Jerry Lewis On His Borscht Belt Childhood And The Lonely Work Of Comedy | KUOW News and Information

Jerry Lewis On His Borscht Belt Childhood And The Lonely Work Of Comedy

Aug 21, 2017
Originally published on August 25, 2017 7:32 am

Comedian, actor and director Jerry Lewis died Sunday at his home in Las Vegas. He was 91.

Throughout his childhood, Lewis' parents performed a vaudeville song-and-dance act at resorts in the Catskill Mountains, a circuit known as the Borscht Belt. He dropped out of high school to pursue his own career, and in 1945 he met singer Dean Martin. Together, they formed a nightclub act in which Martin was the sophisticated crooner, while Lewis did slapstick comedy as a bumbling busboy. The act was a hit, and Martin and Lewis graduated to TV and film, making 16 movies before a falling out in 1956. Afterward, Lewis found success as an actor, director and even a singer. His album Jerry Lewis Just Sings hit No. 3 on the Billboard chart, outselling any of Martin's recordings.

Lewis was perhaps best known for his split personality role in the 1963 film The Nutty Professor. He was also closely identified with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and hosted its Labor Day telethon for many years.

Lewis spoke to Fresh Air in 2005.


Interview Highlights

On honing his comic skills as a kid on the Borscht Belt

I was the towel boy at the pool; I was a busboy in the afternoon — I served tea at 4 o'clock. My dad and my mom performed for this audience — they did four shows a week. My dad had a repertory company. And in order for me to function and be with my mom and dad, they wouldn't pay for me as part of the repertory company, so I worked as a busboy — either that or a towel boy or tea boy. But I made probably more money than anyone on the entire staff because I entertained everyone that I was dealing with. If somebody needed a towel, I do four or five minutes delivering it. And they loved it, and I got a tremendous, tremendous amount of experience doing that.

On comics needing a place where they can fail

Today, the young comics unfortunately have nowhere to go and be bad. We had the [Borscht Belt] at the Catskill Mountains. We had Lakewood, N.J. We had vaudeville, burlesque. ... I mean, there were so many places for you to be bad. Today, kids don't have a hell of a chance. You know, the only thing they have is maybe if they're chosen for a television sitcom and they see there's a wonderful comic potential, they'll groom them and help them.

On his partnership with singer Dean Martin

He knew when I was going to breathe. He knew when I was doing something that I wasn't really having fun at, and he watched me until he jumped in and saved me from a place I didn't want to be. How did he know that? I mean, I'm talking about the second or third night that we ever performed together, he knew when I was going to take a breath. It was an incredible relationship based on, my God — a comic is seeing someone else understand his beats and his rhythms. That's very rare in this life, and I had 10 magnificent theatrical years because he was brilliant at what he did. He was the most underrated performer ever in our business.

On how being Jewish was part of his stage persona (and being Italian was part of Dean Martin's)

It was hardly possible to miss it, because the very essence of what I did as a physical clown came from all of the years of degradation and whatever else we went through before we got to our state. It's very important that it's there because it's not something I can get rid of. And I found that it was very acceptable by audiences. They like to know that the two of us had this wonderful loyal feeling about our upbringing, where we came from.

On how comedy could be lonely work

I'm doing a show in Boston around 1945. My wife is home with the children, and it's New Year's Eve. New Year's Eve in Boston and I'm watching all of the couples holding hands, embracing, putting their arms around one another. I'm watching all these people together and I feel totally alone on a night when you really want someone you love to be with you. It's very disconcerting, and you have to go out and be funny. Those are tough times, but you can't lick your wounds and you can't feel sorry for yourself. You have to go forward. Your commitment is to entertain that audience. They're not interested in your personal life that night. You have to commit and do it.

Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted this interview for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Comedian, actor and director Jerry Lewis died Sunday at his home in Las Vegas. He was 91. Lewis was born to parents who did a vaudeville song and dance act in the Catskills. He dropped out of high school at 16 to pursue his own career. And in 1946, he teamed up with singer Dean Martin for a nightclub act in which Martin was the sophisticated crooner, while Lewis did slapstick comedy as a bumbling busboy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEAN MARTIN: Thank you. When my partner Jerry comes out here, don't be misled by his zany antics. He may do goofy things, but take it from me, Jerry's mind is as sharp as a tack.

JERRY LEWIS: That's because my head comes to a point.

