Labor Day Weekend will always be Jerry’s Weekend. It will for a great many people at least, at least a great many people I know. For us, Labor Day and Jerry Lewis go together like, well, like Jerry Lewis and France — or Jerry Lewis and people who can’t stand Jerry Lewis. In any case, for forty-four years, Jerry Lewis gave his life to and hosted the Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon (soon to be officially the “Jerry Lewis Telethon”) from New York, from Los Angeles, and for twenty-eight years from Las Vegas, raising over the course of those years, more than two and a half billion dollars for the cause. And for some reason, he took a lot of abuse from critics for doing it.
The Jerry Lewis Telethon was an annual tribute to the kind of show business that Jerry Lewis ruled, twenty-one and a half hours of personal psychodrama, meltdowns and crying jags, lectures and pure lunatic comedy. Contemporary and even some pop stars had a place among the Borsht Belt comics and oldies acts like Cornell Gunter’s Coasters and a nonstop procession of corporate check-presenters. It was the last gasp of 20th century vaudeville, really, more outdated and incorrect as the years passed. The writing on the wall was clear in 2007, when Jerry had to apologize for calling someone “an illiterate fag” on the air – it was late in the broadcast, Jerry was fooling around, it was a gag that would’ve gotten a laugh at the Friars’ Club, but it really spelled curtains for the 20th century. Jerry was in his eighties and in 2010, the MDA gave him the unceremonious boot. Jerry always said the Telethon was bigger than he was, but that was the end. They cut the hours the following year, kept cutting until the telethon was a television special with no-name hosts. In 2014, it was over. Jerry died in 2017, fifteen days before Labor Day. There was no vigil outside his Las Vegas mansion, a vacant lot away from Martin Luther King Boulevard and the 15 freeway, but he lives on Labor Day weekend.
So why will Labor Day Weekend always be Jerry’s Weekend? What follows should provide some answers. It’s an interview, conducted on the eve of the 1989 telethon from Las Vegas. I’d been following Jerry around with a camera crew for about a week. He was comfortable. He was sixty-three. He was surrounded by fans. His family was always close by. His second wife, SanDee (“Sam”) was there, along with his doctor. Three of his six sons showed up to show off grandkids and maybe help out. A fourth son arrived with his band to perform on the telethon in the wee hours of the morning. (The Telethon was always the one place Gary Lewis and The Playboys could play for a national audience.) Another son was somewhere out there, stalking Jerry, threatening to kill him. A security team was in the area, hoping to stop him before he did. (He didn’t. Joey Lewis died, a suicide in 2009). Jerry had recently lost another child when Sam miscarried (he and Sam would adopt Danielle, born in 1992). When we sat down for the interview, Jerry was comfortable. He knew we were fans. I’d just given him one of my copies of Jerry Lewis Just Sings. He was low key. And he talked about loyalty, revenge, cruelty, drug addiction, miscarriages — and even talked about himself in the third person. This may be the purest expression of Jerry Lewis.
You meet, what? Hundreds of kids every year, dystrophic kids?
JERRY LEWIS: Sure.
You get to know a lot of them personally. You called them on the phone today. What is it like for you to know them? And then, what does it do to you when you lose ’em?
JL: When I lose a dystrophic child, or one of my kids — which they, by the way, chose to be called. I’m rapped for that too, you know, “my kids.” They also chose “Never Walk Alone” as their theme song, and I did it for them — But when I lose one of my kids, I feel a void, and I feel like I am not doing the job. Then when I have a moment to reflect on it, I turn that into positive energy. I get angry. I get very angry.
For example, there’s a chairman of the board of an important corporation that was giving me iffy answers about a project that I wanted to work on that would enhance the research in a certain city in this country. I was allowing him to procrastinate, and I was allowing him to put me off somewhat. Then I lost little Eddie Brooks in Atlanta, Georgia. Eddie was eleven. Eleven years old. I was shattered and — and then I got angry. The day that it happened, I called this CEO. I said, “I want to see you tomorrow, and I will fly to where you are.” And he said, “Okay.” And I flew to where he was, and I walked in on him. And I said, “We’ve been batting the ping pong ball back and forth for three months. I’m leaving here one way or another. I will disrupt your company with the worst kind of gossip that you ever heard in your life, or you’re gonna become one of the greatest heroes since Patton. Now which is it gonna be?” And we talked. And I walked out of there with enough money to build a research center in a city in this country that I’m very proud of, that’s gone up with this man’s help out of anger.
Now, it doesn’t always happen that way, but that one worked.
