Hellza Poppin

UPDATED 03/27/1995 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/27/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

THE CAST OF THE BROADWAY revival of Damn Yankees is trying to rehearse, but to their amusement, the show's new star, Jerry Lewis, is misbehaving. Mining his bottomless repertoire of corny antics (warbling "La Vie en Rose" in the middle of a line, bending a desk lamp's gooseneck stem and declaring, "World's strongest man!"), he repeatedly throws the scene into giddy disarray. Finally, Lewis, who has never played on Broadway in his 69 years, quits clowning—but only momentarily. The script calls for him to walk into a woman's kitchen and ask if she lives there. He opens the door, faces his costar and, in a voice like an air-raid siren gone bonkers, shrills, "Is this your house, laaaady?"

Before Lewis was cast last October to replace the departing Victor Garber (who left on Dec. 31) as Mr. Applegate, the devil who tries to steal the soul of a Yankee-hating Washington Senators baseball fan, that line never got a laugh. But when Lewis, (whose performance The New York Times called "thoroughly accomplished") delivers the L-word in all his piercing nasal glory, full-house audiences at the Marquis Theatre howl—and the show's producer Mitchell Maxwell sighs with relief. "One of the things that is disappointing about Broadway is that there are very few big stars anymore," says Maxwell. "We felt it would be great to deliver Jerry."

But there was a hitch. Lewis was busy until the end of the year filming a movie, Funny Bones (opening March 24). He wanted the first two months of '95 to get ready—not only to learn his part, but also to drop the 25 pounds he had gained during Funny Bones. "I met the schedule," boasts Lewis, who, with the help of a personal trainer and a strict 800-calories-a-day diet, now struts the stage with just 174 pounds on his 6-foot frame. For Maxwell, who had to close the show from Jan. 1 to Feb. 28, the delay paid off too. "The two months were worth it," he says. "Jerry is a big star. He's been a star for a long time."

Make that nearly a lifetime. Lewis, best known for his work in film, nightclubs and 30 years of muscular dystrophy telethons, has been in show business for 64 years. Amazingly, though, Broadway marks a new frontier for him. "I've been offered other roles," he says, "but none of them were right. I've been playing the devil for 60 years, so this was perfect. It was that simple."

Performing always came naturally to Lewis. The only child of vaudevillian Danny Lewis and his wife, Rae, a pianist on WOR radio in New York City in the '30s, Jerry (born Joseph Levitch) made his debut at 5, singing "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" at a hotel in the Catskills. By 15 he had honed a talent for mime and slapstick that he displayed in burlesque houses in Upstate New York.

In 1946, Lewis teamed up with crooner Dean Martin, and together the geek and the sleek skyrocketed to fame in comedy clubs and a 10-year streak of hit movies. "I don't think we would have ever been heard of without the other," says Lewis.

Personal and professional differences ended the partnership in 1956. But Lewis rebounded with a film career—nearly 50 titles, from antic romps like 1963's The Nutty Professor to Martin Scorsese's brilliantly creepy The King of Comedy in 1983. In Funny Bones, Lewis costars opposite Leslie Caron and plays a stand-up comedian.

But the role Lewis relishes most these days is fatherhood. In 1992 he and his second wife, Sandra (Sam, to all), adopted their now 3-year-old child, Danielle, fulfilling Lewis's long-held dream of having a daughter. Lewis, who is living with Sam, 44, and Dani at a Manhattan hotel during his six-month Broadway stint, became a father 49 years ago (he and first wife Patti have six sons from their 36-year marriage, which ended in 1980). He finds the job easier this time. "I never had the time for my boys until they were young adults," he says. "With Dani, there isn't a day she is not mine for two hours. I get her up, I change her diaper, I give her the cereal. We dance to music she likes, and we play games. She and my wife are my energy—they pump air in my lungs."

Those lungs were doing fine on their own until Lewis met Sam when the dancer and former flight attendant auditioned for his 1981 film Hardly Working. They married in 1983, not long after he had open-heart surgery. "I was feeling good about ending my first marriage," he recalls with a smile. "I was on my way to having freedom. Then Sam came along and screwed everything up."

These days, Lewis is thrilled just to be giving the devil his due. "The other day," says his costar Charlotte d'Amboise, "Jerry told me that he didn't know what he was going to do with his day off because he's so into the show." Indeed, says Lewis, retirement isn't something he would wish on his worst enemy. "There is nothing more energetic and passionate than being productive in what you love to do," he says. And is he ever worried about not delivering the goods? "The audience should get its money's worth," he says. "After all, they have put me right where I am, giving me glowing affection and support. I'm an American icon."

PETER CASTRO
LISA KAY GREISSINGER in New York City

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