MARTIN: Jeepers creepers, it's Jerry Lewis.

(APPLAUSE)

LEWIS: My cousin Amus just got married.

MARTIN: Amus?

LEWIS: We only call him Amus for short. His full name is Ignoramus.

MARTIN: Oh.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Is that the clever cousin who throws pianos off the roof?

LEWIS: No, the stupid one who catches them.

MARTIN: Oh.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So you were late because you went to Amus' wedding?

LEWIS: The invitation said, formal, white tie only. Believe me, when I got there, I sure was embarrassed.

MARTIN: Embarrassed?

LEWIS: Yeah, everybody else was wearing suits.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So good, old Amus finally got married.

LEWIS: Yeah, he eloped with the girl from the third floor of his apartment house.

MARTIN: Oh, that sounds exciting.

LEWIS: He was supposed to elope with the girl from the fourth floor, but the ladder didn't reach.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: The act was a hit and the Martin-Lewis team graduated to TV and film, making 16 movies before a falling out in 1956. Lewis had success afterward as an actor, director, even a singer. His album "Jerry Lewis Just Sings" hit number three on the Billboard chart, outselling any of Martin's recordings. He was perhaps best known for his split personality role in the 1963 film "The Nutty Professor." Lewis was also closely identified with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, hosting its Labor Day Telethon for many years.

Terry spoke to Jerry Lewis in 2005 when he had written a memoir about his partnership with Dean Martin, which is where their conversation began.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: You seem like you were so different not only, like, on stage and on the screen but behind the scenes as well. What made you think that there was a partnership here that would work, that what you did and what he did would work as a duo?

LEWIS: Well, an audience told us that. We went on that first night in Atlantic City, and it was lightning in a bottle. We had been doing separate acts. I did what they call a dumb act - pantomimed to recordings. And Dean did wonderful oldies standard songs. He did his three songs. I did my act that ran about 17 minutes. And then before the second show, (imitating New Jersey accent) some of the guys from Atlantic City said, I think you guys better do something together or you're both gone.

I had asked him to bring Dean in when the original singer was taken ill. And they said, no, we don't want another singer. I said, but you have to understand, we do things together, you see? You have his act, my act and then we do silly stuff together. So after that first show together, they came back and said, (imitating New Jersey accent) where's the silly stuff? And we had to prepare it for the second show or we would have been modeling cement shoes.

And we worked the second show for two hours and 20 minutes of sheer pandemonium and insanity. And that was how it began.

GROSS: Before you started playing in the big clubs and, you know, before you met Dean Martin, you did some work in the Catskills in the Borscht Belt. You...

LEWIS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Performed - you were a tummler there. And the tummler is kind of like the entertainment director who gets everybody doing Simon says...

LEWIS: That's right.

GROSS: ...By the pool and everything.

LEWIS: Yeah.

GROSS: What was your tummler routine like?

LEWIS: Well, I just destroyed everything that was normal. If chairs were facing the pool, you take a quick turn around and now they're facing the other way. I would do - I was the towel boy at the pool. I was a busboy in the afternoon. I served tea at 4 o'clock. My dad and my mom performed for this audience. They did four shows a week. My dad had a repertory company. And in order for me to function and be with my mom and dad, they wouldn't pay for me as part of the repertory company.

So I worked as a busboy - either that or a towel boy or a tea boy. But I made probably more money than anyone on the entire staff because I entertained everyone that I was dealing with. If somebody needed a towel, I'd do four, five minutes delivering it. And they loved it. And I got a tremendous, tremendous amount of experience doing that.

GROSS: Now, Dean Martin wasn't just a straight man, but, you know, he, among other things, was your straight man. What are some of the things that made him so good at it? And what does it do for you, as the comic, to have a straight man who's good?

LEWIS: Well, let's put it this way, Terry. I had a straight man that was the best that ever lived. His ability - let's put it this way. He knew when I was going to breathe. He knew when I was doing something that I wasn't really having fun at. And he watched me until he jumped in and saved me from a place I didn't want to be. How did he know that? I mean, I'm talking about the second or third night that we ever performed together. He knew when I was going to take a breath.

