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The last laugh
Restored for the Tribeca Film Festival, “The King of Comedy” is embraced 30 years after its release
By LARRY GETLEN
Last Updated: 11:57 PM, April 20, 2013
Posted: 9:25 PM, April 20, 2013
During the making of the Martin Scorsese classic “The King of Comedy,” a 30th anniversary restoration that closes the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday night, star Robert De Niro prepared to shoot one scene by suddenly, without provocation, hurling anti-Semitic insults at co-star Jerry Lewis.
So brutal was his tirade, Lewis told People Magazine in 1983, that De Niro ended by screaming that the Jews have “turned this world into garbage for 5,000 years.”
Of course, acting icon and Tribeca festival co-founder De Niro is no Mel Gibson. He was simply invoking The Method to ensure that Lewis had the requisite amount of anger — their next scene required Lewis to go off on him.
Jerry Lewis, left, and Robert De Niro in “The King of Comedy.”
“I forgot the cameras were there,” said Lewis, who also noted that De Niro refused to have dinner with him while shooting, asking how they could possibly enjoy a meal together when De Niro’s character wanted to blow Lewis’ head off.
“The King of Comedy” starred De Niro as Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring comedian who first admires, then stalks and kidnaps, popular talk-show host Jerry Langford, who was played by Lewis.
A box-office flop with lukewarm reviews upon its release — it failed to even make the list of Top 100 film grosses for 1983 — the film has grown in critical stature with age. One Fox publicist Tweeted earlier this year that the studio was working on a Blu-ray release but did not give a date.
When Scorsese was originally offerred the film, he didn’t get it.
“I’m not an actor,” Scorsese said in an interview featured on the film’s DVD, released in 2002. “I’m not in the public eye, and I wasn’t living with the same scrutiny.”
But when he gave the script to De Niro, the actor understood it immediately.
“I remember walking somewhere with Bob [De Niro] and Marty not long after Reagan had been shot, and Bob was a little skittish about things,” says executive producer Bobby Greenhut. “He had some jitters about being the subject of a stalker. I remember him saying, ‘I’m looking over my shoulder. Someone’s gonna be running up with a gun.’ ”
Longtime celebrity Jerry Lewis, “understood it without even reading it,” according to Scorsese.
Yet he was far from the first choice for the role of Langford.
Scorsese first offered the part to Johnny Carson, who turned it down.
Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra and the entire Rat Pack were also considered before Scorsese settled on Lewis, whose experience as longtime host of the Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon gave him unique insight into the role of TV host.
While Lewis was a smart choice for the part, he had a reputation.
“There was so much trepidation about Jerry,” says Greenhut. “He has this tremendous baggage of being very difficult, a real loose cannon and unreliable.”
Certainly, he sometimes gave co-star Sandra Bernhard a tough time. “I was most intimdated by Jerry. [He] wasn’t always very nice on set. He’d say things like, ‘Hey, fish lips.’ Probably made me feel a little bad at the time.”
But Lewis knew how to charm his public.
“One day we were on Park Avenue doing a shot, and he was lighting a cigarette,” says producer Greenhut. “Somebody had given him this prop lighter, which shot out a six-foot flame like something you’d find at Ringling Brothers. He lit his cigarette with it, and everybody was laughing. There’d be a crowd around, and he would tell jokes, hug pedestrians.”
Lewis remained outgoing and friendly on-set even when Scorsese and De Niro’s process made him bristle.
Lewis was used to filming scenes in just one or two takes. Scorsese and De Niro would film countless takes of seemingly inconsequential scenes.
“When I saw Take 29 for a scene with no words, just walking from a theater mob to a limo, I said, ‘We’re in a mess,’ ” Lewis told People. “I never saw the number 29 before in my career!”
However, as the film took form, he came to admire De Niro’s technique.
“Take 1, Bobby’s getting oriented,” Lewis says. “By 10, you’re watching magic, and in Take 15, you’re seeing genius.”
And now that genius has been restored, we want to see those kings of comedy all over again.