This week The Hollywood Reporter posted “Creative Until You Die,” a series of interviews with ten legendary entertainers who are still going strong in their nineties. It included such beloved figures as Cloris Leachman, Don Rickles, and Dick Van Dyke. “Nine of the interviews went great,” THR stated. “One was a trainwreck.”
The trainwreck was a torturous, seven-minute interview, if it can be called that, with comic icon Jerry Lewis. It consists entirely of Lewis glaring impatiently and defiantly at his off-screen interviewer Andy Lewis (no relation, hopefully) and spitting out terse non-answers as Andy struggled to get something from the man THR charitably called “the famously difficult comedian.”
Andy Lewis wrote that he had “a bad feeling” about how things would go the second he stepped into Jerry’s Las Vegas home. “He looked angry. I already knew Lewis’ reputation for being difficult and acerbic with his audiences and in interviews. And he’s a well-known control freak.”
“Throughout the photo shoot,” Andy continued,
Lewis complained about the amount of equipment in the house, the number of assistants and how the shots were set up. By the time we sat down for the interview about an hour later, Lewis had worked up a full head of steam, and it seemed like he was punishing THR by doing the interview but being as uncooperative as possible.
“Have you ever thought about retiring?” Andy began.
“Why?” Jerry shot back, unsmiling.
“Was there never a moment that you thought it might be time to retire or that you would—”
“Why?” Lewis interrupted forcefully. And the interview went downhill from there.
Asked if he saw any similarities between himself and other nonagenarian entertainers, Lewis cut off the question with “None.” Asked if there was any difference between the Vegas of 1947, when Jerry first played there, and the Vegas of today, Lewis responded, “None.” Was the audience then any different from today? “No.” Do you have a favorite story of partner Dean Martin or any other entertainer you’ve worked with over the years? “No.” None at all? “None.” Anything else you wanna— “No.”
At one point Jerry cruelly mocks Andy’s uncomfortable laugh. It’s not a merely awkward moment—it’s an ugly one.
When the interview ends, Jerry immediately rises and says to the crew, “All right, clean it out of here.”
THR made light of it all, calling it both “awkward and funny” and claiming that it demonstrates just how “vital and completely engaged” the ninety-year-old still is. “He’s just engaged—almost happily so—in being difficult,” THR concluded. Ordinarily, being vital and completely engaged would be positive attributes for anyone of any age, but being happily engaged in being “difficult” at 90 is sad and shameful.
Many commenters beneath the THR article sided with Lewis and criticized the interviewer and his crew as amateurish, incompetent, and unprofessional. They felt that the old-timer Jerry had earned the right to be cantankerous and not to suffer fools gladly, and that the interview was funny. This too is a sad and shameful perspective.
Regardless of how uninspired Andy Lewis’ questions or interviewing style may or may not have been, Jerry’s undisguised antagonism insured that he and most other interviewers would be left floundering and self-conscious.
In any case, the interviewer’s role in this unpleasant exchange is frankly irrelevant. Assuming that THR’s version of the story is correct, Jerry Lewis was simply and inexcusably rude. Nothing justifies his mean-spirited non-cooperation. Neither advanced age nor professional stature nor fame earns one the “right” to be uncivil. But sadly, we tend to give celebrities a pass for being “difficult,” either because we expect artists to be or because we are undeservedly in awe of the rich and famous.
If Lewis was in a cranky mood or didn’t feel up to doing the interview that day, he could have postponed it. If the interviewer had been the antagonistic one, Jerry would have been justified in calling him out for it on camera or shutting down the interview, neither of which would have necessitated cruelty or incivility.
If the interviewer and his crew were amateurish, Jerry could have shown some professionalism and mentoring generosity by turning the interview into a “teachable moment,” as Barack Obama might say, and helping them up their game for the future. Granted, that’s hardly Lewis’ responsibility, but it would have earned him the crew’s gratitude and respect, and his profile in THR would have highlighted Jerry’s magnanimity and class rather than his belligerence and malice. As it is, his interview is certainly the most talked-about of the series, but for all the wrong reasons.