Today, if something goes wrong, I’ll turn it into positive energy. I’ll do some kind of gag about it, make my crew member feel better about it, and the audience will never know whether I’m really having a problem or not. So it’s all positive. This way is better. Positive energy. I sound like Norman Vincent Peale, for Christ’s sake.
How long have you had this attitude? Has it always been this way for you?
JL: No, no, no, no, no, no. As you get older, you get wiser. As you get older, you look back. And I’m a born reviewer. I look at material over the years. I like to look and see the work that I’ve done. I don’t go back too far, but I do like to look at the material, and I like to look at attitudes.
I remember in 1978, I was cleaned out. I was a Percodan addict, and I was in very big trouble for a number of years. I blew the whistle on myself in People magazine, because I felt I could help other people that were in the same trouble. So I wanted to review what I looked like in ’77. Could you see it in my eyes? I was taking thirteen Percodan a day. I mean, I’m talking about heavy-duty, world-class addict. That came from prescription drugs, because I had injured my spine, a pain that I live with every day of my life. Still live with it.
When I put that tape on and looked at ’77 — (laughs) Oh, holy Christ. I didn’t even remember doing that telethon. I didn’t remember. There’s a period between ’73 and ’77 that’s black. I don’t remember making the four films that I made, the five telethons. I don’t remember the twelve weeks that I appeared at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. I don’t remember the Royal Command Performance for Her Majesty and the family. I don’t remember my opening or the fifteen concerts in France. I remember nothing from ’73 to ’77. So I like to look at those years and see what that man was. How did he get on that stage? But by God, he performed. He did it. When you’re performing since you’re five years old, which is now, fifty-eight years for me, you have a know-withal and a tremendous ability to rise above stuff, which is what I was doing in that period. That’s the best editorial I can give you. I was rising above whatever the problems were, and the professionalism was carrying me.
So I looked and I looked and in reviewing as I did the material, I helped myself change a lot of that conduct, ’cause a lot of that conduct, even though I wasn’t responsible — or he, Jerry, wasn’t responsible for a lot of his actions — I sure didn’t like a lot of the stuff I saw. And whether it was the Percodan or it was Jerry’s attitude, one or the other displeased me. And I made sure to fix a lot of that, starting with (laughs) no longer being addicted. And secondly, fixing things that were really best for him the performer and the audience.
Do you have any apologies about Jerry over the years?
JL: No, not really. He never meant to hurt anybody. That I can say for him. And I can be as objective about him as anybody. I sleep with him. That’s as close as you can get. He’s been raucous. He’s been defined as a — and I’ve recognized a lot of this – he’s been rowdy, boisterous, distasteful, abrasive, caustic, abusive. Always to give someone pleasure though. Always to get a laugh. Uh, very young in a lot of cases, which is a defense that I don’t think will hold up.
He — I’m better now, but I wouldn’t apologize for anything, other than sitting down and, by design, looking to hurt somebody. Now, I know there are people like that that plan to do harm to someone, or that don’t care that they’ve done it. I can’t live with myself if I hurt somebody or if I do the wrong thing. If I’m abrasive, yes, or caustic or pushy or aggressive, the defense for a lot of that is because very often you have to include that in your menu, or you’re half a performer.
In the case of going on the air Sunday night, you can’t badger your audience, but you do have to be strong in your convictions. They’re not going to like ya if you’re a wimp, and they may not like ya if you’re too strong. So if you can find that wonderful middle somewhere, and I don’t like to police me. I don’t put up on the board: “In the third hour, Jerry will become emotional.” I get emotional when I get emotional. I cry when I cry. This audience has had forty years to scrutinize me. If I’m holding 100 to 120 million people throughout this twenty-four hours, many of this audience has grown up with me. They trust me. They believe in what I’m doing. You can’t hold an audience that long unless they do. Then the numbers on the board validify that fact.
I get letters from people sometimes that say you should have challenged that guy that wrote what he wrote. Well one year I did. I took off on the press, and I really — well, this is not the platform for it. It was wrong. I apologized after the fact, because I realized was wrong. Everything I said was right, but this is not the place for it. So that was wrong. And I’m the first one to tell you I’m wrong. You know why it’s easy for me? Because I’m gonna be the first one to tell you I’m right. Now, before you can do that, you gotta do the other. People will not take hearing from you that you’re right unless they hear from you when you’re wrong. Simple. Everybody will go with you. They’ll go with you a hundred percent.
What kind of changes do you go through emotionally and otherwise during the telethons? Staying up, that sleep deprivation period and everything else?
