My good buddy, Kevin Pollak, is playing the son of Jerry Lewis in “Max Rose” which is a film now in production in Los Angeles. There’s something about Jerry that has stayed with me all these years, something invisible yet tangible, and that is the spirit you have to have to do comedy. My mother took me to see Jerry perform at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe when I was fifteen. After seeing all his films (although I was never a fan of the ones he did with Dean) I was in awe of seeing him in person. He wore a tux, sang some songs, put a large glass in his mouth, and the only joke I can recall is this one: “If a light sleeper can sleep with a light on can a hard sleeper sleep with a…window open?”
I never thought of Jerry as a stand-up comic as much as a performer and filmmaker. He is clearly an influence and I have always wanted to meet him if only just to tell him so.
They were shooting in a nursing home in Slymar, Ca just off the 118 where Jerry’s character, Max, has been admitted. I was to watch the scene where Kevin (as Christoper) has to inform Max that they had to take the offer on the house and sell it to pay his bill in the nursing home. Max is not happy about this. Christoper and Max don’t really get along and this news doesn’t make things any better. Still, Christopher wants Max to know how much he loves him. It was an emotional scene for Kevin.
As I walk in the room, before shooting begins, I see Jerry from the back sitting in a motorized chair. Kevin is sitting in the room just in front of Jerry. I pass Jerry to go greet Kevin who gives me a big hug. He introduces me to the girl playing his daughter in the film, Kerry Bishe’. Moments later, Jerry motors into the room and faces us.
“Jerry, this is my long time friend, Mark Pitta, a comedian from San Francisco,” Kevin says. I walk over and shake his hand and tell him that “I’m a comedian because of you. Thank you.” That brings a smile to Jerry’s face. “I saw you perform in Lake Tahoe when I was fifteen.”
“Where?” Jerry asks.
“The South Shore room at Harrah’s .”
This registers with Jerry. “Who opened for me?”
This information I knew because the last time I worked the Improv in Tahoe I went to the South Shore room in the afternoon and a nice man in the production office checked the books for me. They have accounts of every act for every year since they opened. I wanted to get the year correct as I had thanked my mom on my CD for taking me to see Jerry when I was fourteen. Turns out I was fifteen so my CD is wrong. The books don’t lie.
“Florence Henderson.” I told Jerry.
“Oh yeah,” Jerry said. “She sang.”
“When she wasn’t trying to have sex with the crew,” Kevin threw in. (Apparently, she was quite wild in those days.)
Then came the moment I had been looking forward to. I felt I may never get the chance again so I just did it. I said, “The Nutty Professor was the first impression I ever did. My mother wanted to take me to a psychiatrist because I spoke like you all day. I’d say…”
Now here is where I launched into my best Nutty Professor which, if I may say so, is spot on. Kevin never likes to do an impersonation of someone to that person as it may backfire. Like he says in his act about working with Jack Nicholson, “I didn’t want to be the millionth guy to say, (as Nicholson) ‘this is what you sound like.'” But I felt I had to. It was a bucket list moment for me.
“I’d say, (now as Professor Kelp) today I’d like pancakes, mother, or flapjacks as you sometimes call them, and a glass of orange juice freshly squeeeezed.”
Jerry immediately said, “Higher.”
I didn’t hesitate, “OH, Jennifer what a wonderful bird you have the formula!”
The crew that was in the room laughed and Jerry put his hand over his face and said, “Is that really what I sounded like?” More laughter from the crew and myself. I was pleased that it didn’t backfire and was allowed to stay.
“I also brought gifts,” I said, pulling out a DVD of Jerry hosting the Tonight Show in 1963. After Jack Parr and before Johnny Carson The Tonight Show used many guest hosts before they offered the permanent gig to Carson. (Oh my, as I typed that I just remembered my mother telling me to turn off the TV in my room because it was time for bed and I yelled, ‘But Jerry Lewis is going to be on!” It was a show in the late 60’s when Johnny was the host and I was recording the audio on my crappy tape recorder. You actually hear me screaming this to my mom. Bless my mom. I wish she were alive today so I could tell her I finally met him.)
Jerry seemed pleased. Kevin said to an assistant, “Put that in a safe place so Jerry can enjoy that later.” That got us on a topic of YouTube and all the footage of Jerry that has been unearthed.
Jerry said, “You know, when I have to perform I’ll watch a show (on YouTube) I did with Sammy just to remember my act.”
He then spoke about practical jokes he played on Sammy Davis Jr. and The Colgate Comedy Hours where he told Dean that they should only do seven shows and get out because they didn’t have the rights to them and someone else was going to make all the money off their talents.
“Who were the guest?” Jerry asked.
“Well, Hugh Downs was the sidekick, then Nancy Dussault sang a song, then you had Jack Carter and Henry Gibson.”
I could see Jerry’s eyes go back in time as he nodded.
It was a nice chat but soon it was time to shoot the scene. I should have asked for headsets because all I could do was watch on a monitor and listen as much as I could sitting close to the 2nd assistant director who did have headsets and sometimes I could hear the dialogue bleeding through.
Sometime later I had to use the bathroom but when I returned I was surprised that the scene was over as Kevin had not gotten to his emotional part of the performance. Jerry was in a director’s chair with his name on it and Kevin was standing next to him with his arm around his shoulder. I quietly walked back in the room and sat down sensing something was wrong. I heard Kevin say, “We don’t want you in pain. We love you. You shouldn’t be in pain and we’ll finish the scene without you. Just get better.”
It was Jerry’s back. The director came over and I heard Jerry say, “I just need a shot. If you can’t get the doctor here…” and at that moment Jerry glanced over at me, “hi, Mark…if you can’t get the doctor here then call San Francisco.”
I couldn’t believe that he had heard my name once an hour ago and remembered it and while he was in pain took a second to acknowledge me!
Jerry was done for the day. He painfully pushed himself out of the director’s chair and sat down in the motorized one. “I feel like a schmuck,” Jerry said. That was the last I was to see of him.
I found Kevin and told him how sweet I thought he was to Jerry. Kevin, delivered his next line with a straight face: “It’s all bullshit. I’m dead inside.”
I left the room and suppressed the big laugh that wanted to escape my body. Later Kevin gave me a “what did you think of the scene” look. I told him I couldn’t hear any of the dialogue.
“Get this man some cans!” (Slang for headsets.)
I sat back in the same chair I had occupied all day and watched and heard Kevin deliver an emotional performance, holding back tears as he says to Max. “I love you, dad. Tell me you love me. Just once. I love you. I know you love me. Just say it once…”
What made his performance extraordinary was that he was saying all this to Jerry’s stand-in who kept getting his head in the frame. You could hear the director telling the stand-in “move back” or “turn to the side” as Kevin stayed in the moment. It reminded me of the story of Rod Steiger in On The Waterfront in the famous taxi cab scene with Brando. Marlon was done with his dialogue and left to his psychiatrist appointment leaving Rod to give all his reactions to a script girl. Watch that scene again and you’ll be blown away. As you will when you see Kevin Pollak in Max Rose. If it’s ever completed. Get well soon, Jerry Lewis.