Inspired by New Line TV’s series for the Sci Fi Channel, “What If,” which dramatizes a very different course of history each week by going back and altering famous moments of the past, author Bruce Wagner delineates a new Hollywood history by choosing a single moment of entertainment lore and altering it with his own freewheeling imagination. His starting point is Jerry Lewis’ 14th project as a director, “The Day the Clown Cried” (1972), a movie about a German clown who is thrown into a concentration camp for insubordination and forced to lead Jewish children into the gas chamber. Known as one of the worst missteps in Hollywood history, the movie was, not surprisingly, plagued with problems from the start, including the loss of financing and the failure to secure rights. Worse, the finished product was so disappointing that it has never seen a theatrical release. Said Harry Shearer after seeing a bootleg copy, “This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. ‘Oh, my God!’ — that’s all you can say.” Nonetheless, Wagner reinvents a different course of events for the film — some true and many invented — starting with a new cast (including an adolescent Courteney Cox); tracks it through its sweep of the 1974 Academy Awards; and documents its transformative effect on a handful of viewers, including Yasser Arafat, Mel Gibson, Simon Wiesenthal and Roberto Benigni.
It’s 1972, and Jerry Lewis needs $6 million to complete production of his bitter war parable “The Day the Clown Cried” — a coincidental dollar for each murdered Jew. The American auteur approaches the Feichtwagen corporation (later to become Toys R Us, whose parent company became Staples in 1991), a generous donor to the MDA Telethon since its beginnings in 1965; it is now widely known that the multiconglomerate designed the fluid-absorbent flooring of the ovens at Muenchausen built especially for unwitting toddlers led there “for bathing,” and the Feichtwagen CEO had made the canny decision to fund the completion of the film as a kind of corporate war reparation. The luminous Harriet Andersson, now lensing Ingmar Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers,” is replaced by the whorish, vapidly elegant Ali MacGraw just as the actress-model is wrapping “The Getaway” with lover Steve McQueen (who eventually overdoses on amphetamine, fish oils and laetrile, which he is taking for a persistent sinus infection). The infusion of Feichtwagen money also gives Lewis the freedom to edit out a child actor who wasn’t “believable” in her gassy death throes; she is subbed by talented 9-year-old Alabama newcomer Courteney Cox. The hammy Colonel Klink impersonator, Anton Diffring, is also replaced, astonishingly, by famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Wiesenthal and Lewis had met and performed an impromptu duet of “Smile (While Your Heart Is Breaking)” on the ’68 telethon, and the formidable bounty hunter surprises Lewis by agreeing to a screen test. (note 1)
“TDTCC” is released in 1974 to critical and box-office triumph, garnering 11 Academy Award nominations. It receives picture, actor and director (Lewis), actress (MacGraw), supporting actor (Wiesenthal) and supporting actress (Cox). Army Archerd writes in Variety how the directorial nominees that year — Coppola, Fosse, Truffaut and Cassavetes — make a poignant pact to turn the golden statue over to Lewis onstage, should any of them win. They do not have to do so.
The 46-year-old Yasser Arafat watches the award ceremony from Egypt and is intrigued. After receiving a print from MGM, he goes on a kind of “vision quest,” disappearing into the desert for a fortnight. When he emerges, he renounces politics and moves to the U.S. In 1976, in what has been reported by Liz Smith to be one of the most unusual gatherings in showbiz history, Lewis hosts a dinner at his Bel-Air home. Guests include Frank Sinatra — as well as Arafat, Myron Cohen, Wiesenthal, Sam Giancana, Marty Allen, Shecky Greene and most of the cast of “TDTCC.” Sinatra, clearly attracted by the waiflike Cox but perennially awed by political power, defers to the fiery, if declawed, Jerusalem-born PLO abdicator, hastily brokering a marriage between Arafat and the young actress. (Ironically, Cox, now nearly 13, is given the role of child prostitute Iris in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” after newcomer Jodie Foster drops out; Foster’s parents had just seen “TDTCC” and wished their daughter to pursue roles that, if dark, were redemptive and not overtly sexualized.) (note 2) Two weeks later, with the permission of Cox’s parents, the Arafats secretly marry in a Vegas ceremony, an hour after the historic reunion of Lewis and Dean Martin on the MDA Telethon; in a rambling interview, Martin admits the reunion would never have happened without the epiphany he experienced while watching “TDTCC” with his son. Already 20 years old at his first viewing of the masterwork, the handsome Dino Martin was so terrified by the claustrophobic gas-chamber scenes that he developed an intense fear of flying. He took a medical leave from the Army Reserves and never boarded a plane, commercial or otherwise. After starring in the hit show “Three’s Company,” Dino became the mayor of Palm Springs. (Now 53, in remission from prostate cancer, he plans to star in a Vegas musical version of “TDTCC,” with Lewis’ blessings. Celine Dion is rumored to be in discussions to play Ada Doork.)