It was an incredible relationship based on, my God, a comic seeing someone else understand his beats and his rhythms. That's very rare in this life. And I had 10 magnificent theatrical years because he was brilliant at what he did. He was the most underrated performer ever in our business. And no one ever rated him other than just a relaxed singer. I can show you material and show you things he did that are so spectacular and so soft and light and - an unbridled, powerful, mental condition to evaluate what he was doing, then do it and then acknowledge it.

The clip that would show you my partner's marvelous ability to do a dramatic scene would be in "The Stooge" when he gets very drunk in the story. And he and the kid really get into a trauma-like element that busted them up. And it was kind of ironic, what happened in the "The Stooge," we played that scene in real life only eight years later.

GROSS: Well, let's hear the scene from the film. And this is Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE STOOGE")

MARTIN: (As Bill Miller) Well, what's the matter with you?

LEWIS: (As Ted Rogers) Oh, nothing.

MARTIN: (As Bill Miller) Come on. What is it?

LEWIS: (As Ted Rogers) I don't know if I should say it.

MARTIN: (As Bill Miller) Go ahead and say it.

LEWIS: (As Ted Rogers) What are you going to do about Mary, Bill?

MARTIN: (As Bill Miller) Got any ideas?

LEWIS: (As Ted Rogers) No, except I don't think you ought to let her go away.

DAVIES: (As Bill Miller) It's a free country, isn't it?

LEWIS: (As Ted Rogers) Sure, Bill. But she loves you. And if something's wrong, I think you ought to go to her and try and straighten it out. Maybe it's none of my business.

MARTIN: (As Bill Miller) That's right. It's none of your business.

LEWIS: (As Ted Rogers) Yeah, maybe it's not.

MARTIN: (As Bill Miller) So shut up. You know, I think you had a lot to do with Mary leaving me.

LEWIS: (As Ted Rogers) Oh, don't say that, Bill.

MARTIN: (As Bill Miller) All that stuff about anything I do is OK with you. I knock my brains out trying to make something myself. And you, you with your checkered suit - and what do I get for it?

LEWIS: (As Ted Rogers) You're talking crazy, Bill. You shouldn't be thinking that way. I don't like to hear it.

MARTIN: (As Bill Miller) You don't like it? Well, that's tough. I don't like it. I'm sick and tired of looking at you anyway.

GROSS: That's Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in a scene from "The Stooge." Jerry Lewis is my guest. He has a new memoir called "Dean And Me." What did he do exactly in that scene that amazes you?

LEWIS: He's playing one of the most difficult things to play and that's the drunk who would prefer you didn't know he was. That's a tough scene to play for any actor. And for a novice - this was only our fourth film. And he handled it incredibly good. Our director, Norman Taurog, had been around the block a number of times and had directed magnificent films such as "Boys Town," working with Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney.

So he was a very credible director, who told me after it was all over, he did not believe that Dean had only made four films, he was so brilliant.

JERRY LEWIS: and Mickey Rooney. So he was a very credible director who told me after it was all over, he did not believe that Dean had only made four films. He was so brilliant.

GROSS: As you pointed out - so Dean Martin was the suave, cool one onstage, sophisticated. And you were the - quote - "the monkey". You were this kind of, like, post-adolescent (laughter) you know, energetic, not very bright.

LEWIS: I was - That was...

GROSS: Did...

LEWIS: You have to put the dramatic emphasis on monkey. That was on the stage...

GROSS: Exactly.

LEWIS: ...When being paid.

GROSS: Precisely. Precisely.

LEWIS: You're not going to get the monkey for free, kid.

GROSS: No. No. No. No. No. But here's what I'm asking.

LEWIS: (Laughter).

GROSS: Offstage, offstage...

LEWIS: Yes.

GROSS: ...Did those onstage characters ever interfere with your offstage relationship with Dean Martin? Did he ever expect that offstage you weren't going to be very bright? Or that offstage, he would...

LEWIS: No.

GROSS: ...Be able to be the sophisticated one and you not. Because let's face it.

LEWIS: No.

GROSS: You are very bright. You obviously have a lot of showbiz smarts too. You knew a lot about, you know, contracts and all of that stuff. So was there ever any confusion about those onstage and offstage personalities.

