Jerry Lewis Comes Back from 13 Years of Pain and Drugs—and a Brush with Suicide
Five years ago, on his 29th wedding anniversary, Jerry Lewis’ world had collapsed. Standing in the bathroom of his Bel Air home, dazed by a massive dose of the drug Percodan, he held a .38-caliber revolver to the roof of his mouth and felt his finger reach for the trigger. “Thank God I heard my children laughing and running through the hall,” he remembers. “That snapped me out of it.”
Lewis overcame the urge to kill himself, but not the addiction to Percodan that had brought him to such despair. For five more years he continued to take massive doses of the narcotic, feeding his habit by obtaining prescriptions from several doctors simultaneously. Then, just two months ago, Lewis finally broke the drug’s hold on him—submitting to a make-or-break crash withdrawal in Houston under the supervision of a longtime friend, famed heart specialist Dr. Michael DeBakey. Only now is Lewis, 52, able to talk openly about the addiction that held him in thrall for 13 years and nearly cost him his life. “I would like young kids to know what can happen when you take stuff into your system,” he explains, “and that you don’t have to follow a pattern you’ve set for yourself. There are alternatives.”
Lewis’ ordeal with Percodan started in Las Vegas in 1965 after one of the spectacular pratfalls he ended his act with. The comedian did a double cartwheel off the piano and landed on his back according to plan. “This time I hit so hard I was numb,” he says. “I got up and did the payoff, the lights came down, the curtains closed, and I knew I had hurt myself.” Next day in Los Angeles an orthopedist told him just how bad it was: He had chipped a piece of bone from his upper spinal column. The doctor put him in a neck brace, prescribed Percodan for the pain and saw Lewis regularly for the next year—all to little avail. The injury brought frightening side effects, impairing the vision in his left eye, partially disabling his left arm and hip, and creating an arthritic condition (“When I turn my neck it’s like pouring cream on Rice Krispies”). But the worst consequence was intense, debilitating pain, centered in the upper left side of his back.
Desperately seeking relief, Lewis embarked on a world tour of medical specialists. What followed was a litany of bad news, he says: “Moscone in New York, Hammersmith in London, Cardo in Paris, Helm in Stockholm, Pearson at UCLA, Liberman in Beverly Hills—all consulting with one another and everybody agreeing: inoperative. You know the joke. The doctor says, ‘You got six months to live.’ The guy says, ‘I’d like another opinion.’ And the doctor says, ‘Okay, you’re ugly too.’ ”
Only Percodan made the suffering bearable. “One pill in the morning would take me through the day,” Lewis recalls. “That helped greatly for the first four or five years. I’m not terribly clear about when I started to lose the help I was getting from one, but then it was two.” In 1970, worried about his vision, Lewis consulted a New York ophthalmologist who raised the possibility of orthopedic surgery for the first time. Dr. DeBakey, whom Jerry had met through his fund raising for muscular dystrophy, examined the comedian shortly thereafter and laid out the alternatives. “He said if they went in I’d either come out exactly like I was or I’d be paralyzed on the entire left side for the rest of my life,” Lewis says. “I said I didn’t like the odds.” At the same time DeBakey tried to persuade him to cut back on the drugs, but Lewis balked. “He doesn’t get up with me in the morning,” he remembers thinking. “He doesn’t know pain is a very elusive, devastating thing.”
Lewis made several subsequent trips to DeBakey’s clinic and continued seeing other doctors. In the process, he was subjected to three excruciating myelograms—X-ray tests for spinal cord blockage. Percodan seemed his only reliable ally. By 1973 he was up to a half dozen or more every day. As he looks back at his brush with suicide, he realizes that the drug had turned against him. “The pain was so intense,” he says, “I was taking Percodan after Percodan for five, six, seven straight hours and getting no relief. It frightened the hell out of me. If I hadn’t had seven or eight pills in me at the time, I don’t think I would have considered killing myself.”
After that Lewis forever banished the notion of suicide. “The thought of snuffing out your life is so terrible, so devastating, it’s amazing how you begin to live with the pain,” he says. Still, his appetite for Percodan was ravenous—despite the steadily diminishing relief it afforded and the increasingly worrisome side effects. Through it all, incredibly, he kept to his demanding schedule of tours and Las Vegas dates. By 1976, however, he found his creativity dimmed and his personality submerged in drug-induced depression. “I don’t remember a lot of the stuff that came down toward the end,” he says, “but my wife and children could tell you how rough it was. I was terribly jumpy, irritable, intolerant, impatient. The drug was tearing my system apart. It was troubling my friends, but they knew there was nothing else I could do—nothing they could give me.” To get through his grueling round-the-clock muscular dystrophy telethon last September, Lewis had a doctor friend inject painkilling Xylocaine into his back. Afterward DeBakey took him aside. “You’re living with a double-edged sword,” he said. “We must get you into the hospital and try something new.”
Even then Lewis might have resisted if a friend plagued by migraines hadn’t asked Lewis to take him to DeBakey’s clinic. While there in late September, Lewis mentioned to the doctor’s aides that he was having severe stomach pains. An examination revealed an ulcer. Lewis was taking up to 11 Percodans a day and they had apparently hidden its symptoms. Had the ulcer gone undetected a few weeks longer, DeBakey said, it would probably have hemorrhaged—and Jerry would be dead.
Instead, he spent five days in Houston’s Methodist Hospital, sedated into unconsciousness. During that period a team of doctors (his wife, Patti, remembers seeing 11 in the room at once) stopped the Percodan, got him through the withdrawal and tried new nonsurgical procedures to ease the pain. He was injected with “compounds and steroids,” as Lewis describes it, and fluid was drained off to relieve pressure on the raveled nerves of his back. When he finally regained consciousness after five days, Lewis says, “I looked at my wife and said, ‘Did you ever hear about a born-again Jew? Well, you’re looking at one.’ I had very little pain, and my head was so clear I felt like the wind was blowing in one ear and out the other. I kept looking at my face in the mirror because I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘My God, they finally came up with the answer.’ ” That morning DeBakey invited him to scrub up and observe a heart operation, which Lewis had done several times before. The next day Lewis caught a chartered jet to Muncie, Ind., where he performed two shows. “I felt cleansed.”
Lewis’ cure is not total; his disabilities remain, and so does some pain, which he will have for the rest of his life. But it is bearable and almost innocuous compared to the effects of his devastating addiction. Now in Pompano Beach, Fla. putting the finishing touches on a screenplay, he feels creatively reborn—and almost evangelistic about the change. Last month in Las Vegas, he ran into Paul Newman’s son, Scott. “They used to live around the corner from us,” Lewis says. “We shook hands and talked about his dad and mom. He was a gorgeous kid.” Two weeks ago Scott Newman died at 28, apparently from mixing tranquilizers with alcohol. “What a waste!” The message was not lost on Lewis. “The sight of a Percodan right now would frighten me like the muzzle of a gun,” he says. What he means, of course, is that for him the two were not very different.