At Home With: At 90, Jerry Lewis’s Mouth Runneth Over

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At Home With: At 90, Jerry Lewis’s Mouth Runneth Over

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LAS VEGAS — It wasn’t always easy to make out his words above the din of five Chihuahuas yipping at his feet. But when Jerry Lewis has something to say, damn if he isn’t going to be heard.

“A wonderful thing happens over time,” he murmured the other day as Lola, the tiniest of his hyperkinetic menagerie, nestled at his chest. “You fall in love with the sound of your own voice.”

At 90, Mr. Lewis is intent as ever on exercising that voice. Acutely self-aware and enjoying an unlikely career resurgence, he sat for an interview at his home here, patently disinclined to put a stopper on his often unfiltered musings.

He had entered his wood-paneled office at the rear of his rambling two-story neocolonial, the room a sanctum where he plots his projects and a shrine to his fabled career. Mementos line every available shelf, wall and sill. He stood, loosely scattering greetings to his pups, the photographer and Sam, his wife of 38 years, before settling in at his massive mahogany desk.

We were here ostensibly to talk about his latest endeavor, “Max Rose,” a critically skewered but nonetheless affecting film released this month, a portrait of a jazz pianist living out his twilight years. Praised for his performance as a man consigned to a nursing home after the death of his wife (Claire Bloom), Mr. Lewis, as Max, suffers mutely — his face, a mask of grief and rage, brightened from time to time by unexpected flickers of cheer.

Watching this rumination on loss and resilience, it was tempting to look for parallels between the title character and the actor. “I’m having a little problem hitting 90,” Mr. Lewis said, his tone almost affectless. “What happens at 90 is that I don’t walk so good, my eyes are going, I can’t hear well and I’m getting all of the 90’s residuals.

“I have to be careful,” he said. “I have to think a lot more than I usually do. I tell myself, ‘Don’t step on your proverbial tail. Just think things out.’”

Mr. Lewis, the longtime host of the annual Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon and a veteran of more than 50 films, among them his directorial debut, “The Bellboy,” and his 1963 monument, “The Nutty Professor,” is, he knows, a skein of contradictions.

He is elliptical at times and, at others, direct: alternately distant and affable, somber and playful, rash and profoundly considered. His features give way now and then to a stillness that seems menacing, recalling his role as the irascible Jerry Langford in the 1983 film “The King of Comedy,” Martin Scorsese’s indictment of the celebrity-fixated culture of the day.

For the interview, Mr. Lewis wore a silky loosefitting shirt that, like every shirt he owns, was monogrammed. Why? Perfectly straight-faced, he offered, “Because I want to know it’s mine.”

Nor does he like to wear the same shirt twice. Why would he? “I’m rich.”

An inveterate shopper most of his life, he added jovially, “There’s something wonderful about taking a tag off a pair of socks, off a shirt, off a jacket. I really think that it has to do with my wanting to give myself all the perks that there are. It’s part of my psychosis.”

He punctuated such unabashed confidences with a great whoop of mirth. He is still marveling that he got the chance to act opposite Ms. Bloom. Now, playing the wicked roué, Mr. Lewis recalled: “We did a scene with Claire in bed. We had such fun.” He laughed raucously. “That’s ‘cause we didn’t do nothing.”

Was the onscreen relationship modeled a bit on that of Mr. Lewis and his wife? Not a chance, he said. But Mommy, as he calls her, hovered graciously throughout the interview, by turns soothing, cajoling and spiritedly taunting. She approached at one point to peel Lola from her husband’s lap. “Where are you taking my puppy?” he demanded.

“Just do your interview, Jerry,” she replied, with a nod toward the photographer, who was zeroing in for a close-up. “Maybe he’d like some pictures without the puppy.”

“All of a sudden you become the producer, huh,” Mr. Lewis accused. Moments earlier he had lavished great warmth on those pups, “the light in my heart,” as he called them. “They give me more joy and more pleasure than any human I’ve ever met.”

That remark momentarily forgotten, he beamed toward his wife. “She is the love of my life,” he said, and there seemed no reason to doubt him. “Most people are embarrassed to admit there’s another human being that’s in control of them, that your heart beats three times as fast because you’ve given yourself to someone else.”

As he spoke, his eyes scanned the room, fixing on mementos of his storied past: the row of identical leather-bound volumes of “Dean and Me (A Love Story),” about his partnership with Dean Martin, which ended in 1956. (There were reunions, the first of which came in 1976.) There is the file drawer, ravine-deep, filled with press clippings and interviews by “some pretty good writers,” as he likes to point out: Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Kenneth Tynan and the illustrious like.

There is a silver-framed portrait of Danielle, his daughter, as a child. Now 24, she is the last of his brood. (There were six sons from a previous marriage. His youngest, Joseph, committed suicide at 45 in 2009.) There is a photograph of Mr. Lewis, portly as he sits up in bed in a hospital gown, and a motley assortment of knickknacks gathered over time.

A porcelain clown figure seated at a makeup table seems a favorite. “The artist made 14 of these characters in my image and sold them very successfully,” Mr. Lewis said, adding dryly: “People want mementos. They want to touch the hem of the garment.”

As he spoke, he stared moodily at an outsize painting, the image of “Sam’s Place,” the 65-foot vintage yacht he had coveted as a young man. “I dreamed of it, and when I had the money, I bought it,” he said.

In recent years Mr. Lewis has suffered a battery of ailments — prostate cancer, two heart attacks, Type 1 diabetes, pulmonary fibrosis and chronic spinal pain, the unwelcome legacy of his acrobatic screen antics — that would have vanquished a less hardy spirit. “I can’t go up the steps of my boat,” he said. “Finally Sam told me, ‘It’s time to get rid of it.’”

His adventures at sea, once a source of pleasure, were, he said, right up there with the night he thought he was going to have sex with Marilyn Monroe. Mr. Lewis, who has boasted in the past of an affair with the legendary siren, went silent when pressed. “I could have been talking about Bette Davis,” he offered at last, opaquely.

He knows he can be slippery, his distrust of the interview process deep and abiding. “I almost always can tell when the interviewer is going to give me a spritz,” he said, punching the air by way of illustration. “For that, you’ve got to be prepared. You’ve got to be out in the world. And my tendency is to be alone.”

His ambivalence toward fame can extend to his fans, whom he has showered with abuse during public appearances, churlish in the face of their candid adoration. “I don’t know why I do that,” he said. “Could be I have a toothache. Could be I learned my aunt died.”

“People are affected by your shortness, your inability to spend time with them,” he said.

An unceasing awareness of the clock has plagued him since youth. “I’m hard on anyone that I think is taking precious hours from me,” he said. “I think so much in time. I always have. Even at 20, I thought in terms of time, that I don’t have a lot of time left. And I want to do so many things.

If 90 minutes of talk left him spent, he gave no indication. “I could talk all day,” he said, mindful just the same that like every interview, this one was, in its way, a performance.

“And I’m telling myself, ‘You better come up with answers that make sense.’”

He turned to his visitor, his expression poised between expectancy and stiff resignation. “In some ways, you are constantly auditioning,” he said. “When you leave here today, I’m going to want to know from Sam, ‘How’d I do?’”

“I do that every time,” he said. “It’s, ‘Honey, how’d I do?’”

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