Jerry Lewis’ 1972 film, The Day the Clown Cried, remains without a doubt the comedian, actor, and producer’s most controversial project. The never-released film, which Lewis both directed and starred in, told the chillingly macabre story of a German-Jewish clown sent to Auschwitz, where he is tasked with entertaining children as they are marched to the gas chambers. It was called “the most notorious cinematic miscue in history” by Spy magazine. He told the New Yorker the film would never see the light of day, though snippets have reliably surfaced across the Internet in recent years.
In 1997, though, the screenplay almost appeared in full, during a reading organized by the then-struggling comedian and actor Patton Oswalt. In an excerpt from Oswalt’s forthcoming memoir published on Vulture, Oswalt recounts the bizarre experience of getting his hands on a copy of Lewis’ script for the film, a noted departure from the original version written by Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton, and gathering actor friends like David Cross and Bob Odenkirk to perform live readings of it in Los Angeles.
Naturally, it didn’t last long.
But word got around. Jerry Lewis’s take on the Holocaust is a unique creature of discomfort and a dirty jewel to behold. And after three hush-hush performances at the Largo, I got a call from L.A. Weekly. They wanted to make the next reading their “Pick of the Week.”
What happens next isn’t what you’d expect—public outrage, say, or offended attendees—it was something bizarrely more sinister: a cease-and-desist letter from a film producer who had optioned the script and reportedly had Chevy Chase interested in the lead role.
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Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.