In 1980, the “TDTCC” Holocaust Learning Center breaks ground in Las Vegas, quickly outpacing the Liberace Museum as the city’s largest attraction. A 24-year-old Australian who is a member of the Siegfried and Roy troupe happens by on his day off and is so shocked and transformed at the experience of viewing the film and actual Holocaust artifacts that he renounces his Australian citizenship and converts to Judaism. His name is Mel Gibson. Roy Horn, Gibson’s legendary employer, accepts the latter’s passionate plea to take a hiatus from the glitzy tiger act so he might work as a docent at the sobering exhibition. (note 3)
Resisting Lewis’ attempts to hire him as the “TDTCC” Holocaust Learning Center’s historian emeritus, Wiesenthal begins work for Lew Wasserman at Universal City’s fabled Black Tower. Under the seductive spell of Tinseltown, incredibly, Wiesenthal abandons his search for Nazi war criminals (who subsequently prosper and proliferate in South America, beginning their slow migration to the United States). The unpredictable, leonine, enterprising Jew begins a torrid affair with Tuesday Weld, who is in the midst of shooting Michael Mann’s “Thief.” The mercurial actress breaks off the relationship with Wiesenthal after meeting the by-now fiery Jewish radical Mel Gibson at legendary Ma Maison on Melrose Avenue.
Gibson tells Tuesday Weld he is resolute in his desire to direct a sequel to Lewis’ masterpiece. Licking his wounds, the cuckolded Wiesenthal shifts from consulting on such pictures as “The Odessa Files” and “The Boys From Brazil” to the small screen. He becomes head writer of the hit show “Dallas,” writing what becomes one of the highest-rated shows in television history — the shooting of J.R. by a deranged S.S. corporal who has entered the country from Costa Rica.
Meanwhile, an ominous, if brief, backlash is brewing: In an interview with La Repubblica, beloved 38-year-old actor Roberto Benigni expresses “disgust” at what he calls the “manipulative, saccharine, lachrymose” cinematic style of “TDTCC.” Using his own funds, Benigni ultimately collaborates with 40-year-old iconoclastic filmmaker Werner Herzog, co-directing a death-camp satire — a hit with the critics but an unequivocal box-office disaster. Bankrupt and emotionally devastated, Benigni throws himself off a stairwell balcony; his body is found, in a horrific twist, by Holocaust survivor and memoirist Primo Levi. Later, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly on the subject of an FX series based on his book “Survival in Auschwitz,” Levi says, “I might have had the same fate as Benigni. It was repeated viewings of Lewis’ film that brought me life and laughter.” (note 4)
Through the intervention of MacGraw, now delegate to the U.N. Assembly and ambassador to Ghana, Gibson finally lands a meeting with Lewis at his sprawling, 375,000-square-foot Las Vegas home. There, he presents storyboards of his planned sequel, featuring the willowy Weld as the daughter of Helmut and Ada Doork. The scenario also features the ghosts of dead Jewish children, which Lewis initially balks at. But the great comic eventually gives in, pouring his efforts into a new telethon, the cure for muscular dystrophy having finally been discovered by doctors who redoubled their efforts in an emotional response to “TDTCC.” His goal is to eradicate the mysterious aches, coughs and sneezes that accompany the common cold; and the elimination of flatulence in the elderly.
In Los Angeles, Gibson has a chance meeting with John Lennon at the home of Harry Nilsson. The rebel Beatle, captivated by Gibson’s storytelling — and a fervent admirer of the original “TDTCC” — agrees to compose a soundtrack. (It is later revealed that Lennon was the target of an assassin who had stalked him outside his apartment in the Dakota; now part of rock-lore history, the bullet meant for Lennon was taken by rising television star Robin Williams. Williams, left paralyzed by the bullet, went on to become an advocate for the cure of neurological disorders, aided by Bette Midler; Rob Reiner; and good friend Christopher Reeve, whose stint as “Superman” ended in 1987.) (note 5)
Courteney Cox-Arafat becomes pregnant with twins. She and “Yassie” embark on a world tour to promote Zionism. Overwhelmed by fans, the Cox-Arafats take refuge in the anonymity of the crowds of St. Peter’s Square. In what has become one of the most famous, bizarre incidents in contemporary history, which many attribute directly to “TDTCC,” Yasser is wounded by shrapnel during an attack on the Popemobile. He quickly recovers, and Pope John Paul II, in thanks, projects “The Day the Clown Cried” on a giant screen outside the Vatican, where millions see it and are converted on the spot.
Present at the al fresco screening is Lady Diana Frances Spencer, rumored to be the future wife of Prince Charles. After watching Lewis’ film, she appears inconsolable. She denounces her fiance on “60 Minutes” as “an insufferable anti-Semite,” and the marriage is quickly called off. She begins an affair with Quincy Jones, who agrees to produce the Lennon soundtrack for what Gibson calls “The Day After the Day the Clown Cried.” The sequel shatters all expectations and becomes the most popular film of all time, taking in $4.5 billion worldwide.
Through the efforts of Lewis’ new telethon, the medical team of Texas bicyclist Lance Armstrong eventually solves the riddle of cancer. Armstrong goes on to win four Tours de France. He later writes in his memoirs that “if I had actually had to go through the hell of chemo and surgery — which I no doubt would have if not for Lewis’ indirect efforts — there is no way I would have had the strength or will to win even a single tour.”
1. The boldness of Lewis’ casting impulse purportedly inspired Steven Spielberg — who studied alongside George Lucas under Lewis in a USC film class in 1969 — to cast director Francois Truffaut in 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
2. Foster went on to “specialize” in Holocaust TV movies. Later, after articles in the tabloids that questioned her sexuality, she won a large settlement that required her defamers to famously post ads in major newspapers that removed all innuendo that Foster was anything other than a healthy, heterosexual woman with all the normal, attendant desires.
3. In the months to come, Horn succumbs to Gibson’s proselytizing and eventually loses interest in the beloved animals to which he had such a profound connection. He retires and becomes a generous donor to Israel, eventually receiving the American Friends of the Hebrew University’s coveted Scopus Award. Siegfried Fischbacher, in turn, recruits a new partner, enlisting 34-year-old Michael Ovitz, an aspiring Hollywood agent and amateur “summer camp gymnast.” (He had already been introduced to Siegfried during a visit to the Holocaust Learning Center at the urging of Steven Spielberg.) Ovitz is later clawed and maimed onstage, ultimately receiving a $140 million settlement from Steve Wynn.
4. Now 85, Levi is an active figure on the Hollywood social circuit. He currently lives in a Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow with Barbara Davis, the impoverished widow of oilman/studio mogul Marvin Davis, in what both acknowledge as a “loving, platonic relationship.”
5. Reeve ultimately married Ambassador MacGraw and both happened to be on holiday in Berlin — along with Simon Wiesenthal and Larry Hagman — when Rudolf Hess, 93, hanged himself at Spandau prison. Reeve is now a spokesman for Pilates.