Hampton Fancher remembers Jerry Lewis

"Here is this guy who has everything, except he doesn't have enough."

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Hampton Fancher at the reflecting pool with Henry Moore's Reclining Figure (Lincoln Center) 1963–5
Hampton Fancher at the reflecting pool with Henry Moore's Reclining Figure (Lincoln Center) 1963–5 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Hampton Fancher, the beguiling subject of Michael Almereyda's Escapes and co-screenwriter of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Denis Villeneuve's upcoming Blade Runner 2049, shared some memories of Jerry Lewis, who died at the age of 91 this past Sunday, August 20, at his home in Las Vegas, Nevada.

We started out with Michael Pfleghar's film Romeo Und Julia 70 where Hampton interviewed Jerry Lewis, went onto the connection to Joan Blackman and Hal B Wallis for Norman Taurog's Visit To A Small Planet, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's In A Year With 13 Moons (In Einem Jahr Mit 13 Monden) and You're Never Too Young with Dean Martin and Lewis, a gurney in Frank Tashlin's The Disorderly Orderly and a rabbit in Geisha Boy, meeting Jack Benny and Buddy Hackett, and how Jerry Lewis could be "the classic Chaplin City Lights kind of thing."

Joan Blackman with Jerry Lewis and Earl Holliman in Visit To A Small Planet
Joan Blackman with Jerry Lewis and Earl Holliman in Visit To A Small Planet

Before our conversation began up at Lincoln Center, I introduced Hampton to New York Film Festival Director and Selection Committee Chair Kent Jones, who was also having lunch.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I want to hear your Jerry Lewis story! How did you meet him?

Hampton Fancher: In the Michael Pfleghar film [Romeo Und Julia 70], he was one of the people that we interviewed.

AKT: Alongside Nixon and Frank Sinatra?

HF: Yeah, we were in California and we went to his boat. He was staying on his boat. It wasn't a sailboat, it was a motorboat. And I didn't like him already. I knew he was an egomaniac and his talent didn't interest me. I asked him a couple of questions and he didn't want to answer anything, because "that's too private." I think of him as an egocentric sentimentalist.

When you're with him it's like Trump, you know. I said to him: "I heard that your boat before this one was wrecked on the coast of Northern California." And things washed up on shore, because he got so many tchotchkes, little items, all of them imbued, stamped with the profile of his face, everywhere, like Trump. And all those things were washed up on shore. He wasn't on-board. And I had read about that. Sort of like Nathanael West, you know.

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in You're Never Too Young
Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in You're Never Too Young

AKT: I'm just imagining that scene.

HF: It's an amazing scene. And I wanted to know what he thought. And he looked at me like this: "There are some places I don't go!" He used that term! This is a place you can't come. But then within 20 minutes, he was telling me everything about it. Because he can't stop. And I kind of liked him. Because I have something terribly in common with him, you know?

AKT: Drawn to the imperfection?

HF: His visage and everything I knew since childhood was emblematic of insipidity. When you see him in person, he was actually a handsome guy. He's got beauty in his face. He's a serious guy. Takes himself very seriously. Not a funny guy. I met a lot of comedians. I met Jack Benny, I met Buddy Hackett. Funny people - socially, they were quite the opposite.

Anyway [Jerry Lewis] was the opposite and also very sad and not about any particular thing. I could see that he was the classic Chaplin City Lights kind of thing. He was alone and he doesn't want to be alone. He said to me, when the shoot for the movie was finished: "You want to stay? I can get you back to L.A."

In A Year With 13 Moons, Gottfried John parodies Jerry Lewis as Günther Kaufmann looks on in awe.
In A Year With 13 Moons, Gottfried John parodies Jerry Lewis as Günther Kaufmann looks on in awe.

He wanted me to stay so he could continue talking about himself. I thought he was lonely and felt that I was receptive and I guess I was curious. I was a conduit for his need to fly his flags.

AKT: But you didn't stay?

HF: No. I don't remember exactly. But I think I was sorry I didn't. I felt that kind of sentimental guilt. I was too interested in my own future and I was not happy with him. I felt for him.

AKT: In his persona there is a neediness, in almost all of his roles.

