“It was surreal,” writer-director Daniel Noah, 44, told the Forward. “I was being served lox and bagels on a Sunday morning in my pajamas by Jerry Lewis. He was wearing a silk kimono, putting salmon on my plate, and asking me do I want more capers.”
Jerry Lewis turned 90 this year and had been in retirement for two decades. The man had no interest in making movies anymore. When Noah wrote the script for “Max Rose” he became fixated on the idea that Jerry Lewis would play the lead. Alas, every attempt to get to the star was shut down.
“We were told he’s retired,” said Noah. “He doesn’t accept scripts any more, he doesn’t have an agent. It was impossible to get anything through to him.”
Noah was about to give up but turned to Google and found Lewis had an office in Vegas that managed the big business of being Jerry Lewis. Noah cold-called the office and spoke to a staffer who reinforced that Lewis gets thousands of calls every year and doesn’t read scripts, so please don’t bother.
But, now that he had an address, Noah and his producer Lawrence Inglee deliberated for a week over three paragraphs. Noah sent the letter, figuring he’d never hear back. Soon after that, when Lewis received an honorary Oscar, Noah stood in front of the TV thinking, “This is the closest I’m ever going to get to Jerry Lewis.”
Two weeks later Lewis called. Noah said, “He’d read our letter and agreed to review the script. He read it quickly and called to commit to making the film.”
“Max Rose” is a fictionalized story based on Noah’s maternal grandfather, Bob Loewy, a jazz guitarist who’d had one hit song, “Jealous Heart.” When his career didn’t pan out, he turned his focus onto his family.
“He’d married my grandmother when he was 19,” Noah told us. “They were high school sweethearts. She had rooted him. They’d had children and grandchildren, but their real connection was with each other.”
In their mid-80s, Loewy’s wife passed away. “He had never had to contemplate who he was without her,” said Noah. “I watched this profound spiritual crisis as he tried to understand the value of his life without her.”
Some of the dialogue came directly from Loewy. “He once told me he thought he was a failure,” Noah said. “He was reexamining his life. The loss of her, as irrational as it was, felt like a betrayal, like she’d left him, so he was dealing with feelings of abandonment, and suddenly asking, ‘Who am I without her?’”
Noah watched this internal journey but, to make a movie about it, he had to externalize the process by creating plot devices.
The film opens with Max (Lewis), an 87-year-old retired jazz pianist, grieving over the loss of his wife Eva (Claire Bloom). After 65 happy years together he is lost. His relationship with his son Christopher (Kevin Pollak) is strained, but he has a tender connection with Christopher’s daughter Annie (Kerry Bishé), who keeps trying to help her grandfather through the pain.
The inciting incident isn’t Eva’s death, though. It is when Max comes across a love note written to Eva in 1959. It sets him on a journey to find out if their life together was a lie. It’s an engaging and universal story about questioning the meaning of your life and losing someone you love.
Was it intimidating for filmmaker Noah to direct a legend twice his age?
“It really wasn’t,” he said. “One of the benefits of how long it can take to put an independent film together is that it gives you a lot of time to prepare. Jerry and I spent an enormous amount of time becoming close. I would go see him once a month, and he welcomed me into his family. When we first met, he said ‘If this thing is going to work, you and I have to love each other. I’m going to start loving you right now.’
“We became so comfortable with each other. He also promised he would never cross the line, he’d stay in front of the camera and not get into my business. He held to that, even to the point where if I asked for advice on a scene, he’d say, ‘That’s not my job, kid. You’re on your own.’”
Noah described Lewis as a brilliant man with what Lewis calls an “internal government.” In one exchange while discussing “The Ladies Man,” Lewis spoke of himself in the third person. Chris mimicked him: “I’d have Jerry covered in a choker’ [a close-up shot] but I’d make sure I had him covered in a wide shot. I didn’t know what the hell that crazy Jerry was gonna do.”
Noah explained, “It took me a while to realize that he was talking about himself. Jerry Lewis the actor was someone that Jerry Lewis the director knew was unpredictable, so Jerry Lewis the director was always making sure to have extra cameras on set, because Jerry Lewis the actor might miss his marks. He could suddenly run up a staircase or jump out a window.”
In the internal government: “He talks about how there are different people inside of him. There’s an actor, a director, a producer, a philanthropist, a father, a husband, a friend. The internal government determines which of those people is currently in the cockpit. With ‘Max Rose,’ he was very deliberate about the actor but the other Jerrys were locked away.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Lewis in a dramatic role. In 1982 he played Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.” But the last time we’d seen him in more than a cameo, was in 1995’s “Funny Bones.”
Since this was Lewis’ first starring role in two decades, the Cannes Film Festival was interested. They invited Noah to show the film at their festival in 2013. Noah agreed but it was premature. The film was only a rough-cut then. The final movie premiered at MoMa on April 10, 2016, one month after the museum presented a retrospective of Lewis’ films.
“Max Rose” is playing in select theaters throughout September then rolls out nationwide in October.
This story "How Did an Unknown Filmmaker Coax Jerry Lewis Out of Retirement?" was written by Dorri Olds.