We lost another one of the all time greats this weekend, Jerry Lewis, one of the last performers from the Golden Age of Comedy. He was 91. I think there must be some connection between laughter and longevity. Milton Berle was 93, Henny Youngman was 91, George Burns reached 100, as did Bob Hope and there were many more who lived to ripe old ages.
I had the honor of writing for Jerry Lewis back in 1986 when I was the main writer for the Friars Roasts. A guy named Bob Saks was producing them in those days, and did so for many years. During those years, I was his writer which allowed me to write for Jerry, Bruce Willis, Chuck Scarborough, Rich Little, and any of the people being honored by The Friars. I remember being nervous as I knocked on the door of Jerry’s hotel room at the Waldorf Towers where he kept a suite. He was as kind and generous as could be and we spent two evenings preparing for his roast. I grew up watching Jerry Lewis films and watching him on TV with and without Dean Martin and had to keep pinching myself to believe that I was actually sitting with him in a hotel room writing filthy jokes. Jerry was not a fan of that kind of material, but he had agreed to be roasted anyway. Maybe due to his friendship with Bob Saks and his relationship to The Friars Club, which was headed up by Executive Director Jean-Pierre Trebot in those days, one of the nicest guys you can imagine.
One of the most memorable things happened during those two days. One night, Jerry got a call telling him that scientists had discovered the gene that causes the Duchenne form of Muscular Dystrophy, and he became so overcome with emotion that tears were flowing down his cheeks. And I was the only one there to share that special moment with him. It was amazing and something I’ll never forget.
He also told me great stories of how he and and Dean Martin got together and how he was always in awe of Dean who he considered so handsome, while describing himself as looking like a “monkey” in his early days. He said their chemistry was immediate and within a couple of weeks people were lining up around the block to see them. They went from not being able to afford tuxedos to riding in limos in a very short time.
Then came the actual roast at the Hilton Hotel. For me, it was so exciting as I got to hang with Jerry both at the pre-party and again in the VIP room where the people on the dais hung out, and in those days, they’d have like 50 guests on the dais. It was the biggest stars in the business. Not all of them performed. Many were just there to take a bow. But the entrance was always guarded heavily by security and I could almost hear people thinking, “Who the f*@k is THAT guy with Jerry Lewis?” To give you some idea of the crowd, the Roast Master was Johnny Carson, but I don’t remember meeting him. I know I did, but I don’t remember. I was in a daze most of the time! And somewhere in my home, amidst all of the memorabilia I have collected over the last 30 plus years, sits the presentation book listing all the dais guests and attendees, but if I had to search for it, this wouldn’t get written.
I also got two thank you photos from Jerry. One is below and the other said “ I can still hear the ocean” referencing one of the filthy jokes I had written for him involving Dean Martin. Stop me some day and I’ll tell it to you! After the roast, we stayed in touch and I got friendly with his longtime manager Joe Stabile who passed away in 2004 at 87. A few years later, I let Joe know I was going to be out in Vegas with my girlfriend at the time and Joe told me that Jerry was performing out there and would love to see me. Pat Cooper was also out there with his wife and the four of us went to see Jerry together. After the show, I went backstage and got the photo below with him in the sports jersey.
One day, I got a call from Jerry himself asking me to write material for a show he was doing with Sammy Davis Jr. He said they had been friends for 40 years, but it was the first time they were actually going to share a stage together and I had the honor of writing for that. So amazing! I first got to meet Sammy at a Friars Club tribute to Milton Berle who was my sponsor in The Friars Club, and brought me to this tribute as his guest. That’s where we took the photo below.
Many years passed until I saw Jerry again when the Friars re-named the monastery after him three years ago, when he was 88, and I got to record him telling a risque joke, while holding his dog in his lap.
He was a legend that will be sorely missed. A true one of a kind. RIP Jerry!