JL: Well, it’s a roller coaster. That’s what it is. There’s highs and there’s lows. My eyes are three-sixty. I see everything happening in the theater, whether it’s music is in place or it isn’t in place. If I see a corporate sponsor making a move towards the stage prematurely, I’m catching that. My roller coaster dips and has now taken the high ride, because he should have been in place. Now, I have to fill so the audience doesn’t know. That’s a charge or a rush I have to give myself so the audience doesn’t know there’s trouble.
I see two or three of my kids seated in wheelchairs, I might see somebody push the wheelchair to make room for a camera. That tends to upset me, watching a wheelchair getting shoved. That’s back on the roller coaster. Now I’m on the air, and I have to let the audience (laughs) know that the next performer’s gonna really entertain them, and I can’t wait to get down there to whoever it was that pushed the wheelchair to take care of that. Well, I can’t let the audience know that. They’re never gonna see it. So you’re on the roller coaster again.
Now I’m looking at the wee hours of the morning, and the tote board isn’t moving. The phones aren’t going. Now unlike other telethons, you’ll see any other telethon that goes on the air, the host goes to sleep around midnight. And they come back the next morning refreshed around ten o’clock. That’s not a telethon! I walk out there at six o’clock Sunday night, and I don’t leave that stage until twenty-two hours later. Now, I am off during the cutaway to take a shower, change tux. That happens maybe five, six times. Last year, we calculated I was off the stage — literally off the stage, showers and tux changes — thirty-nine minutes.
Is that a performer’s dream or a performer’s nightmare?
JL: Oh, it’s a nightmare. It’s an absolute nightmare. It’s the commitment you’ve made. And I believe you either do a telethon or you don’t. See, I call the others halfathons. Want to do a halfathon? Good. Start it, do three hours, go to sleep for ten hours, and come back and do six hours. That’s a halfathon.
Is it easy to fall asleep after this?
JL: No, I usually have a production meeting after we go off the air. I’ll rap with my crew for anywhere between three and four hours talking about what we can do to make it better. My next production meeting is only six weeks after the show is over. The first production meeting for the next year is like the, uh, second week in October.
And then it starts all over again.
JL: You bet. It’s the only way you can sustain. There’s a reason we’re number one, and there’s a reason why we’re able to do what we do. It’s not slick, it’s not straight cut with edit tech, commercial, sponsor, Hollywood, Vegas. Half of them are doing the things that we have created, that we have, as the originators, have stopped doing. But still, with it all, you have to do the best entertaining show you can. That’s the most important thing is to entertain the people. And inform.
Now, through all these years, there’s been one question that people always have asked. And there’s been rumors about it, and you’ve never answered it. I don’t think you’re gonna answer it now, but why do you do it? What made you start it?
JL: I just have to do it. Something personal happened to me. It had nothing to do with any of my children, none of my family were ever afflicted with this disease, which is why most people do those things. But something personal traumatized my life in 1949 and I have told people for the last forty years, the important thing is not why I do it, but that I do it. That’s the only answer I got for you.
How is the pressure building now on you as we get closer to the telethon?
JL: Well, I work well under pressure. I have always worked best under pressure. I write best when I’m on deadline. I perform best when I get to the dressing room. I gotta get into my tux and get downstairs. (laughs) I don’t know why that is but pressure has never really bothered me. Stress is a killer. Stress, I can’t handle. Now, the difference between pressure and stress, I think, at least in my own humble opinion, is pressure is what we all go through in our own respective work. Stress is when you are thrown into a working condition with incompetence and they’re not doing the job. You’re working under tremendous energy, getting the things done that must be done. And the kind of stress that comes from someone who doesn’t care, and that’s why they’re an incompetent, can give you chest pains. Chest pains is the beginning of going to the OR, where they open your chest with a Black & Decker, like I had.
Which you know about.
JL: Yeah, which I know about. So stress is what really slows me down. I had a perfect example of it today. My crew was working in the theater. There is an act that uses smoke in the act. I don’t think it’s necessary to blow everyone out of the theater in a rehearsal with that smoke, which will take us some time to clear out. And I told my crew, “Rehearse them without the smoke. They are not in their outfits. They’re not dressed in that number that they’re gonna do come showtime. What do you need the smoke for? We know there’s gonna be smoke.” The smoke has been checked. We’ve checked it technically, that the cameras will read it, lights can photograph. Well, people are coughing and choking. (laughs) They overloaded with smoke, and I could have saved them that if they just would have listened. They mean to listen, but they really think that they’re doing the right thing. Then I get stress. I have to walk in a corner, just for about two minutes, and talk myself out of the stress, and I’m okay.
You mentioned people that are incompetent leading to this stress. It seems that you’re the one who makes sure that everyone that’s working for you cares. You’re in the middle of everything. What drives you all year to do this?
