The Las Vegan Opens Up About Son's Death, Skirmishes With Fans
The 88-year-old comic, enjoying his seventh decade of stardom, sounds off on his audiences, grouses about technology and reveals his penchant for changing into a new pair of socks four times a day: "I just like the feeling of brand-new," he says.
The comedian shrugs off his irritation and rises from behind a large mahogany desk, a red monogrammed T-shirt spilling over his baggy pants, the Greek masks representing comedy and tragedy stamped on his slippers. Two Chihuahuas scurry around his feet, yapping -- one named Rocky, the other Paulie, a reference to the middle name of his longtime comedy partner Dean Martin.
Lewis no longer is in his prime, but he has enjoyed something of a career resurgence this spring. In March, two of his one-man shows sold out at the 2,400-seat La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in La Mirada, Calif.; in April, his hand- and footprints finally were stamped in cement outside Hollywood's TCL Chinese Theatre; later that day, he was a guest of honor at the TCM Classic Film Festival, participating in a Q-and-A at the El Capitan Theatre following a screening of the 1963 comedy classic The Nutty Professor, which Lewis calls "my baby." A 50th anniversary collectors' edition Blu-ray boxed set of Nutty was released June 3.
Sitting in his wood-paneled home office, crammed with leather-bound scripts and memorabilia along with drawer upon drawer of press clippings, he is eager to note the attention this recent activity has brought him. "The bottom drawer is current press," he says. "I defy you to open [it]."
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The office is a virtual museum of his past, every wall covered with photos of family, friends and fellow luminaries. It is a shrine to all things Lewis, though the jewel in his crown -- the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award he received at the 2009 Oscars -- sits in another room on a platform above a TV, ready to rotate at the push of a button.
Age has taken its toll on the hyperkinetic comic, forcing him to spend more time here in his 7,325-square-foot Neocolonial Las Vegas house than he might like and deal with health problems that easily could have felled him.
Lewis has endured prostate cancer and two heart attacks; he suffers from type 1 diabetes; and he has battled pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic lung disease for which he took Prednisone, causing his weight to balloon for years. These days, the bloat is gone, and his worst ailment is constant and severe spinal pain, a result of years of pratfalls.
His patience -- never his strongest suit -- is tested easily, even by fans. A recent report lambasted him for mistreating them, even during Q-and-A portions of his one-man shows. Lewis denies that, blaming those who ask dumb questions or prattle about when they first saw him rather than asking about pertinent things. "Here's the way a Q-and-A is supposed to be," he explains. "You're supposed to try to find out if Marilyn Monroe was a bitch." (Was she? He won't say.) He is no more fond of passers-by. "You walk in the street today, and everyone you pass has a f--ing camera," he grouses.
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Still, it's hard not to admire his drive. Sixty-eight years after he first teamed with Martin; 54 years after his directorial debut, The Bellboy; and three years after he left his highest-profile nonfilm role when he unceremoniously was dumped as a telethon host by the Muscular Dystrophy Association (despite having raised $2.5 billion during nearly a half-century run), Lewis is still working.
How does he feel about his return to the limelight? "It's annoying the shit out of me!" he says with a twinkle in his eye.
In fact, he loves it, and one senses it's the only thing that gives him unmitigated pleasure in a life that has seen its share of ups and downs. He and Martin famously parted and did not speak to one another for 20 years before reconciling, after which he wrote the 2005 book Dean & Me (A Love Story), multiple copies of which line the shelves of this room.
Lewis insists he has a special bond with fans, no matter how heavily he might poke at them during performances. "You can't put a price on that ticket for them," he says. "They're walking out of there and saying, 'Jesus Christ, he took me back to 1947!' "
He says he keeps up with recent movies, mentioning 12 Years a Slave as having struck him and Jennifer Lawrence as a favorite performer. The two-time Oscar host (1957 and 1959) says he generally is a fan of Ellen DeGeneres, though he pans her performance this year: "I would never buy a pizza for an Academy Award audience!"
But Lewis is decidedly more attached to the past than the present: He has a fax machine and doesn't use a cellphone; he has a computer but doesn't use email; and he calls movies "pictures." He is fixed in his ways, even those that might seem eccentric -- like changing into a brand-new pair of socks four times a day. "I just like the feeling of brand-new," he says.
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He still cracks jokes and contorts his face in the elastic ways that made him famous, but it's hard not to sense an underlying sadness. While he is very close to -- and chokes up merely speaking about -- his second wife, Sam, to whom Lewis has been married 31 years (they have an adopted daughter, Danielle, 22, whom he adores), he had a more complicated relationship with Joseph, the youngest of six sons from his first marriage -- he became a drug addict and committed suicide in 2009 at age 45.
"To this day I don't understand it because it's unfair -- not unfair to me, but unfair to him," laments Lewis. "That he went that way made the unfairness stupidity. But he was my son and he's gone, and there's not a lot I can do about that. I beat myself a thousand times. Sam will come to me and say, 'Are we beating ourselves again?' I will say, 'A little bit.' [She'll say]: 'You had nothing to do with that. You sent him out into the world when he was 25. You sent what you thought was a perfect human being. What he did with his time away from you is what the end result showed.' But I'll tell you this: You don't get over that."
He pauses. "I've worked under the most painful conditions any man has ever felt in his life," he says. "But when I walk out on that stage, the pain goes away."