Jerry Lewis – Magnificent Bastard

Jerry Lewis – Magnificent Bastard February 21, 2009

Lewis is not getting an honorary Oscar for his film work – some of his stuff I love, some I can’t watch, but he certainly was prolific and innovative – but at tomorrow night’s Oscar festivities he’ll be given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his years and years of work for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

It’s certainly well-deserved, and perhaps long overdue. Lewis has worked tirelessly – and often very quietly – for the MDA and for those afflicted with muscular dystrophy for longer than I have been alive.

While doing a little volunteering for MDA, ‘way back in the day, I got to watch Lewis in action at a fund-raiser. He was loud, impatient, and boorish in exactly the way one can be loud, impatient and boorish over one’s passions. He was also focused, capable of quiet one-on-one and selfless listening – a strange hybrid, part narcissist, part servant. For the brief time I saw him, he was a ball of energy, and quite simply all for those suffering from neuromuscular diseases.

I’ve never forgotten it. I came away thinking that Lewis was “a right bastard,” in the sense that he would not allow anyone or anything to divert the energy he meant for “his people.” A “right bastard” in the way people with vision can be single-minded, stubborn, difficult, magnificent bastards.

The subject of Lewis once came up in a class of mine and the instructor – a stickler to the lesson plan – broke away from it to praise him: “let me tell you about Jerry Lewis. My brother has [I can’t remember the disease – admin] and our whole family has benefited, all his life, from the MDA and Lewis’ commitment to it. One year my brother wrote a fan letter to Lewis and in it mentioned in passing that his dog had died. Next thing we know, we get a phone call from Lewis’s office asking if my brother could meet him at the airport. We did, and here comes Jerry Lewis, and he’s carrying a puppy that he puts into my brother’s lap. He was between flights and he spent nearly a half-hour with my brother and the rest of us, just talking – letting my brother know he mattered. You cannot say a bad word to me, about this man.”

By the time she finished the story she was in tears, as were many of us.

He’s no saint, of course. His career has had ups and downs and many of the downs were of his own making. He has a huge ego and lots of public faults – but he is also famously generous. When Stan Laurel died, Lewis paid for his funeral and settled all his debts. He is also a man of his age and era. Having outlived so many of his contemporaries, Lewis has offended this generation with his opinions, as when (apparently ignorant of the likes of Lucielle Ball, Carole Lombard, Madeline Kahn, Judy Holliday and many others) he suggested a few years back that women were not funny.

Perhaps he just doesn’t give a damn about offending people and figures everyone is entitled to their opinion.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard what inspired his commitment to MDA, but my sense of him, when I saw him, was that regardless of what Lewis-the – egocentric-entertainer does or covets, the MDA Jerry Lewis is a mensch and his work with that organization a half-century long mitzvah, a good deed for which he seeks no reward.

That’s no small thing, and not a bad epitaph.

I won’t be watching the Oscars telecast; I can’t think of a less interesting way to spend three hours. But congrats to Jerry Lewis on a well-deserved honor. That would be worth peeking in for.

More on this at Big Hollywood, which has a little appreciation of Lewis and a long, entertaining comments thread on famous comedic performances that have never won Oscars. Stop by, you’ll like. And do stick around for Buddy Rich’s incredible drum solo, here.

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