Roger Ebert, Jerry Lewis and Me

Roger Ebert Rolodex

My Rolodex card for Roger Ebert, c. 1982.

In the outpouring of appreciations and reminiscences after the death of film critic Roger Ebert, my little tale is really not much. I am adding it because I believe that even a brief encounter – at least this one – is worth remembering.

Before my story, which is quite short, I should explain who Ebert was at that time, which is so very different from movie criticism today that people who didn’t experience it might not understand  why he was given such great esteem.

In the 1970s, when Ebert and his cross-town Chicago rival Gene Siskel began reviewing movies on TV (first as “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You” and retitled “Sneak Previews’), film viewing and film reviewing were almost unimaginably different than they are now.

Until the late 1970s, there were no home videocassette recorders and obviously no video stores. Some movies were difficult – if not impossible – to see. Films like the Marx Bros.’ “The Cocoanuts” and the Paul Muni gangster picture “Scarface” had been out of circulation for a generation for various reasons. They weren’t lost. It was even worse. They were locked up in a vault with no way to see them.

Let me say this again, for the benefit of anyone born since the 1970s.

In those days:
There was no Redbox.
There was no Hulu
There was no YouTube.
There was no Netflix.
There was no TCM.
There was no imdb. Just Leonard Maltin’s annual handbook of films and (for a few people, anyway) the competing annual compiled by Steven Scheuer.
There were no video stores.
There were no videocassette recorders.
And obviously, it was impossible to “wait until it comes out on video.” Because there was no video.

Unless you lived in Los Angeles and had the Z Channel (b. 1974)  the only ways to see a classic film were in the occasional revival of an old blockbuster like “Gone With the Wind” or “Fantasia,” or head films like “Reefer Madness”; brutally butchered and speeded up (excuse me “Edited for Television”) and loaded with ads for used cars and sofa-sized paintings on some late-night TV show; or in a 16-millimeter print at some university film series. Or if you were a wealthy collector, you bought prints from mail order catalogs that seemed to feature nothing but B-Westerns and Hedy Lamar’s “Ecstasy.”

These were dark days, young readers. I remember one 1970s showing at the New Loft in Tucson in which the 35-millimeter print of “To Have and Have Not” was so beat up that it would barely go through the projector. They actually gave away bits of the print – full of sprocket holes down the middle — as souvenirs.

Unless you lived in a major city like Los Angeles (I did not), first-run movies came and went in a matter of weeks and might or might not end up in a second-run theater or a drive-in. A struggling art house near the university might scrape along running foreign films for one-week engagements with revivals of W.C. Fields on the weekend.

And, with a few exceptions, these were one-screen movie theaters. The 16-screen megaplex had yet to be introduced.

So much for film.

Movie reviewing was just as tightly restricted as movie-going in that era. In every U.S. city with a daily morning newspaper or two (and in many cases an afternoon paper as well), the local movie critic had an absolute stranglehold on film. A few avid movie-goers might wait to read Pauline Kael’s weekly review in the New Yorker or perhaps pick up a New York Times  for Vincent Canby’s thoughts. Or there might be a local underground/alternative weekly with random reviews of films and rock concerts buried between tons of ads for water beds, stereo equipment and escort services.

But the vast majority of movie-goers were dependent on the local newspaper critic – possibly an aspiring screenwriter who conned the all-too-often clueless editors into a job because he “knew something” about movies; a foreign film enthusiast who looked down on mainstream pictures; or a newsroom old-timer who was put out to pasture writing about movies and hadn’t seen a film since Deanna Durbin retired and provided an endless stream of blurbs for movie ads.

Into this dismal landscape walked Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who were basically two average guys talking about movies in an entertaining way and proving what most of us knew all along: that almost anybody can be a film critic – an idea that has since been proved a million times by the Internet.

The appeal of Siskel and Ebert was that they were average. They were accessible. They weren’t foreign movie snobs. They weren’t suckers for the “flavor of the week” movie being hyped by the studios.  They were two ordinary guys with informed opinions who were free to disagree about movies, which they frequently did.

And they were a sensation.

Here’s where I come in.

