On a recent afternoon, Jerry Lewis cracked open a diet soda and dimmed the lights inside a casino ballroom to drink in the spectacle of Charlie Chaplin impersonating Hitler.
A scene from Chaplin's 1940 satire "The Great Dictator" flickered across a bank of monitors, part of a video montage Lewis was editing for his signature cause, the Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon.
Watching Chaplin spoof Hitler as a power-drunk buffoon, Lewis alternately howled with laughter and provided a master-class commentary about Chaplin's filmmaking "genius" and the balletic brilliance of his physical comedy.
It's the kind of thing you pick up after writing and directing more than a dozen films and starring in scores more.
Television's most venerable telethon host entered Living Legend territory long ago and his comedy dominance - particularly in partnership with Dean Martin throughout the 1940s and '50s - paved the way for absurdist jokemeisters Andy Kaufman, Jim Carrey and Jack Black. At age 84, Lewis isn't just sliding by on past triumphs.
In December, Lewis said, he will go in front of the camera for the independent drama "Max Rose," his first starring movie role in a quarter-century.
He still crisscrosses the country by private jet to perform 21/2-hour stand-up sets a dozen times a year.
And November 2011 will mark the performer's ambitious Broadway musical adaptation of his landmark comedy "The Nutty Professor."
He is simply unwilling to let age limit him to fundraising for muscular dystrophy, though he makes it clear that remains at the top of his agenda.
"Being old doesn't mean you've lost your spirit. And that's what this is about," Lewis said, hunching forward in his chair at Las Vegas' South Point Hotel and Casino to make his point. "It's spirit and energy and the desire to do good work for people who don't stand a chance if I don't."
Jerry goes vertical
These days Lewis scoots to appointments on a Rascal scooter and likes to ride circles around those in his employ. He has ascended the pinnacle of showbiz over a nearly 60-year run as a stand-up comedian-singer-writer-actor-director-producer-movie and TV star.
Along the way, he has suffered a litany of health problems, many related to his extreme lifestyle. Besides prostate cancer, diabetes and open-heart surgery, there's the nasty case of viral meningitis, pulmonary fibrosis thanks to his five-pack-a-day smoking habit (Lewis ballooned to 280 pounds due to a medicine he took for the condition), chronic back pain from chipping his spine during a pratfall at the Sands Casino, as well as accompanying bouts of addiction to prescription painkillers and even suicidal depression.
"I was horizontal for five years," Lewis explained of his battle with pulmonary fibrosis. "Now, when someone says, 'How are you?' I say, 'I'm vertical! What's better than that?'"
Jerry goes upbeat
He recently flew to New York City to begin casting 70 parts for the Broadway adaptation of his "Nutty Professor" - the 1963 Jekyll and Hyde comedy that Lewis wrote, directed and starred in.
"You count your blessings," Lewis said. "And while you do, a tremendous humility comes over you. It's something that happens to you. I've been able to keep those happenings fresh."