LEWIS: No. When I walked offstage, Dean knew full well that I would handle everything relative to our act and our performances better than anyone. He respected what I knew about our craft. And he always bowed to me. Or he would tell anyone and everyone, you have to talk to Jerry about that. Or he handles that, or he'll get into it with you. But on the stage, it was a banana, a monkey and anything else you want. The house number didn't mean anything. I did what I had to do. And it was a marvelous tool for me for when I had to negotiate an important deal with people who think they got the monkey in their office. And they find out - wait a minute - this guy's got an 168 IQ. That's hardly a chimp. And we walk out of there with the kind of negotiation that I believe we were entitled to.

GROSS: What was it like to translate the partnership you had in nightclubs into characters that could sustain themselves in movies with plots? Like, you say in the book that when you first met with Hal Wallis, who produced the Martin and Lewis movies, you pointed out that Dean Martin could play any role. But you basically had to play the Jerry character, otherwise, it just wouldn't work.

LEWIS: Right.

GROSS: So can you talk a little about - more about, like, translating the club act into movies?

LEWIS: Well, there was no way that could be done. You cannot transfer feelings. Now, the feelings in a nightclub that you get from the performers who are projecting specific feelings during the performance - you cannot take that and bottle it, or ship it or package it. It's something that happens specifically in a nightclub. And when you attempt to bring it to another form or another format, it just doesn't work. And it never did. So that, we had to take the characters and attach them to whatever we were playing in film, and it worked. Dean was Dean in his performances, in nightclubs, in every medium. And when it came to film, it was still Dean. We never allowed - in the writing process - we never allowed him to be muscled or his space taken with an idea that might look different. No, you can't do that. And more important than anything else, the love the two men had for one another would come through. And you can't get that with any two people. It wasn't...

GROSS: OK. Exactly - the love that you two had for each other. But at some point, you kind of fell out of love. And things...

LEWIS: Well (laughter)...

GROSS: ...Started to not go so well. Yeah.

LEWIS: No. Wrong. Wrong. We never fell out. We never ever fell out of love. All we did was get caught up in people around us that felt it was necessary to divide us. I'll give you an example. One guy says, did you take a bath this morning? And the other guy says, why? Is there one missing? OK. That is a burlesque show from circa 1900. And the two men that played that joke one night - I turned to Dean and said, and we're getting $11 million next year? They weren't paying us for that joke or any others like it. They were paying for two men to let an audience see how much fun they were having and the love that went on between the older guy and the younger guy. When we were able to project that to an audience, we had them in our pockets from day one.

GROSS: You were what? - about nine years apart?

LEWIS: Yeah. We were just about nine years, right. Yeah. I was 20, he was 29 when we really started to move.

GROSS: But by the time you got to the end of the Martin and Lewis movies from all I've read, you weren't talking outside of the scenes.

LEWIS: No. No. No. No. That was one movie.

GROSS: "Hollywood or Bust"?

LEWIS: Yeah. That was the last movie. The last 10 months of our relationship, we never spoke. And in that 10 months, we did the end of one film which was "Pardners". And then we went into the "Hollywood or Bust" film. We did not talk at all.

GROSS: How do you make a comedy with somebody who you're not even talking to on the set?

LEWIS: It's easy when you turn your professionalism into a mechanic. If you can then deal with it technically, you deliver the body. You deliver the feet in the marks that they give you. And you learn the words, and you say them, hopefully without bumping into the furniture. We had to work as mechanics, and we did it. We got through it. An audience didn't know we weren't talking. We were both very professional about the problem, and we dealt with it.

DAVIES: Jerry Lewis speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2005. Lewis died Sunday at the age of 91. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's interview with Jerry Lewis recorded in 2005. Lewis died Sunday. He was 91.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You recorded I think what was probably your biggest hit record in 1956, the year that you and Dean Martin split up, "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby." And it's interesting that this was the song because, you know, your father used to sing Jolson songs.

LEWIS: Right.

GROSS: This is a song associated with Jolson.

LEWIS: Right.

GROSS: This is a song with so many mysteries because Jolson was, you know, a Jewish singer who put himself in blackface to sing (laughter) - to sing this song.

LEWIS: Yeah. (Imitating Al Jolson) Yeah, right there.

GROSS: Right. And here you are, not singing in blackface. But, still, it's, like, you're a Jewish performer from Newark (laughter)...

LEWIS: Right.

GROSS: ...Singing this song about, you know, the South.

LEWIS: What the hell's so funny about that, Terry?

GROSS: Yeah. It always strikes me as so odd...

LEWIS: Newark is a great city. Come on, I spent four weeks there one night.

GROSS: So why...