In the early 1980s, in the ancient and now-forgotten era when American newspapers still considered arts coverage important, I was hired as a classical music critic at the Arizona Daily Star. There was a TV critic, movie critic, drama critic, rock/pop music critic, a freelance art critic and someone who would be drafted to write about the small and invariably struggling dance companies and review the annual performance of “The Nutcracker.”

There were more than enough movies for the regular critic to review and leftovers were shared among the other aspiring film critics on the staff. I usually got the bottom of the barrel (I think the only decent movie I ever reviewed was “Return of the Secaucus Seven”). More often it was something like “The Beastmaster”  or the remake of “The Thing.” The worst, as I recall, was “The Beach Girls,” which was so low-budget we never got a press kit and I had to copy the cast list from the poster outside the theater.

About that time, Jerry Lewis was testing a movie, then titled “Smorgasbord,” in Tucson after it had not done well in Los Angeles. To pump the movie, the producer was offering a face-to-face interview in Las Vegas. Our main movie critic wisely demurred. Did I want a free trip to Las Vegas to interview Jerry Lewis? I was young and dumb, so I said sure. (This was in the days when some small papers used press junkets as rewards and has been discontinued due to ethical concerns).

The story of my interview with Jerry Lewis will have to wait for another day. (And yes, I did ask about “When the Clown Cried” — update: That’s “The Day the Clown Cried.”) It is something to find out that a childhood hero (I will admit to seeing “Cinderfella”) is a 40-karat jerk, to put it mildly.  I felt sorry for the very kindly producer, Arnold Orgolini, who really took some abuse from Lewis for interrupting his day to do an interview for his dreadful movie.

In the interview, Lewis had strong and rather strange opinions about movie critics. I did a lot of prep work, knowing that he would be difficult, and I learned that he – and his ever-present posse – believed that movie critics never see films; they merely write reviews from the press kits. I don’t know where he got that idea, but it was a deeply held belief.

The only two critics he respected were Roger Ebert and (as I recall) Pauline Kael. Because, he said, they only saw two movies a week and had time to reflect on them and distill their thoughts.

So when I got back to the office I called Ebert just to get a comment. Understand that at the time, he was major movie critic and I was a hick from the sticks calling about a Jerry Lewis movie. Not exactly “Francois Truffaut on Line 1, Mr. Ebert.”

What I will always remember about Ebert was that he very cordial and collegial.

”Did he record the interview?” Ebert asked. Oh yes. It was apparently done to make sure I quoted him correctly. Lewis must have a zillion cassettes of interviews by now. I wonder what he has done with them all.

Ebert assured me that Lewis was wrong and that he saw far more than two movies a week.

And Ebert said something like this: “It is not a myth that the French are crazy about Jerry Lewis. I have been at Jerry Lewis movies in France. He was doing things that I did not find particularly amusing. But the people in the audience were literally collapsing in the aisles. It is true.”

And in response to Lewis’ belief that movie critics write reviews from press kits – especially his movies, Ebert said: “I have witnesses!”

In the intervening years, with the advent of megaplexes, VCRs, DVDs, DVRs and the Internet, movie-going and movie reviewing have changed dramatically. I cannot think of anyone today who even approaches the influence of Siskel and Ebert in their prime. In fact, Ebert without Siskel, who died in 1999, had far less prominence, like Laurel without Hardy or Abbott without Costello.

It was a short conversation a long time ago, but I will always remember how pleasant and friendly he was to a very small-time writer at a very small-time paper. Really, the best thing about interviewing Jerry Lewis was that I got to talk to Roger Ebert.

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About lmharnisch

I work at the Los Angeles Times
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14 Responses to Roger Ebert, Jerry Lewis and Me

  1. LC says:

    Thank you for sharing that story. Roger Ebert was the only movie critic that I trusted, he will be greatly missed.

  2. Pat in Michigan says:

    Looking forward to your Jerry Lewis story!

  3. Great article, Larry! Yes, I remember the days before VHS or DVD, when the only way to see a movie (that hadn’t been edited for television) after its initial theatrical run, was at a drive-in theater, when it would be reissued the following season to fill out the bill on a double or triple feature.

    Gracious words for Roger Ebert. He was one of my heroes, along with Gene Siskel. They took film criticism out of the rarified domain of people like cranky old john Simon. And regardless of whether you went to see one of the movies they reviewed, their reviews were always entertaining to watch. So sad they’re both gone now.