JL: Well, I am part of a team. I have a marvelous director and I have a marvelous co-producer. I have to have their undying and their unrelenting loyalty in this parcel. And you don’t do that just by saying, “How do you do? I’d like you to be loyal.” You do that over a period of ten, twelve years. And I’ve had that good fortune of having these people for ten and twelve and twenty and twenty-five and thirty years. I’ve got them to the point where they understand that I care deeply and desperately about what we’re doing. I can’t expect them to care as I do, but what I do expect of them is to just give it a shot. Try to open up enough so that you give me your talent while you care about giving me your talent. But when I see a technician look at his watch and yawn, that’s a virus. That’s contagious. That runs through the crew. Now, most crew members are very proud people. They’re very, very proud of their creative output. When there’s a member of the crew that goes – (exaggerated yawn) — that’s a depressant. The crew doesn’t want to see that guy, ’cause it’s catching. Yawning is catching, anyhow. So he tells me he doesn’t want to be here. So what I do is I pay him off. I pay him for what he would’ve earned had he worked the entire program. But the important thing is to get him away from the good hard-working members of this company.
Now you don’t make friends doing that, but I have wonderful people that take care of that for me. I’ll go to (the director) and I’ll say, “Tom, this guy hasn’t done a day’s work of any consequence, plus the fact he’s injecting our wonderful crew with a virus. Let’s get rid of him.” It doesn’t happen but maybe once or twice in the entire year, but it has to be handled.
When it comes to MDA, you’ve been doing this for forty years now. Do you regret any of the career sacrifices you had to make because of this? Do you look back and wish you spent more time as a director?
JL: No. I have no, I have no regrets, really. And I don’t think that it, uh … I don’t know how I could have changed it, because the thing that I set out to do, although I didn’t know would be a lifelong experience, hasn’t limited me from doing the other work I want to do. I have been fairly active, and I’ve done a lot of things I wanted to do. I still have many things I want to do where MDA will get in the way sometimes. And I have to juggle to make it work. For example, there were two or three very important seminars that we hold around December, January that I head up. And it pumps up our staff, our field staff of some 2,000 people out there that are responsible for a lot of money that comes in Labor Day. Well, I was doing a five-part Wiseguy on CBS and I was in Vancouver shooting every day. I had to make arrangements with the Wiseguy company to be sure that I could escape to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix for these seminars to head them up and see that the MDA was covered, and I didn’t hurt the company and the shooting. I got back, did what I had to do. So I make those arrangements. It doesn’t always work. And then I make choices. Sometimes I’ll make the choice of the work. I would hate to pass up directing a marvelous film that I have great faith in, but there’s always a way it can be handled. You can do two things at once.
There’s been many times when I’ve put in twenty-hour days — eight hours for one project, twelve hours for another project, and you sleep sometimes in the car. You get it done.
Did you ever envision that forty years later, that your life, your career would take that turn where you would go from being known mainly as a comic to a comic actor to a director to now, Jerry Lewis –
— humanitarian, fundraiser?
JL: (laughs) Yeah. No, I never thought forty years ago that, that that would happen. What I thought was that I would enlighten the public and maybe get them to help, and then it would take off. I never realized that once I made the commitment, there wasn’t anyone that’s gonna take my place. There wasn’t anyone I could turn it over to. There were times when I thought maybe that was a possibility in the early days. But you can’t. You just can’t. The responsibility is too great now.
And there are too many people that depend upon me, and there are too many people that I could tell you stories about that would blow your mind, that really are alive because they believe in what I’m doing for them. And if I were to walk away from them — I have to be careful not to place myself in such a place that it sounds like I am the Messiah. That’s not what I’m saying.
Could this telethon exist without you? Do you ever see a time when you would retire, step down, hand over the baton?
JL: Oh, I don’t think there’s anything larger than the telethon. I’m sure that it could do very well with someone else if—
Do you see that time coming?
JL: Not this weekend, no.
JL: I made a vow almost forty years ago that I wouldn’t quit till I beat it or till I couldn’t walk anymore. So I’m not about to walk away. There’s no reason for me to walk away from it. We are getting so close and the inroads have been so wonderful that it makes some of my fantasy thoughts of, “Hey, let a younger guy stand there for twenty-four hours, let a younger guy put in eleven months putting it together.” Those fantasies, thoughts are shattered when I get this close to airtime and recognize that the fearless leader has to be there for all the pieces to fall into place. Eh, it’s a great feeling. It’s the most selfish thing a man could do, what I do, because I get such satisfaction out of seeing the fruits of the labor, that it’s unbelievable.
