Digging into the archives, we unearth the original articles printed in the Playbills of yesteryear.
At “69, going on 9,” the legendary comic brought his unique brand of mischief to Damn Yankees. In 1995, Jerry Lewis was brought to Broadway to replace Victor Garber’s devil in Broadway’s revival of Damn Yankees. The story of a middle-aged man who sells his soul to Satan (here known as Applegate) to become a star baseball player. Despite his two extra decades on Garber, Lewis relished bringing a more childlike quality to the character. In memory of the comic who passed away August 20, 2017, Playbill remembers his second and final Broadway outing with a look back at this interview:
Jerry Lewis pops out of the revolving door at Carmine’s, across West 44th Street from the Marquis where he’s currently holding court as the Devil in Damn Yankees. Not a ta-dah—not even a boing boing—marks the moment, but “A Star” moves among us all the time. He moves with an almost musical self-assurance, via a gait that he got from Bob Hope—the easy-breezy amble that says you know a lot about either gags or golf—and, on him, it looks swell. Really swell.
He kibitzes with the cashier until a waiter signals the table’s ready; then, slipping into automatic star stride, he’s off. “Goin’ amongst ‘em” has never been a chore for Jerry Lewis—a star’s gotta do what a star’s gotta do—and, as usual, smiles of recognition line his path like falling dominoes. Along the way an older, bolder soul stands up, utters the generic, “Howzit going, Jer?” and extends his hand as a friend might. Lewis takes the hand in the manner it’s offered, presses it warmly and chides, “You don’t write,” then saunters on, letting the laughs explode behind him and follow him to his seat.
Mitchell Maxwell, a producer of Damn Yankees, didn’t “paper” Carmine’s with Central Casting just to get that response either—no matter how well it illustrates why he hired Lewis to play the show’s soul-swapping Satan.
“The thing we’re most excited about,” Maxwell admits, “is we’re bringing a great star to Broadway. Other than Glenn Close, we don’t have a great star on Broadway—an international star where you say, ‘You gotta see this guy’—and Broadway needs grandeur. Apart from his performance and the fact he’ll sell tickets, I think he’s going to bring an aura of star power back to Broadway.”
On the surface of it, Lewis might an unlikely choice to follow Victor Garber’s fiendishly funny Applegate. For starters, they’re 23 years apart in age—exactly: on the same day this month Garber (a younger-than-springtime) will be 46, Lewis turns (a just-as-astonishing) 69—“69, going on nine,” he likes to say.
According to Lewis’ own clock, his comedy comes from the kid inside, alive and kicking after all these chronological years. “I’m really, basically, nine, and I’ve always been that. I’ve never, ever allowed the child within me to die. I love the fact that the mischief in me is alive and that next year, I will celebrate my 70th birthday on the stage of Damn Yankees somewhere in America.”
When the press pressed him for the “special quality” he’ll bring to the role that wasn’t there before, Lewis went for the easy laugh—in one modest word: “brilliance!” Actually, it looks as if he’s taking the Peck’s Bad Boy approach to deviltry, playing it mischievous and child-like, a tact he took “for most of my career. The beauty of Applegate—what I saw in the character, when I saw the show—was that if I can bring mischief to this character, it’s going to be fun for everyone. That quality wouldn’t fit with Victor, but I’m going to play with it. In rehearsal, I’m hoping to find places for these little pieces that have been going through my brain. If my director says, ‘Let’s go for that,’ then it goes in and we see how it works. If it doesn’t, we dump it. But this show doesn’t need anybody to come in and change it. It just needs a little spark of difference. You can have a full plate without hurting the essence of what you’re doing. That won’t be touched.”
Lewis is plainly putting script over shtick. “Broadway theatre demands discipline, particularly in this show, which has a lot of cues and pyrotechnics involved. Somebody would get hurt. You can’t knock around. For a comic to put a public performance in jeopardy for a snickering little laugh—no no no, I don’t believe in it. I’d fire the son of a bitch in a heartbeat.”
Not only is Lewis’ Lucifer younger than Garber’s, in a strange way he’s older as well—closer to Ray Walston’s original Tony-winning design (Satan as Showbiz Veteran). Garber characterized Applegate as “the vaudevillian from Hell” and acted it accordingly (to Tony-nominated effect, in fact), but Lewis is the authentic article—and the vaudevillian from Hellzapopin, his previous (1977) Broadway assault that got only as far as Boston. Its title is no longer in his lexicon and its major players no longer in his Rolodex. What did he learn from this experience? “I learned not to think about it.” Period. Paragraph.
“Most performers are used to the highs and the lows,” he says. “If you can let a low stop you, that would be a sad commentary. Nothing can stop anyone who has a love and passion about their work. Babe Ruth got to plate and struck out 1,330 times. I struck out one time. I just wanted to play it again.”
Establishing this belated Broadway beachhead is not a light thing for Lewis. “I’m very focused on the responsibility of Broadway—more than ever in my career—because I’m finally getting to that place I’ve been dreaming about. You remember that old thing about ‘be careful what you dream because you might get it’? It doesn’t work that way with me. This dream coming true is something I have to really be certain I’m terrific at. I need that for me. And I’ve been thrown a helluvah set of dice. Nobody gets this chance. With a body of work like mine, then all of a sudden—hey, Broadway! This just doesn’t happen to a guy in the autumn of his life. To have done as much as I’ve done and still get a shot at something that I’ve never done, I mean, it’s really incredible!”
Danny Lewis can take a bow, too. “Everything I do that’s been good I learned from my father. I started watching him when I started working with him at five—vaudeville, burlesque, Catskills. He was star material, but he didn’t have what you need to be a star. He didn’t have the passion. There was no one in the business as good as he was—mime, singing, pratfalls—but all he needed to be happy was to feed and clothe his family and to perform when he could. So, when I hit it big with Dean [Martin], he was in the spotlight every gig I did—in his mind. He’d say, ‘When you’ve played Broadway, you’ve done it all.’ He’d tease me about it, but he wanted to see that more than anything.”