Jerry Lewis’s Costars Speak Out: “He Grabbed Me. He Began to Fondle Me. I Was Dumbstruck”

As a kid I watched Jerry Lewis movies when they turned up on the local independent TV channels, and typically when I was home from school on  Labor Day, I would watch at least part of his muscular dystrophy telethons.

I’m saddened to read allegations about yet another established male professional using his position of power to manipulate a younger female artist by demanding sexual favors.

Demanding? Requesting? Suggesting?

Semantics. The huge power differential makes anything resembling “consent” very problematic.

Leading lady Karen Sharpe reports that after she resisted a crude sexual overture from Lewis, she found herself punished with the silent treatment. Not just from him; everyone working on the film was informed that anyone who even spoke to Sharpe would be fired.

He refused to rehearse with her, and consented to do just one take of their scenes together.

She endured.

On her final day of production, Sharpe was leaving her dressing room when she bumped into Lewis. She thanked him for the pay raise and her beautiful costumes. Lewis interrupted her to say she was “a hell of a girl.” Then he confessed, “I honestly don’t know how you came to work every day.” He offered an explanation: “You see, I’m sick.”

That’s when Sharpe finally snapped: “Jerry, bullshit. Is that your excuse for bad behavior—that you’re sick and people are supposed to excuse that? Well, I don’t excuse that. It was the most unprofessional leading man/leading lady relationship I’ve ever had in my 20 years as an actor. Just think how much better we could have been if you’d been professional and cooperated.”

She had one final thought.

“You ever think about playing a heavy—a real son of a bitch?” asked Sharpe. “Because you’re really good at that. People wouldn’t believe it, but we both know that’s who you really are.”

[…]

Several years ago, Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering began investigating Old Hollywood’s long history of abuse. The pair have covered alleged sexual abuse in the church (Twist of Faith), on college campuses (The Hunting Ground), in the military (The Invisible War), and, most recently, within one brutally divided family (Allen v. Farrow). Around 2017, they began interviewing actors—collecting devastating stories, many of which were shared for the first time. Some of the most explosive accusations involved Jerry Lewis. The filmmakers brought their interviews to Vanity Fair, wanting the women’s stories to be heard. Speaking about Hope Holiday, the 91-year-old actor from Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, Dick says, “I remember Hope saying she thought she would take these stories to her grave. She never thought anyone would be interested. She never thought there’d be a safe space to tell them.” (Ziering and Dick also made a short film with some of the women’s stories which can be seen above.)

People have reported and acted against Hollywood sexual harassment and abuse since 1937, when movie extra Patricia Douglas became the first woman to take on a studio for sexual assault; she claimed she was raped by an MGM salesman after boarding a bus, along with other aspiring starlets who were told they’d be filming on location, only to be deposited at a sales convention as party favors. After filing a lawsuit, her name was smeared by studio fixers, her address leaked to the press, and her case dismissed. (The district attorney had been accused of taking MGM bribes.) Generations of women kept quiet about sexual assault and harassment in part because neither they nor the society they lived in had even a vocabulary for it. Longtime star Loretta Young did not realize she had been date-raped by Clark Gable in 1935 until she heard the phrase on CNN 63 years later and asked friends to explain it to her. Once she was clear on the meaning, she said, “That’s what happened with me and Clark.” —Vanity Fair