PARIS — France formalized its fascination with Jerry Lewis Thursday with a uniquely Gallic gift for his 80th birthday: a medal and induction into the Legion of Honor.
Lewis received the honorary title of “Legion Commander” in a raucous ceremony in Paris — hamming it up for the cameras, winking, sticking out his tongue and making his trademark funny faces.
True to form, the comedian turned what is generally a sober event — set in a gilded hall of the Ministry of Culture — into a virtual slapstick routine.
Lewis, who bucked formality by wearing slippers to the ceremony, clowned around with Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres — yawning, checking his watch and even pretending to fall asleep during Donnedieu’s 20-minute-long speech in French.
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The crowd roared at Lewis’ antics, their laughter often drowning out Donnedieu’s lofty words.
At one point, Lewis tried to snatch the prepared speech from the podium, but an affable Donnedieu persevered. “The longer my remarks last the better,” he told the audience, “so you can keep on enjoying Jerry Lewis’ comic talents.”
When he finally took the microphone, Lewis apologized for not speaking French, but said that “even if the French people cannot hear my language, they have always heard my heart.”
He applauded the country’s sense of humor, saying he believed it “took France through all those difficult years, and will take it through difficult times now because the French are not afraid to laugh.”
Ministry officials wheeled in a massive cake, and the audience sang “Happy Birthday,” delivered with a heavy French accent.
Lewis said he was flattered by his induction into the Legion of Honor, and said he had been “gloriously elevated” by the award. He was one of 37 foreigners to have received the title over the past three years.
“The French people are the best in the world,” Lewis said.
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