“He kissed him, the fish, the chips – all: my time with Jerry Lewis in Blackpool | Funny Bones director Peter Chelsom

We wrote Funny Bone with four players in mind: Jerry Lewis, Leslie Caron, George Carl and Freddie Davies. As almost never happens, none of them are dead, and they all said yes.

I first met Jerry in Las Vegas, where we rehearsed. Walking through the crowd of game floor of a casino in las Vegas with Jerry, the reactions ranged from hysteria to shock that comes from seeing a ghost. He is alive! Very much alive. (In fact, it was a very lively and 69.)

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From the start, he was generous. There was an alarm bell: he made a show of presenting me with a signed copy of his book, The Total Film-Maker. It threw me, humbled me. It reminded me that I was a director. Is the book of a manual of instructions on how I should proceed? I kept expecting to be difficult; to pull rank. He has never done.

If it has always been difficult, it has been in the ways that never bled on the game. No room in Blackpool, the Imperial hotel was big enough for him. In the end, it was a room for him and one of his possessions. Locks had to be changed. And I had to hide the fact that I had the largest room, the Gigi a result, something that I also had to hide from Leslie Caron for reasons obvious to anyone familiar with his filmography.

Ruta Lee, Jerry Lewis, Amir Fawzi and Leslie Caron in Funny Bones. Photo: Allstar/Cinetext/Buena Vista

But he kissed him. The fish, the chips – all. The world from my hometown of Blackpool, as it appeared in my childhood.

The film is full of non-professional actors, from different walks of life. The crew has called the movie “the mad, sad, non-insurable world of Peter Chelsom”. In particular, there were a lot of actors. For me, there is a very thin line between a talent for being funny and being a great actor. Jerry Lewis personified. And this is the thing about him – he really was an excellent actor. He played it very sincerely. He understood that the area he was in: real characters in absurd situations. In Funny Bones, there’s comedy, and it is, but it’s not a “comedy act”. You don’t act absurd; it is a by-product. It has got that.




Watch a trailer for Funny Bone

There is a scene where he visits his son (Oliver Platt) in his dressing room before going on stage. He asked me how I saw it. I told him that I just wanted him to “own” the room, to stay casual. I didn’t want to give him a beating. I have been a roll of the two cameras, and I’d take what he wanted to do – I knew he would conduct himself. He knew what worked. I just wanted to watch. Take the a’s in the movie.

He told me that he liked what the film had to say about the comedy of our life. He related to the polarity, the limits, the dark side of all this: it was a film where a comedian (Lee Evans) is fed by the applause of almost murdering someone on stage. Jerry embodied the term “funny bones”: a way to differentiate between the comedians who tell funny and those who are funny. It was definitive of the casting.

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I had been obsessed with the essence of comedy from the age of seven. Jerry used to ask me: “How do you know all this without coming from a show business family?” Then one day, I pointed out Butlin is in the distance. “You see Butlin, Jerry? My grand-mother has won the prestigious grand-mother of competition it has been five years in a row. And I had all the cups to prove it.” He smiled, spread his arms and said: “If you come from a show business family!”