By Belinda Goldsmith
CANNES (Reuters) - Veteran comedian-actor Jerry Lewis plays a dramatic role in his first movie in 18 years, "Max Rose", which is premiering at the Cannes film festival, but showed on Thursday he had lost none of his talent for playing the clown.
Lewis, 87, laughed his way through a news conference at the world's top cinema showcase with non-stop one-liners about how much he was paid for "Max Rose", his career's ups and downs and his former partner Dean Martin, who died in 1995.
"When I arrived here and he wasn't here, I knew something was wrong," he quipped when asked about Martin, with whom he rose to fame in the 1940s and 1950s, first in television and then films.
The duo, in which singer Martin played the straight guy to Lewis' slapstick comedy, split up acrimoniously in 1956 and both men went on to solo careers.
In "Max Rose", written and directed by American filmmaker Daniel Noah, Lewis plays an ageing jazz pianist who learns that his wife of 65 years may have been unfaithful to him, making him wonder if their life together was built on a lie.
It is Lewis' first film role since 1995's "Funny Bones" and one he said could not resist because it was the best script he had read in 40 years. The film is holding its premiere at Cannes where it has a screening but is not competing.
"The wonderful thing about this script is that it is about elderly people who have been thrown away," said Lewis, dressed in a bright red V-necked sweater and yellow shirt.
"It is a very different thing to do for the crazy clown that has been doing one thing for 60 years .. but it is an incredible movie that is going to give a lot of people a lot of pleasure, and that's the idea and I will meet you all at the bank."
Dodging any mention of retirement, Lewis said he looked back on his work with pride, citing his 1963 film "The Nutty Professor" and his performance in Martin Scorsese's 1983 film "The King of Comedy".
But he said there was one film which he regretted and would never see the light of day - the 1972 film "The Day The Clown Cried" which he both directed and featured as a circus clown imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. It was shot in Sweden.
"It was all bad and it was bad because I lost the magic," said Lewis. "You will never see it, no-one will ever see it, because I am embarrassed at the poor work."
Lewis once stirred controversy by commenting that he did not find female comedians funny and he stood by this at Cannes despite coming under attack for this view over the years.
"I cannot sit and watch a lady diminish her qualities to the lowest common denominator," he said. "My favorite female comedians? Cary Grant and Burt Reynolds."
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)