LEWIS: I have to tell you...

GROSS: Why this song?

LEWIS: "Rock-A-Bye" came into my life because I was in Las Vegas six weeks after the split. I took my family to Vegas just to kick back. And Judy Garland was appearing at the Frontier Hotel. I get a call from Sid Luft this early evening at, like, 5 o'clock. He said, you've got to really save us. Judy cannot perform tonight. The room is sold out for two shows, and we can't give the money back. We need something. You've got to help us. I said, what the hell do you want me to do?

He said, as far as I'm concerned, just show up. I went over there. I was introduced, explained the circumstances. And for the next 45 minutes, I was on a roll. And it worked like a charm. Mort Lindsey was conducting for Judy. I said, Mort, how does she wrap up? I said, what number does she do when she wraps up? Said, she does "Rock-A-Bye." Do you know it? I said, yeah, I know. I practically grew up with it with my dad.

They played it, I sang it and I got a standing ovation. And the next day, I get a call from Buddy Bregman, who was in the audience. And Buddy Bregman was one of our bright, young composers and arrangers. He said, Jerry, you've got to record this now. You've got to do it now. I recorded "Rock-A-Bye." And on the other side was "Come Rain Or Come Shine." And to date, we've sold about 9 million copies world (laughter).

GROSS: There's a CD that came out that has an outtake (laughter) from 1956...

LEWIS: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. So...

LEWIS: Crap.

GROSS: ...This is an excerpt of that outtake of you singing "Rock-A-Bye" in 1956. Here it is.

LEWIS: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK-A-BYE FALSE STARTS")

LEWIS: I'll underline it. Take five of "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One, two, three.

LEWIS: (Singing) Rock-a-bye your baby with a Dixie melody. When you croon, croon a tune from the heart of Dixie. Just hang my crater, mammy mine, right on that Mason Dixon line and swing it...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hold it.

LEWIS: ...(Singing) From Virginia...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You did it again.

LEWIS: ...(Singing) To Tennessee with all the love that's in you. Weep no more, my lady. Sing that song for me.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Crater. Hang my crater.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What's that?

LEWIS: I'm saying cradle, you want to bet?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

LEWIS: Not me. Hang my crater (laughter). Hang my - hang my ladle. (Singing) Hang my ladle in the kitchen, mammy mine.

(LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: I'm laughing, and I'm paying for the date. Hurry up.

GROSS: That's an outtake from the 1956 session in which my guest, Jerry Lewis, recorded "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby." It sounds like you had a lot of fun at those sessions.

LEWIS: Absolutely. It's the only way I ever worked. If I don't have fun, it doesn't fly.

DAVIES: Jerry Lewis speaking with Terry Gross recorded in 2005. Lewis died Sunday at the age of 91. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEAN MARTIN & JERRY LEWIS SONG, "PARDNERS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're remembering Jerry Lewis, the comedian, actor and filmmaker who died Sunday at the age of 91. Lewis had a long and varied show business career. He partnered with singer Dean Martin for a hit nightclub act and 16 movies before they parted ways in 1956. Terry spoke to Jerry Lewis in 2005.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: One of your most popular movies is "The Nutty Professor."

LEWIS: Right.

GROSS: And, you know, you play a college professor who's (laughter) very nutty and very sexually afraid, even though he has this huge crush on somebody. But you swallow this potion. And just as in, like, "Jekyll And Hyde," when you swallow this potion, you become another character. And that character is Buddy Love, who's this kind of suave but not very nice singer and pianist and - you know, who theoretically would have, you know, the women lying at his feet. And in some people's minds, like, in that movie, it's like you're Martin and Lewis, (laughter), you know? Like, you're playing both characters. Did you see it that way?

LEWIS: Oh, absolutely not. What Buddy Love was...

GROSS: Because that character's not nice.

LEWIS: Well, not only not nice but I wrote him with every recollection that I had in my life of rude, discourteous, ill-mannered people. I made a total combination of all the bad stuff that is within some kind of men. And that was the "Jekyll And Hyde." I went from this adorable little professor that everybody adored to this sleazy, incredibly awful person. And that was my "Jekyll And Hyde." My first idea was, how do I do a comedy based on one of the great dramatic writings?

