Martin again.

"He was my whole life," Lewis says, and gets misty again, like he did talking about his daughter.

People still tell Lewis they grew up with Lewis, Martin and the movies, changing their lives.

"What's so wonderful about that is that they -- the adults -- they don't know that's the child in them that's remembering what we did.

"The adult wouldn't come over to me. It's the child that doesn't have a problem telling you.

"The child in every human being is wonderful."

Doug Elfman's column appears Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. E-mail him at delfman@reviewjournal. com. He blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.

 

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