LOS ANGELES >> If Jerry Lewis is known for being caustic and cantankerous, he left that side of him behind for "Max Rose."
There's no trace of the elastic-faced comic in this new film (expanding Friday), though Lewis is in every frame. Even as he sits down to discuss coming out of retirement to take what is likely his last leading role, the 90-year-old entertainer is uncharacteristically gentle and sincere.
"I love the movies. I love them," he said in a recent interview at the Four Seasons Hotel. "I love being in them, I love watching them. I love what they represent. I love when I see it affect people, and you feel very special doing it."
More than that, Lewis just loves to perform, whether for an audience of thousands or just a few people at a party. He says a deep desire to connect with others is what keeps him out there.
"I'm very cognizant of the fact that the people I (perform) for are my audience, and my audience has to know one way or another that I love them," he said. "What I bring to my work is love. I love why I do it, I love for whom I do it and I love people in general."
His love for both the work and the audience is what inspired Lewis to make "Max Rose," a quiet drama unlike any of his past credits. Lewis plays a widower awash in grief after losing his wife of 65 years and discovering she may have been unfaithful early in their marriage. He's anchored, though, by a tender relationship with his adult granddaughter (Kerry Bishe').
Writer-director Daniel Noah sent the script unsolicited, and Lewis loved it, calling it "exceptional" and "perfect." The role would bring him back on a film set for the first time in almost two decades, and in the hands of a first-time filmmaker.
"I had already committed to making my last film," Lewis said, referring to 1995's "Funny Bones." "But when this script came to me, I thought: 'Why would that be my last film? Why can't this be my last film?' It was that simple."
The character felt close to him, he said, and would challenge him as an actor: Could he move viewers without relying on his comedic chops?
"For a pratfall comedian and for a noisy bastard like I can get, it's good to put that aside for a while," Lewis said. "I never thought prior to the film that I would do that one day. I never thought about it. Because you don't. You're thinking about straight comedy. And now you have to shake your brain clean to get all of that out of there to put this nice, quiet stuff in there."
Noah had envisioned only Lewis in the film's lead role and still can't quite believe it happened. But until they met, the filmmaker didn't realize how "uncannily similar" the fictional Max Rose was to the real Jerry Lewis.
"Jerry did not act in 'Max Rose,'" Noah said. "He is not performing. He genuinely let us photograph the real him."
Lewis describes it differently: "I kept one thought in mind: Don't let Jerry in here. When you do what I've done all of my life, it's tough. It's very tough because it becomes a part of your personality... It's not that easy to just make a quick change and it works."
Yet a lifetime of creating comedy is what gave him the confidence to take the role. He drew, as he says he always has, on lessons learned from his entertainer parents and former mentor, Charlie Chaplin.
"There's nothing more dramatic than the comedy I've done," Lewis said. "Because the comedy I've done is to get to the audience, get them to feel it, or they won't laugh ... and by getting comedy right, I learned how to do Max Rose."
Slightly hunched and hard of hearing, Lewis is as eager to work as ever. Although he repeatedly reminds a reporter that he's 90 ("Every time I say it, I get nervous."), he says he feels 17. He may use a "Dictaphone" to take notes, but he still rises at 4:30 or 5 each morning to write, and if a great idea hits, he could be there until 4 in the afternoon. He recently finished a new script, and he has standup shows scheduled through October in Las Vegas and New York.
Asked what he likes to do when he's not working, Lewis says, "Work." But he also spends time doting over his youngest daughter, 24-year-old Danielle, and relaxing with his wife of 33 years, Sam, at their palatial Las Vegas home.
Getting older has had its frustrations. Lewis sometimes loses his train of thought and uses a cane and a wheelchair to get around. But his desire to connect with audiences, with people, remains undiminished.
Lewis knows he can be difficult, but says it's only because he cares so much. He feels entertaining and making movies is such a privilege that he can't tolerate those who don't treat it that way.
Noah didn't experience the difficult Lewis, the one who lambastes colleagues or fans with equally cutting zeal. Instead, he found a man who loves the craft, willing to try something new and "let the real him be seen" after 70 years onscreen.
"When the truth comes down to the truth, I am so grateful that I'm on that stage or in front of that camera. I still feel it like it's the first day," Lewis said. "To have a career that I had in film, I'm the luckiest Jew that ever lived. I'm so grateful for it. I don't take advantage of it. I don't use it improperly. And I love the fact that there's nowhere I can go where people don't know me."
And he's happy to finally show them his softer side.