    On a lighter note, I can’t wait to read your detailed account of your interview with Jerry Lewis. I’ll bet he was a stitch–in the worst way. Also can’t wait to hear what he had to say about his magnum opus, “The Day the Clown Cried.” Perhaps the greatest shame about that movie–apart from the fact that it was made at all–is that we’ll likely never get to know how perfectly awful it really is. The option had apparently expired before Lewis even shot the film, so the rights had reverted back to original author Joan O’Brien. Undaunted by this trifling bit of legal pettifoggery, Lewis shot the film anyway, but not before rewriting O’Brien’s death camp tragedy into another maudlin Jerry Lewis vehicle. When O’Brien and co-author Charles Denton saw what Lewis had done with the film, O’Brien reportedly was so mortified she vowed the film would never be seen by human eyes. (Although, film buffs are so rabid to see this movie, she could probably raise a fortune for her favorite charity by holding benefit screenings.)

    In an article in Spy Magazine called “Jerry Goes to Death Camp,” writer/actor Harry Shearer–one of only a handful of people who’ve actually seen the film–described it as “a perfect object…so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is.”

    Gosh, now I *really* want to see it!

    • lmharnisch says:

      For those folks who may not know (if there are any) “The Day the Clown Cried” is a Jerry Lewis movie about the Holocaust — as improbable as that sounds. As I understand it (and I am not an authority) Lewis plays a clown who entertains children in a death camp. Not a promising subject anyway and as a Jerry Lewis vehicle — well the concept just takes my breath away.

  4. Benito says:

    I emailed Roger Ebert a rebuttal after he criticized the last scenes of O Brother Where Art Thou?, and teased him a bit about the wacky ending he’d written for Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, a personal favorite. Didn’t expect a reply and didn’t get one, but hope I gave him a chuckle.

  5. gary martin says:

    wasn’t the Day the Clown Cried remade as Life is Beautiful?

    Gary adds:

    I moved to NYC in September of 1959. As I was interested in seeing as many old movies as I could I was a constant presence at The New Yorker, the Symphony, the Thalia, the Museum of Modern Art, The Bleecker Street Cinema, the Apollo on 42nd Street, as well as various neighborhood theaters that did reruns of reissued studio films, and the small art house theatres that showed the current and past foreign language films. In addition there were the cinema clubs, I think Cinema 16, a Jonas Mekas, Jack Smith group…and later the Warhol films at the Wurlitzer Building …not to forget the NY Public Library and The New School. Among the critics at the time were Bosley Crowther, Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, Kenneth Brownlaw, I believe, Stanley Kaufman(?), Holis Alpert, James Agee On Film, and Mekas in this capacity as well. I would say that by 65-67 I had seen every major world classic film …including the complete films of Eisenstein …including a reconstituted Brezin (SP) Meadow and a sufficient number of Hollywood oldies.

    Now I thought I had it bad because I had to travel all over the city to see these things. Almost all of the showings were listed in Cue Magazine. Damn, what a lot of work just to see A Movie!

    As I was working in film in NYC I often was treated to obscure documentaries that one or the other of my employers had rented from some mysterious film library. In the summers in the country there was always the artsy old guy in town who had old prints of silent movies …great fun.

    I’ve never owned a TV set except recently in order to watch videos or DVDs. But I do remember one time in the 80”s (?) 90’s (?) when someone asked me to watch the Siskel Ebert Report. Now this was TV and I can’t say that I was surprised that it was so completely….average. Never saw it twice.

    No disrespect to Mr. Ebert.

  6. I’ve observed that famous people fall mostly into two categories: those with a magnanimous spirit, and those who are petty and mean-spirited. Compared to the general population, they have a bimodal distribution. Your post describes an example of each.

  7. davidlatta says:

    Thanks, Larry. Like all your work, immensely readable and entertainlng but this one is a cut above the others.

  8. James Scott says:

    I met Roger Ebert several times. He was always friendly, down to earth and full of joy. He personally answered all fanmail and emails. My only fault with him is that he didn’t like the Three Stooges. As for Jerry Lewis I attended a book signing years ago where he got mad and stormed out disappointing long lines of fans.