The thing that really shocked me was I hated the character. Buddy Love, to me, was something that was just too much. And then we're getting all kinds of mail, women loved him. I couldn't believe it. Aren't you listening to what he says? Didn't you watch his conduct? Are you insane? And hundreds upon hundreds of letters in the fan mail adoring him.

GROSS: Well, here's a scene from "The Nutty Professor" with Jerry Lewis as Buddy Love. He's in a club trying to impress a beautiful young woman who he's just danced with. He's dragged her to the piano and has just sat down to play.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NUTTY PROFESSOR")

LEWIS: (As Buddy Love) Hold it a second. Hold it. Hold it. Hold it. We'll make our own music, gorgeous. Just hold it. You and you, stay. Tubby, you go rest your thumbs. I'll drive. Sweetie, go get your lips pressed, split.

STELLA STEVENS: (As Stella Purdy) Well, you listen.

LEWIS: (As Buddy Love) You listen. Sit down here. And if you listen, you'll be thrilled. Believe you me. Sit and listen and watch. Mood is wrong. Mood is wrong. Innkeeper, got sexy lights? Lay it on me. Better, better. Now watch, baby. Every move a picture. (Singing) That old black magic has me in its spell, that old black magic that you weave so well. Those icy fingers up and down my spine. The same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine.

GROSS: My guest is Jerry Lewis. I want to jump ahead to a role that you played in Martin Scorsese's movie "The King Of Comedy." And this is a really wonderful film. And in it, you play Jerry Langdon (ph). And you're basically...

LEWIS: Langford.

GROSS: Langford, yes.

LEWIS: Yeah.

GROSS: And you're, in some ways, kind of playing yourself as a very successful star who now hosts basically "The Tonight Show." And De Niro plays, like, the ultimate fan. He's someone who has no life. He sits in his basement imagining that he's hosting a talk show and talking to the stars. He's imagining that he's a stand-up comic doing shtick on "The Tonight Show." And he'll do anything to get a spot on your show.

And I want to play a scene in which he's managed to let your domestic staff let him into your home while you're out playing golf. And he's showing your home off to the woman he wishes was his girlfriend as if he's, like, a good friend of yours. And then you come home to find him there, and you are so appalled. And you've got your golf club in your hands. You've just walked off the course. And you're trying to throw him out of the house. And, of course, all he wants is to get an audition on your show and have you listen to his tape.

Here's a scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE KING OF COMEDY")

ROBERT DE NIRO: (As Rupert Pupkin) Jerry, excuse us for taking the liberty, so to speak, but, you know, it's not every day that a girl like Rita meets a man like you. I mean, this is part of your success. What can you do? You have to live with it. How was your golf game? Was it good? Did you finally break a hundred?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Mr. Langford, I told him you were not here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) That's right, he did.

DE NIRO: (As Rupert Pupkin) Yes, they did, Jerry. They were really very helpful. We took an earlier train because there wasn't anything else until after 1:00. So anyway, I brought the work. It's right here, all ready, all ready and set to go. So where is everybody?

LEWIS: (As Jerry Langford) What everybody?

DE NIRO: (As Rupert Pupkin) What everybody (laughter). The guests, Jerry. I mean, to tell you the truth, we're getting a little hungry.

LEWIS: (As Jerry Langford) You know I could have the both of you arrested?

DE NIRO: (As Rupert Pupkin) (Laughter) He could have us arrested. Well, of course you could have us arrested. I mean, there's no way that we could prove that we belong here. He's great. When he comes up with an idea, he's terrific. Really, I never thought of that.

LEWIS: (As Jerry Langford) You should have.

DE NIRO: (As Rupert Pupkin) You know what we can do? We set up a story where you invite all your friends out for the weekend and you throw them all in jail (laughter). That's terrific. That's terrific. What's the matter? Lighten up. Let's get to work on that, after we work on this, of course.

LEWIS: (As Jerry Langford) How did you get here?

DE NIRO: (As Rupert Pupkin) We walked in the door. What do you mean how did we get here? Jerry, what's the matter with you?

LEWIS: (As Jerry Langford) How did you get here?

DE NIRO: (As Rupert Pupkin) Look, I think you're upset. I'm going to leave my material here. We'll talk later. You've got more important things to worry about. We'll just take a stroll around, wait until lunch time.

LEWIS: (As Jerry Langford) Did anyone ever tell you you're a moron?

