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Jerry Lewis: "The King of Comedy"

Jerry Lewis as Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese's "The King of Comedy."

Cannes, France -- "I had left," Jerry Lewis was explaining. "I was gone for about two minutes. The heart goes into what they call v-tach." He demonstrated, clenching his fist. "It gets half-way closed and it freezes. I was dead and this lovely black nurse came and hit me a Larry Holmes shot to the chest and brought me back. Then I went into a state of fear."

This was a strange conversation to be having on a lovely spring afternoon in the south of France, where down on the beachfront the carpenters were hammering together the billboards for the 36th annual Cannes Film Festival.

Up here in his corner suite at the Carlton Hotel, Jerry Lewis was chewing on little blue candies that had, he said, only seven calories each. He'd suck one for a minute or two and then feed it to the small dog that was attentively begging at his feet. He looked tanned and fit, with that jet-black hair still slicked back like some kid from the class of 1956 going out on his first date. We were talking about his open-heart surgery last December.

"Here's where it started," he said, showing me his right leg, bare all the way up to his tennis shorts. "See this incision? That's a vein. Scar goes all the way up the leg, all the way up the chest, all the way up the shoulder, and over the shoulder and halfway up the guy in the next room. After the operation you have a five-year-old heart. I hope so. I was working 20 hours a day. I felt great. I have been smoking 3 packs of cigarettes a day for 43 years. I felt great, and then...

"The irony is, Michael De Bakey is a good friend of mine. But he couldn't get to Las Vegas in time to do the operation because, frankly, I didn't have five minutes to spare. And I've seen the operation. I've scrubbed with De Bakey. In Vegas, the doctor was leaning over me and I knew everything he was going to tell me about. The Black and Decker electric saw I knew about, varroom to cut you open; the retractor they screw to open up your sternum, I knew all about that."

I asked if he'd had one of those beyond-and-back experiences while he was dead. One of those deals you read about in the National Enquirer where everything is bright light and your relatives are greeting you to the great beyond.

He popped a blue candy and squinted, remembering. "I only know there was a feeling of nodding off, that's all. And then, coming back, a feeling of waking up but oddly waking up but feeling much better the other way."

The big after-effect of the surgery, he said, is a feeling of forgetfulness: "I'm not as sharp as I should be. Things I should know perfectly well will elude me for a few seconds. That's one. Second, I have the tearies. Say the slightest nice thing about me and I'll break down in tears. Third, depression and terrible nightmares. De Bakey says it's all part of the recovery process and will be over at the end of six months."

Or maybe sooner. Jerry Lewis was back again in a nation whose very soil should act as a tonic for him. For the French, he is one of the greatest living artists, a master of the cinema, an immortal clown and a great director. It is safe to say he is less exalted in America. This year at Cannes, he co-stars with Robert De Niro in the opening night film, Martin Scorsese's "The King of Comedy."

"This is my country," he said. "I only live in America." He looked out the window at the palm trees waving along the beach. "The difference is, in France, I have critical and audience success. In America, only the audience loves me. My last film ("Hardly Working") received the worst American reviews ever written in the history of mankind. But it made a fortune. Why do the French love me? According to the American critics, because the French are morons. But look at this."

He pointed to a foot-high stack of magazines. "This is just one week. Every magazine in France is writing about me. Here's a picture of me at the airport with my luggage. Here's Cahiers du Cinema, the film magazine; you think they've already written everything there is to say about me? Look at this: 18 pages."

Isn't it sort of strange, I asked, that you're here in a film about a star who is kidnapped and almost killed by his fans? And now here you are in Cannes, where the photographers and TV crews and fans are going to be rioting when you walk up the steps of the Festival Palace.

"The adulation," he said. "I love it in France. Over here, they get only this close, and no closer." He held his hand out at arm's length. "In America, they get closer. They come up on top of you and over your back. They want to touch you. The scary ones are the ones who want to be you."

Lewis looked down at the coffee table between us, where a tape recorder was quietly recording our conversation. It was his tape recorder. It had been on since I entered the room.

"Why don't you use a tape recorder?" he asked.

I guess I just never have, I said.

"The reason I'm asking," he said, "is that if you use the tape recorder, you could look in the other person's eyes. And the eyes tell the story. In a threatening crowd, you can always tell the dangerous ones by their eyes.

"To the fanatics -- and they're out there -- he wants to get inside of you and spend some time there, looking through your eyes. You can spot those waving cuckoo birds, and you've gotta watch out for them. They love you so much they can kill you. That's what "The King of Comedy" is about.

"I'll give you an example. Years ago, I was playing the Chicago Theater. Dean Martin and I were doing our act. Backstage after the show, I saw this woman. She had eyes that looked like Michael Landon's eyes when he did 'Teenage Werewolf.' I saw her, and I forgot her.

"The next night, Dean and I were doing a benefit for Kup's Harvest Moon Ball. There was this same woman. There were 10,000 people there, and Dean and I were protected by 30 or 40 cops, but she got to me. She screamed, 'Jerry, I love you!' She grabbed me like this." Lewis grabbed me by the neck. "Twenty of those cops couldn't get her off of me. My face was the color of your jeans. I'm choking. I hit her a shot in the stomach as hard as I could. I hit her so hard that I swear that lady is still walking around Chicago with some kind of residue from that experience."

He leaned forward and took a stick of gum from the coffee table. He stopped his tape recorder, reversed it, and played back a few words: "The eyes tell the story."

He started the recorder again. "So what I've learned about how to handle crowds," he said, "is always walk slow. What they want is a good look at you. If you walk fast, they're afraid they won't see, so they run to keep up, and mob psychology snowballs, and there's a riot. In a crowd, I always walk nice… and… slow." He stood up and began to walk through an imaginary crowd. "Hello! Here I am! Hi! Look how slow I'm walking. Hi there, Buddy! How are you?"

He sat back down. "You gotta make personal contact so they're not afraid you'll get away."

And yet, I mused, you say you don't mind the adulation. "The King of Comedy" paints a chilling portrait of fans who are fanatics, and here you are in Cannes to take the cheers for playing their victim. Strange.

"I love it when it's intended as a compliment," Lewis said. "Let's face it. There must be a lot of guys around who would love for all of that to be happening to them."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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