With all the work you’ve done, all the good that you’ve done, all the work that you put into it, you have detractors. There’s the cynics.
What does that do to you when, when you, when you pick up something, and they say, “Oh, Jerry takes money under the table,” or —
… “Jerry’s phony sentimentality on the air.”
JL: It hurts. It hurts, because you’re giving every ounce of truth and every ounce of energy that you have to do a good thing, and I don’t believe there is a human who can say, “That doesn’t bother me.” I don’t believe there is that human that isn’t bothered by a dissenter. The human condition is a very interesting, very, very wonderful laboratory study, the human condition. It’s a study for me, because I learn when I write comedy, the best thing in the world for me to do is to sit at a street corner and just watch the traffic for six, seven hours, and watch people waiting to cross the street. It’s a great laboratory, the human condition. And I don’t believe there’s anyone that does good work or that does something from his heart that isn’t hurt when he’s challenged or when he’s disbelieved or when he’s doubted or when someone is cynical about it or pessimistic about it.
Now, I can get five thousand letters patting me on the back and wishing me all of the wonderful things in life. In that batch of five thousand letters, I need to read just one who disbelieves me, doesn’t particularly care about what I care about, and thinks that I’m a jerk, I’m shattered by that letter. And Sam, my wife, says to me, “Please help yourself get over that letter by rereading the five thousand.” And I know she’s right, but the human condition says to me, “This is addressed to me. How do I get him?” The human condition would like everybody should think they’re terrific. You can’t. And the only way you’re really gonna get wisdom is the day you wake up and honestly say to yourself as an introspective man, “I cannot please everybody.” The day you can do that, you will have wisdom. I haven’t done it yet. So I don’t have wisdom. (laughs)
Does it get you angry?
JL: Well, you get angry when, when it’s a cheap shot. You get angry when you know damn well that the letter came from a man who is an attorney, reputable attorney, has a marvelous business in this town, and writes you a seething, pessimistic letter of that nature. And you know the reason for the letter was because you turned down going to his cocktail party. Well, now I know that that’s the reason he wrote the letter. I don’t want to go to his cocktail party. I don’t like cocktail parties. I don’t go to cocktail parties. But isn’t it interesting that it was a week later that I got this letter from him? Said nothing about a cocktail party. Said nothing about anything, but the work I do on Labor Day. He just attacked me. Well, it, I know where it’s coming from.
He told some friends, “Jerry Lewis is coming to the cocktail party.” Well, Jerry Lewis didn’t show up. But I had never agreed to show up. The invitation was sent. There was no RSVP. It was just absolutely, blatantly, that’s what it is. It still troubled me. So, I have to fix it.
You mentioned in the new Parade article that’s gonna to be coming out Sunday.
September 3rd. Sunday, yeah.
You talk about how you lost a baby this year.
What has that done to you? I mean, someone like you, you’ve done so much for kids, for children, for newborns, for pregnant women. What’d it do to you?
JL: Killed me. It took me, both Sam and myself, we were… we were on a six-week binge of just… we were as reclusive as you could ever be. She was two or two-and-a-half months gone, and we were skipping around like two children going shopping every day, buying baby clothes, and buying this and buying that and having such a wonderful time and dreaming of this excitement that was ahead of us. And it just didn’t happen. And I don’t remember ever being as disappointed or as shot down or as shattered, whether it was because I was so shattered for her, because she’s such a great lady and such a loving, caring, marvelous human being who wanted nothing more than to reproduce the man she loves. And she told me in no uncertain terms, she said, “Can we have a baby? I want a piece of you. I want just a piece of you.” I don’t know of any man in the world could be given a greater gift from someone that loves him that she gave me when she said that. And I said, “If that’s what you want, then I want it even more, so I can have a piece of you.” And, it was a lovely, lovely plan we had. But we’re, we’re still trying. And if you weren’t sitting here with me taking up my time, I could be home working on it. (laughs)
Anything you’d like to say to America the day after the telethon? Any kind of message about Jerry Lewis?
JL: No. I don’t think there’s anything that I would like to say that I wouldn’t have said last night and the night before. I could say that, for those that understand, no explanation is necessary. For those that do not understand, no explanation would suffice. So they know I love them for the help that they give me. And for those that don’t, I love them, too. They don’t, because they have reasons. And I am older and wiser now and recognize that you can’t win ’em all.
Burt Kearns produces nonfiction television and documentary films and is the author of three books, including Lawrence Tierney: Hollywood’s Real-Life Tough Guy, which will be published in November and is available for pre-sale on Amazon.com.