DE NIRO: (As Rupert Pupkin) You know, Jerry, I want to tell you something. Ordinarily, I wouldn't allow anybody to speak that way about Rita. But since it's you, I know you're only kidding. He's a real character.

DIAHNNE ABBOTT: (As Rita Keane) Rupert, he's saying he wants us to go.

DE NIRO: (As Rupert Pupkin) No, he's not saying that. Jerry...

LEWIS: (As Jerry Langford) OK, come on.

ABBOTT: (As Rita Keane) Come on, Rupert.

LEWIS: (As Jerry Langford) Let's go.

ABBOTT: (As Rita Keane) Sorry, Mr. Langford.

LEWIS: (As Jerry Langford) Here you are.

DE NIRO: (As Rupert Pupkin) Jerry, can...

LEWIS: (As Jerry Langford) Do you understand English? Take your things and go.

DE NIRO: (As Rupert Pupkin) All right, all right. I can take a hint, Jerry. I just want to ask you to listen to my stuff for 15 minutes. That's all. Is that asking too much?

LEWIS: (As Jerry Langford) Yes, it is. I have a life, OK?

DE NIRO: (As Rupert Pupkin) Well, I have a life too.

LEWIS: (As Jerry Langford) That's not my responsibility.

DE NIRO: (As Rupert Pupkin) Well, it is when you tell me to call you and then you don't pick up...

LEWIS: (As Jerry Langford) I told you to call to get rid of you.

GROSS: That's Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis. So in "King Of Comedy," you know, the De Niro character basically stalks you and eventually holds you hostage. Were you ever stalked? Do you know what it's like to have a fan who is so relentless?

LEWIS: Five times.

GROSS: What'd you do about it?

LEWIS: I had five stalkers in my career. The last one, who we had legal papers, restraining orders and everything else - he wouldn't give up. He threatened my daughter. And that was the last thing he was ever going to do. So we watched very closely. We got him put in jail. And I never thought I would see the day when I could be this compassionate human being who was happy to hear someone died. I don't really believe that I ever thought that about anything other than Hitler. But the feeling was terrible - just the thought of someone's life going away. But in truth, it was the only chance we had at peace of mind. And the fact that he threatened my daughter her - I was going to get him one way or another. So nature took care of it. I had...

GROSS: Was this before or after "King Of Comedy?"

LEWIS: It was after "King Of Comedy." That one - particular one - went on for about 12 years.

GROSS: Wow.

LEWIS: 4 a.m. phone calls, 3 a.m. phone calls.

GROSS: Did you think "King Of Comedy" helped inspire him to do that? I mean, did...

LEWIS: You never know. I couldn't say, but I don't know. But it certainly could. And I had four before that - one female who loved me so much that I destroyed her life by marrying Sam, my wife. And she was going to get even. And we had her locked up. She was put away at the Tehachapi women's prison. And I think they gave her 20 years because she was threatening lives. And three of them before that were just ugly. And you have to just - you know, that's part of it. It comes on the dinner.

GROSS: Right.

LEWIS: So you have to decide. If you don't want that, get another job. If you don't want that to happen again, don't be there. Get out of the mix. I'm not going to change my lifestyle for some wacko that should be in a mental hospital.

GROSS: Just one more thing about "King Of Comedy" - does that movie mean a lot to you? It brings out such a different side of you, and it's such a different tone than a lot of your other films.

LEWIS: Well, it was the one film that was a stretch. And I knew that going in. I said to Marty - I said, the one wonderful thing, Marty, is that - first of all, the name of the character in the first script that I read I think was Barry, Barry Langford or Peter Langford - something like that. And I said, Marty, you've got to change the name. He said, to what? I said, come take a walk with me.

And we walked down 56th Street. And there's construction going on. And from way up on the construction, hey, Jerry. Yo, Jerry. Hey, Jerry. How you doing? Main man - there's Jerry. Cab drivers stopping - hi, Jerry. Well, you just saw it on our way over here. I said, Marty, we're going to get all of this stuff that we do in the street. It's perfect. All of these guys yelling, Jerry, Jerry. So we changed the name to Jerry Langford. And it worked for us. It was great.

GROSS: Jerry Lewis, thank you so much for talking with us.

LEWIS: Thank you, Terry, very much.

DAVIES: Jerry Lewis speaking with Terry Gross - recorded in 2005. Lewis died Sunday at his home in Las Vegas. He was 91. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.