TV STORE ONLINE: For those that have seen Jerry's The Jazz Singer...How did the project come to fruition for him?
LEWIS: In 1959, NBC was starting the Startime Theater. It was designed to combat against The Red Skelton Show on CBS. NBC was the first network to broadcast in color, and so my dad saw this as a great opportunity to do something that he was always interested in. He was a big fan and a good friend of Al Jolson, and this was his opportunity to do something with The Jazz Singer.
TV STORE ONLINE: I love the incredible live and raw feeling that it has....There have been rumors going around for years that the show was actually done live on NBC...
LEWIS: Right, most people thought that it was done live on the air, but it actually wasn't. In fact, the guy who did the restoration for us, David Cross, at DC Video in Burbank, California told us that the tape that it had been stored on all of these years is probably one of the twenty or thirty oldest color video tapes in existence today. We only found the tape back in the mid '80s. There was a young man that worked for us back then that found it in a NBC warehouse.
TV STORE ONLINE: Knowing the Jerry Lewis biography...Do you think there was some sort of kinship that your dad felt with Al Jolson or the Joey Robin / Joey Rabinowitz character? Jerry Lewis was once Joseph Levitch...
LEWIS: I would think so. My dad's grandfather was a rabbi and he was a kind of straight-laced guy, and you couldn't get any less straight-laced than my dad when he was growing up. I don't think his grandfather and he saw eye-to-eye. I think the story of The Jazz Singer rang pretty loudly in his house. My grandfather, Danny Lewis, was in vaudeville in the early '30s. He sang Jolson songs.
The Al Jolson The Jazz Singer came out in 1928 and my grandfather idolized Jolson. My dad grew up hearing Jolson songs and he idolized him as well. My dad met Jolson in either 1947 or 1948 and he couldn't do enough to be around him. Any opportunity my dad had to be around Jolson he took. Jolson liked my dad so much that he gave him his original music charts that he used on stage. My dad still has them.
TV STORE ONLINE: Jerry's Jazz Singer was directed by Ralph Nelson, but considering what we have here visually, the way the camera moves, the juxtaposition in the cutting--it seems like something more that the director Jerry Lewis would have put together.... Did Jerry have a lot of control over the project?
LEWIS: Absolutely. Ralph Nelson was a very well-respected director, but it was my dad's project from start to finish. My dad liked working directly with the director, the writers and everyone else that was part of the project. He hand-picked Molly Picon to play the mother. He loved her. Anna Maria [Alberghetti]--he was shooting CINDERFELLA (1960) with her at the time, so that was a no-brainer. It just turned out well. Anna Maria's agent in The Jazz Singer, who was played by Del Moore, was one of my dad's closest friends.
TV STORE ONLINE: Speaking of CINDERFELLA....There's the famous story of how Jerry suffered a heart attack after he had to run that big staircase in CINDERFELLA...Did the shooting of The Jazz Singer come before or after that incident?
LEWIS: You know...It wasn't a heart attack. That's been exaggerated. He did collapse because he had run those stairs too many times. There was a gentleman who helped raise us, Fritz Hawks, who was the lieutenant of the guards at Paramount. He had a satchel that contained $50,000 dollars in jewelry on the set, and when dad collapsed, he threw it down, and ran up the stairs with oxygen for him. He just passed out is what it was. I believe, that CINDERFELLA didn't actually start shooting until after my dad had finished with The Jazz Singer though.
TV STORE ONLINE: The critics weren't kind to Jerry and The Jazz Singer...
LEWIS: No, they weren't. I think that was because my dad was the comic. He was the biggest box office star in the world and people didn't want to see him be dramatic. Plus, it is a shortened version of the story. It's pretty difficult to tell that story in 52 minutes. I think that the audience perceived it, not as a homage to Jolson, but a short cut to get something on NBC.
TV STORE ONLINE: This performance--Jerry, the comic turned dramatist seems like it could've been very ahead of the times considering when this aired on NBC...
LEWIS: Yes and it's clear that this really meant something to my dad. You can see that when you watch it.
TV STORE ONLINE: One of the most overlooked facets of Jerry's talent is his singing voice and his dancing...
LEWIS: Yes, he really was a great singer and a dancer. In '56, he sold a million records when he released "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody"...
TV STORE ONLINE: I love that song. I love your dad's album Jerry Lewis Sings... In particular, the opening cut "Come Rain Or Come Shine". Those arrangements on that record just explode!
LEWIS: Right, if you want to hear really full arrangements that's the album to get.
TV STORE ONLINE: Yes! And I feel that the songs he does in The Jazz Singer work in that same way...Why weren't those songs released on record?
LEWIS: Back in the day, people didn't think about that. We've been getting requests for years now about releasing the songs that he and Dean Martin did in the Martin & Lewis films. Also, I think that if they would've released those songs--it would in some way cheapen them. He wasn't singing those songs for monetary reasons--he was singing them from the heart and they were important to him. Which is why it really hurt him when The Jazz Singer didn't get great reviews.
TV STORE ONLINE: You mention in a interview on the DVD for The Jazz Singer about how if this DVD is a success other rare gems from The Jerry Lewis archive will be released...Would that include something like the '70s Jerry Lewis cartoon series Will The Real Jerry Lewis Please Sit Down [1970-72]?
LEWIS: You know, I don't even know what library has those now. Archives and libraries get sold or used as collateral on a loan and things disappear and no-one knows where things actually are. We have some color elements from some of his other television specials from 1957-62. There were 13 Jerry Lewis specials in that time. We have some kinescopes for those that we're planning on getting transferred. We have his January 1960 Timex show. We're looking at releasing that one next.
Order the DVD of The Jazz Singer here.
Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung