It was 1963, and Hollywood's reigning "king of comedy" was preparing to make another crowd-pleasing movie. Jerry Lewis was the movies' most popular comedian at this time, and the rumor was that he had never, to date, had a box-office flop.
The “Jerry Lewis film", much like "the Elvis Presley film", was a hugely successful formula, i.e. Jerry plays a goofy character with a nerdy name like Myron or Stanley, he fouls things up, creates chaos wherever he goes, but in the end he succeeds and gets the apparently unobtainable girl. Both "the Jerry Lewis film" and "the Elvis Presley film" were mainstays and staples to millions of kids growing up in the 1960's.
Jerry's persona was well-established at this point, he was still slim (although not the pencil-thin kid of the Dean Martin era) he had put on a few pounds, and the former crew cut had given way to a pomade-greasy slicked-back haircut, which was by now Jerry's trademark. Jerry still did great slapstick and his talent and brilliance as a creator of funny gags was still there. But this film was to be different, a total and complete shift of gears for Jerry.
Besides directing The Nutty Professor, Jerry wrote the script, along with co-writer Bill Richmond. Incredibly, Jerry actually wrote seven scripts for The Nutty Professor, then two others with Richmond before finally settling on a final script.
Around ten years before, in the mid-fifties, Jerry had met a strange, nerdy character while traveling on a train. Fascinated by this odd man, Jerry plied him with drinks and questioned the geeky fellow quite extensively. This unusual chap was to be the inspiration and genesis of Jerry's character "the nutty professor" a decade later. From this chance encounter, Jerry evolved the character and dubbed the professor Julius Kelp. "I always loved the name 'Julius,'" he later explained.
Interestingly, in the film, there is a brief shot of professor Kelp's full initials on his briefcase. They are revealed to be "J.F.K," obviously a tribute to Jerry's close friend, John F. Kennedy. Jerry has called J.F.K. his favorite president.
For professor Kelp's portrayal, Jerry used a strange, differently nasal-type-of-voice than his already trademark nasal voice. (Interestingly, in Jerry's film of five years earlier, Rock a Bye Baby (1958), Jerry uses the "professor Kelp voice" in a brief comedy bit. He also used a very similar "nutty professor" character in the much-lesser, forgettable film The Big Mouth in 1967, four years later).
Jerry wrote the script as a take on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Stevenson novel dealt with the good side of man's personality fighting the bad side. The plot of The Nutty Professor deals with the basic, good side of professor Kelp's nature and Kelp fighting against his more base, evil side. It was for this personality "half" (the evil half) that Jerry developed the character “Buddy Love."
Jerry portrays the Buddy Love character as cold, heartless, egocentric, rude, and thoroughly obnoxious. After seeing the film, the theories and accusations flowed forth that Buddy Love was Jerry's take and satire of his former partner, singer Dean Martin. Jerry always vehemently denied the "Dean as Buddy Love" theories, and was emphatic that Dean Martin never crossed his mind in developing and creating Buddy Love.
Jerry later said that perhaps he should have made Buddy "more evil," as to his great surprise, Buddy Love received more fan mail than professor Kelp (especially from women)! Many suspect that the real inspiration for Buddy Love is Jerry himself, as Jerry, as great and talented as he was -and is- often has an off-putting and grating effect on many people.
For the film's leading lady, Jerry chose actress Stella Stevens. The original idea for her "Stella Purdy" (the name was chosen by Stella herself) was to make her a very sexy, blonde bombshell. Jerry later toned her character down into a fairly intelligent, down-to-earth college girl who, in spite of her good sense and resistance, falls for Buddy, but in the end, falls for and marries professor Kelp.
In most Jerry Lewis films, unlike Elvis Presley films, it was hard to give a logical explanation why the inevitably beautiful leading lady would fall in love with, or even go out with, such a complete schmuck. With The Nutty Professor, this question of logic was answered by the "formula" professor Kelp develops, which turns him into the brash, confident, magnetic-to-women Buddy Love.
The film has a slight subtext of "nice guys finish last" and Jerry seems to be making a slight point of what really attracts women. Although, inevitably, Stella does end up with the mild-mannered professor Kelp, the closing shot of the film reveals her holding on to a bottle of the "formula" that turns him into Buddy Love.
The Buddy Love character is extremely fascinating and is familiar to most of us because most everybody has met a Buddy Love in their own life. On the surface, most of us are repelled by such a despicable character because he is so chillingly cold and heartless, but most guys are very surprised to see how these Buddy Loves always seem to attract so many women.
One other interesting bit of trivia: in the film, Buddy Love has the bartender draw up his favorite drink- an "Alaskan polar bear heater." This concoction consists of: 2 shots vodka, 1 shot run, 1 shot vermouth, 1 shot brandy, 1 shot gin, 1 shot scotch, a dash of bitters, a smidgen of vinegar, a lemon peel, an orange peel, and a cherry. Although the drink is fictional in the film, an "Alaskan polar bear heater" is now an actual officially recognized drink.
The Nutty Professor was released in June of 1963 and became Jerry Lewis' biggest hit. It grossed over $14 million dollars, a blockbuster figure for the time. Although, as usual for Jerry Lewis, many contemporary reviews of the film were harsh, the film is now generally accepted as Jerry's greatest film.
Jerry has said it was "as close to perfect" as he was ever to achieve as a filmmaker. When asked his favorite of his own films, Jerry usually hedges and says that would be like choosing his favorite of his children. But, in recent years, he has admitted to The Nutty Professor being his special favorite of the bunch.
One of the major criticisms of so many Jerry Lewis films is that there is not a coherent story, just a patchy quilt-work of gags. But The Nutty Professor is a fully fleshed-out story, a story with a valuable lesson about accepting others and more importantly, accepting yourself. Jerry, always the perfectionist, later re-cut the film for his own private home-viewing.
In 2000, The Nutty Professor was honored by the American Film Institute as being one of the 100 funniest movies ever (#99 on the list). In 2004, the film was selected by the National Film Registry and the Library of Congress for preservation as being "culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant".
The character “Professor Frink" on The Simpsons cartoon series was created and patterned after The Nutty Professor. Jerry later appeared in a Simpsons episode, playing Frink's father.
In 1996, Eddie Murphy filmed a re-make of The Nutty Professor with Jerry's consent and on-screen credit. I hated this film very much. I love Jerry's original Nutty Professor though. The only Eddie Murphy film I ever loved was his first, 48 Hours. In this film, Eddie makes one of the greatest screen debuts in movie history. I believe Eddie is extremely talented, but he never was near as good in any of his future films. This is just my own humble opinion.
Watching Jerry Lewis' performance and brilliance in The Nutty Professor is exhilarating. The guy is just beyond praise. The film is universally known as Jerry's "high water mark" as a comedian, as a writer, and as a director. Justifiably so.