writer + editor

The Clown, Still Crying

>This article appeared on my blog, Looker, in 2006.

I’ve written before about Jack Abramoff’s foray into Hollywood filmmaking, which resulted in the 1989 right-wing shoot-’em-up Red Scorpion. What has only now come to light is the deposed lobbyist’s involvement in trying to resurrect the most ridiculed unfinished film project in Hollywood history.

The June issue of Harper’s features brief, unsigned excerpts from letters written in support of Abramoff to Judge Paul Huck of Federal District Court in Miami. (In March, Huck sentenced Abramoff to nearly six years in prison and ordered him to pay $21.7 million in restitution on charges of fraud.) One of the excerpts, appearing just below one asserting that “the Abramoffs held up their share of the car-pool duties,” stated:

Jack made every effort possible to secure funding for a film entitled The Day the Clown Cried, a movie about the importance of taking care of children, set in a WWII concentration camp.

As every pop-culture geek knows, The Day the Clown Cried was meant to be Jerry Lewis’s first “serious” film, the story of a German circus clown who winds up shepherding kids into the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Lewis played the clown (name: Helmut Doork) and directed, using his own rewrite of a screenplay by Joan O'Brien and Charles Denton, shooting in Paris and Stockholm in 1972. But the movie never made it past the rough-cut stage, getting tied up in litigation over rights, and only a handful of people have ever seen it. (Eight of those incredulous viewers described what they saw in Bruce Handy’s 1992 Spy article “Jerry Goes to Death Camp”; on-set photos, film clips, and two versions of the screenplay can be found online.) Its legacy is never-ending: just this year, the Hollywood novelist Bruce Wagner published a characteristically twisted “what if?” account of the film’s release, envisioning an Oscar sweep and Mel Gibson’s conversion to Judaism.

So where does Abramoff fit in? The letter in question, which I obtained from Harper’s, was written by Michael Barclay, who fifteen years ago was president of a short-lived independent production company called Rainbow Ridge Films. It runs about 1,000 words and also states:

I can comment on Jack as a human being of ethics and principle. I don’t know what may or may not have happened in Washington, but I have been blessed to see this man’s spirit and soul in action as he helped numerous people here in Los Angeles. … I participated with him in an attempt to make a film about the need for hope and faith in times of horror.

That attempt is described in Shawn Levy’s book King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis, which mentions Barclay but not Abramoff:

In 1991 producers Tex Rudloff … and Michael Barclay announced they would make a version of The Day the Clown Cried in the Soviet Union as a joint production with the Russian company Lenfilm. Again, no film resulted. The following year, yet another plan called for Robin Williams to star and Jeremy Kagan (who’d recently made The Chosen) to direct. Yet again, nothing more was heard of the project. In 1994 Barclay was talking about a William Hurt version. But it seemed no likelier than any of his previous efforts.

There’s no mention of The Day the Clown Cried in James Verini’s extensive Salon article about Abramoff’s years in Tinseltown, nor in similar articles in the Los Angeles Times (January 16, 2006) and The Washington Post (November 27, 2005). So I called Barclay.

It was a strange conversation. He replied to nearly all my questions by inquiring if I had fully explored the ethical ramifications of what I was asking. (He now teaches ethics and theology at Loyola Marymount University, and wouldn’t let me forget it.) He said that the Clown screenplay was brilliant. He said that most of what has been written about the film is incorrect or unfair; he was particularly incensed by the comments of Harry Shearer (who is quoted in the Spy article). He asked: Hasn’t Jerry Lewis suffered enough? But he wouldn’t say a word about Abramoff, or about their “attempt to make” The Day the Clown Cried.

I contacted Abramoff’s lawyer. The response: “Neither Mr. Abramoff nor his counsel are commenting on any subject.”

Here’s another thing Barclay wrote in his letter about Abramoff’s L.A. activities:

I watched as he repeatedly tried to do the right ethical action, including seeing him turn away from a significant potential profit because one of the participants in the transaction was shown to be a man without ethics. In other words, I saw Jack do something very few “Hollywood” producers ever do: he walked away from a deal not because of finances, but because of principle.

There you have it: a professor of ethics calling Jack Abramoff—a felon who channeled cash and perks to his Congressional buddies, and bilked clients out of millions—a man of principle. Not even Bruce Wagner could dream this up.

>Postscript: Jack Abramoff was released from prison in 2010. In 2013 a reporter for Mother Jones followed up on my story, confirming its accuracy in an interview with Abramoff.