  9. Stacia says:

    I was born in the 1970s but remember the days before home video rental. Local TV stations late at night or on weekends, especially PBS (and shows like Matinee at the Bijou) were how you got your rare films, if you got them at all. Up until the mid 1990s, if I wanted to see anything that wasn’t a new release, I’d have to see a bad print rented for our university or a 17th-run theater in the bad part of town. Lester Bangs wrote a terrific piece about a renegade band of citizens taking over a TV station and showing every film ever made, chronologically, resulting in people being hospitalized for sleep deprivation while staying up days on end to watch films they’d never seen before. TCM is pretty close to that magical fantasy Bangs imagined decades ago.

    Hyperbolic or not, the Internet has not proven that almost anyone can be a critic “a million times” over. If anything, it’s proven the opposite. If almost anyone can be a critic, then those old-timers and aspiring directors and other assorted critics in the “dismal” days could have been critics, but they couldn’t. It’s not that easy. Anyone can talk about film, discuss it, blog about it, but full-fledged criticism is a different animal altogether. It involves an enormous amount of experience, education, watching and reading and discussing films constantly, promoting yourself, writing incessantly (I’ve heard several stories lately about Ebert’s incredible speed at producing a review). It may be criticism and not fiction, but critics still much churn out those proverbial million words before getting any good at it. Everyone who is a real critic, including Siskel and Ebert, and Lester Bangs (primarily music, certainly, but much of his work delves into film), and Kael, and people online, and Mordaunt Hall and Canby and yes, even Gene Shalit, worked at it. Film bloggers and a significant chunk of online film critics range from mediocre to excellent, but they are not in the same league, nor could most of them ever BE in the same league.

    Thanks to an increase in critics overall, we unfortunately see paid, relatively well-known critics who are not very good at their jobs. That doesn’t mean anyone can be a critic, it just means some people got their jobs by being controversial, or knowing the right people, or being cute, or getting lucky.

    Loved your story about Jerry Lewis. The more stories I hear, the more fascinated (in a really macabre way) I become by the guy.

    Thanks for indulging me with this long reply.

    • lmharnisch says:

      Very well said and, of course, I was being sarcastic. The Internet offers a somewhat level playing field for anybody and everybody who wants to write about film — just look at the reviews and message boards on imdb — particularly given the Web’s underlying “nerd factor.” (There, I said it). I could probably write a book about the state of film commentary in the Digital Age (oh criticizing critics! There’s a dull concept!) but I’ll restrain myself to one of my pet peeves, and that’s the maddeningly superficial introductions on TCM. Everything about the people and the films is so sanitized, non-controversial and non-offensive that the segments are unwatchable. I realize it’s not a film course, but really, I don’t give a damn what Melanie Griffith thinks about Jean Harlow or Keith Carradine’s opinion of Greer Garson.

      • Stacia says:

        Woah, I missed the sarcasm! Went right over my head.

        Critics can and should be criticized, as far as I’m concerned. What boggles me is when a critic who is known for being acerbic or even nasty gets criticized mildly and completely falls apart. On Twitter, this is a nearly everyday occurrence. I feel if I’m going to be pointedly honest about a movie (and, like you when you were a reviewer, I tend to get the low- and no-budget films to review, which means quite a few bad films) then, as long as it’s considered, people can be pointedly honest about my work. Fair’s fair.

        Sometimes I kind of like those actors-on-actors segments on TCM, but they seem to have been relying on them excessively for the last year or so. Some are so old that the actor reminiscing has since passed on.

      • lmharnisch says:

        I read very little online criticism. Having done it for a living (albeit in the minor leagues), I find most reviews grating and poorly wrought. What troubles me the most is the giant echo chamber of the Internet, in which misinformation and (even worse) misconceptions are spread about until they harden into “fact.” I suspect some of the DVD weenie fan boards are the worst. Some of my friends make glib, facile observations about “where such and such a director placed the camera” and I want to ask them: “Have you ever been on a movie set for any length of time? Do you know what a director of photography does?” But I bite my tongue. I have witnessed one film in production in which the seasoned DP (director of photographer) pretty much saved the movie because the neophyte director hadn’t a clue what he was doing.

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