It's 1931, and Danny and Rachel "Rae" Levitch, a pair of struggling Vaudeville performers, living from a suitcase, while on the road 52 weeks a year, working at hotels and nightclubs across the Borscht Belt circuit, decide to borrow their only child from the tender care of his maternal grandmother, Sarah Rothberg, to make his stage debut at a Catskills Mountains resort.
The timid five-year-old considers a possible career on Broadway, as he musters his courage to sing an anthem of the Great Depression, "Oh, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," leading the audience to applaud politely.
Young Joseph Levitch considers this his first moment of public acceptance and proceeds to take a bow, when he loses his footing, accidentally kicking a lime-light, causing the lamp to explode, the audience to roar with laughter, and his feelings to turn from satisfaction into ultimate humiliation.
And although it would take another 65 years for Joseph Levitch to debut on Broadway ("Damn Yankees," 1996), he has managed to transform his earliest stage embarrassment into audience appreciation and delight, as his career transforms that night from Music into Comedy, under his stage name of Jerry Lewis.
Peter Graves hosts this special two-hour "Biography" episode, entitled "Jerry Lewis: The Last American Clown," debuting on August 29, 1997, and recounting the life and career of screen legend Jerry Lewis, born in 1926, in Newark, New Jersey, after his mother, Rachel, undergoes a tedious four-day delivery.
When Rachel's doctor suggests a surgical operation, which may endanger the infant, her mother, Sarah, the stabilizing force of her grandson's youth, refuses to permit the operation to endanger the life of her grandson, who lies unconscious for two days after his birth.
Parents, Rachel "Rae" and Danny, by now have been performing the Vaudeville circuit under their stage name of "Lewis," and rarely see the child throughout much of those early years. Initially, "Joey" remains with Sarah, who oversees his needs and schooling, but after pleasing audiences in his own right, Joey begins to tour with Rae and Danny, missing portions of his schoolwork.
Because there already are famous celebrities named Joe E. Lewis and Joey Louis, Joseph selects the name "Jerry," as his stage moniker, to tour with his parents.
But entertaining does not seem particularly conducive to Jerry's schoolwork, and on Promotion Day in 1936, his teacher asks everyone in the class to rise and to stand near the side of the room except for Jerry, who is asked to remain seated. As the ten-year-old anticipates a special surprise, the teacher announces that everyone in the class has been promoted except for Jerry.
More humiliation and difficulties begin to follow the child, as a high school instructor directs an ethnic slur in his direction, causing Jerry to punch the teacher in the mouth, causing him to lose teeth, and causing Jerry to be expelled to technical school.
In 1941, Jerry loses his remaining beacon of stability, when Grandmother Sarah suddenly passes, causing the only child to forge for himself, as he begins a series of jobs to survive without a family.
This somber episode doesn't contain very many comic kicks, as viewers may anticipate, but focuses upon Jerry's determination to succeed, which outlines the balance of his career amid a number of health problems and personal difficulties.
But Jerry's "Biography" discusses his teaming with Dean Martin and their rise to fame in the Entertainment Industry, his family life and his decision to welcome more than one child so that no one would have to be as alone as he felt, plus Jerry's tireless dedication to raising funds for Muscular Dystrophy Association research, after meeting a film crew member whose child has been victimized by the disease.
Interview Guests for this episode consist of Jerry Lewis (Self), Patti Palmer Lewis (former Wife), Kathleen Freeman (Actress), Janet Leigh (Actress), Stella Stevens (Actress), Anthony Lewis (Son), Jack Segal (childhood Friend), Lou Brown (Bandleader), Howard W. Koch (former Paramount Chief Executive), Bill Richmond (Screenwriter), and Joe E. Stabile (Jerry Lewis' Manager), with Peter Graves (Host).
Archive film footage includes Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Marie Wilson, John Lund, Barney Balaban, Hal Wallis, Marilyn Monroe, Leslie Caron, Edward R. Morrow, Skinny D'Amato, Kathleen Freeman, Brian Donlevy, Hans Conried, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Danny Lewis.
Home movies, Newsreels and Documentary Clips include footage from the Copacabana Nightclub (1947), "Come Back, Little Shiskel" (1953), "Judy and Jerry at the Frontier" (1956), "Farewell at the Copa" (July, 1956), "Cinderfeller" Chicago premiere (1960), "Christmas at the Lewises" (1960), and "Damn Yankees" national tour (1996), plus film out-takes.
Film Clips include a screen glimpse of Jerry Lewis through the years, in scenes from My Friend Irma (1949), My Friend Irma Goes West (1950), Sailor Beware (1952), 3 Ring Circus (1954), Living It Up (1954), Pardners (1956), The Delicate Delinquent (1957), The Sad Sack (1957), The Bellboy (1960), Cinderfella (1960), The Ladies Man (1961), The Errand Boy (1961), The Nutty Professor (1963), The Patsy (1964), The Family Jewels (1965), The Big Mouth (1967), Which Way to the Front? (1970), The Day the Clown Cried (1972), and Hardly Working (1980).
Television Clips include scenes from "The Colgate Comedy Hour" (1950-1955), "Person to Person" (1954-1958), "The Jerry Lewis Show" (1963), and "Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon" (1973-present).
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