HF: For the movie, what I was supposed to ask him questions about, was politics. What was his stance? What does he think about what's going on '68? Vietnam? I mean, he was conservative. He was, I don't mean this in a vicious way but in a touching way, he was pathetic.

Here is this guy who has everything, except he doesn't have enough. Recognition! He always talked about how in France they understand him as an artist. But not in the rest of the world, especially in his own country. He talked about that. He had that ax to grind.

AKT: It's never enough.

Harry the rabbit stars opposite Jerry Lewis in Frank Tashlin's Geisha Boy
Harry the rabbit stars opposite Jerry Lewis in Frank Tashlin's Geisha Boy

HF: Yeah. It makes you kind of cringe. We're sitting on his yacht, endlessly rich and endlessly famous. Maybe his best times were when he was in the Borscht Belt, starting out. Maybe his only roots are his own myths about himself. He wasn't stupid, but the intelligence of his vocabulary and all that was totally at the service of his image.

AKT: When I heard that he died, I thought of the scenes from his films that stuck in my head. There are three. I haven't seen them in a long time and am not even certain of the movies they come from. The first one is of him working as a nurse in a hospital. He is walking on the grounds and while patients tell him of their ills, he is physically feeling everything they tell him about.

I always thought that awareness was great. I could identify with that. Someone tells you how they cut their finger - it goes right through your own body. These scenes are a fantastic exploration of empathy.

HF: I mean, his so-called genius has partly to do with that. He wrote those things, he thought those things up. Interesting. I did have another connection. My girlfriend was one of his best friends. Joan Blackman, she was under contract by Hal B. Wallis, same guy Jerry was under contract at Paramount. And she did Visit To A Small Planet [1960] with Jerry and they became good friends. He was very generous. He gave her and her husband at the time all kinds of things. He was very kind to them. He helped them in their career.

On Jerry Lewis in The Disorderly Orderly car chase scene:
On Jerry Lewis in The Disorderly Orderly car chase scene: "He doesn't even have a stuntman doing it, he is doing it himself."

And that hospital one you mentioned, coincidentally, it was filmed '62, '63 near my house. On a hill, one day I see them shooting something. It turns out I know somebody on that set. And who comes down on a gurney down the hill? It's him! It's Jerry. He doesn't even have a stuntman doing it, he is doing it himself. And I'm there. It's funny. I forgot all about that.

AKT: That was that film, yes [The Disorderly Orderly, 1964]. In my second scene, he plays a magician and he, appropriately, has a pet rabbit who likes to slide on his belly down the handrail of the staircase. He does it so much, that the rabbit's belly is all red and smoke comes off it. He just watches the rabbit, who at one point wears sunglasses and has a drink. Jerry is just watching him. I haven't seen this one [Geisha Boy, 1958] in a very long time.

HF: Maybe that's why they like him in France because he has some surrealistic imagination and does crazy things that nobody does.

AKT: And the third scene is with Dean Martin and takes place in a boarding school where he pretends to be a child but he is really a grown up. He is wearing shorts and is doing a musical number, military inspired, with a group of girl students there. Fassbinder used this scene in his In a Year with 13 Moons [1978].

HF: I haven't seen that.

The Disorderly Orderly poster
The Disorderly Orderly poster

AKT: They are watching the clip on TV and copy it themselves, dressed in very short white tennis shorts.

HF: You mean he copied it?

AKT: Fassbinder used the footage from the Jerry Lewis number and simultaneously has his actors mimic the dance routine. And then they talk about concentration camps.

HF: You mean in the Fassbinder film?

AKT: Yes. It's a very disturbing moment. Something I was told, I didn't see it myself, happened during one of Jerry's telethons. Someone was singing to a child, a little girl in a wheelchair. The song was called Go Away Little Girl and he kept on singing and the girl started crying. Because she thought he was saying it to her. It was on live TV, I was told, and it was painful to watch how unaware they appeared.

HF: Maybe it's a necessity. There are many like that and actors as well. It's so hard to make it. You got to be a fanatic. The tenacity has to be zealous. You don't give up for a day. You go, go, go, and finally you break. You can't do it. If he didn't have that, we wouldn't know who he is, I guess. The same with Fasssbinder. You got to be driven pathologically to do what Fassbinder did.

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