“I was a mess as a kid,” J.D. Lewis tells Dave. But then an encounter with filmmaker Paul Leder led to a friendship that changed his life…
Described as one of the best acting coaches in America, J.D. Lewis is also known for his work as a philanthropist and humanitarian. He founded The Twelve in Twelve Foundation in 2012 and has since been celebrated for setting a world record that saw him and his two sons, Jackson and Buck, becoming the first family in history to have travelled to all seven continents in one year to undertake humanitarian work.
Dubbed an American Hero by The Huffington Post, Lewis enjoys a life that most of us can only aspire to, so it comes as quite the surprise to hear him characterise his childhood as “a Stephen King novel”. Lewis’ mother died of a drug overdose, and, shortly thereafter, his father committed suicide. He describes Paul Leder as “my mentor, adopted father, and a dear, dear friend”, and it’s clear over the course of our conversation that the writer, producer and director was pivotal in transforming Lewis into the person he is today.
“It all began when Paul owned an apartment building with his business partner, and I moved into that apartment. The first thing he said to me was ‘Can you afford this?’ [laughs], and I’m like ‘I think so!’. Anyway, he invited me over to his house to pick up the key, and he and Etyl were there, and they both asked me to have lunch with them. I immediately thought they were both the most amazing people.”
“By the time I had got back to the apartment, I got a phone call from Paul. He said, ‘Listen, Etyl and I just adore you. We think you’re such a cool kid. Our guesthouse just became available, so if you’re interested, let me know!’ I think it was $325 a month, which was crazy, so I ran over there and said of course I was interested!”
“When I first moved into his wonderful place in Nichols Canyon, I was a young actor – maybe 23 – and he said, ‘So you’re an actor?’. I replied that I was. ‘Are you in the unions?’. I said I think I’m SAG eligible, but I knew that I wasn’t. And then he said. ‘Do you have an agent?’, and I responded that I was between agents. All the things that stupid kids say! ‘Where are you studying?’ was his next question, and I said that I wasn’t. ‘Come in here and sit down,’ he said, and he took me into this little nook in their kitchen that had a table in it, which we spent our lives sat down at, and he said, ‘If you’re going to live on my property and claim to be an actor, you’re going to start acting like one.’”
“The first thing he did was call Greg Mullavey, who was teaching a class at the time and who enrolled me straight away. He then got me a part in The Education of Allison Tate (1986), which was packed with young actors like Catherine Keener and Bernie White, and my SAG card followed. Then, he just took me under his wing and helped me learn everything about filmmaking. I would watch him cut his films on a Moviola in his office, and then, of course, his daughter Mimi was working on Hill Street Blues as a script supervisor, so she would come over and show me how to do that job.”
“I was only thinking before just how many people over the years that I’ve had a chance to work with because of Paul. John Savage, Dick Sargent, Cleavon Little, Viveca Lindfors, Frances Fisher, Peter Fonda, Stella Stevens, Robert Carradine… He was just an amazing filmmaker who had a conscience, and he taught me everything I know about movies, politics, and the world!”
It’s clear that Leder was the role model that Lewis had been craving, and the love that he received from both Paul and Etyl moves him to this day.
“I had a vision of what I wanted to do with my life, but I think Paul entered it during a period in which I was lost. I was kicking around Los Angeles trying to figure everything out and having no success. He and Etyl basically adopted me. Etyl used to call me ‘Das Kind’ – because she was from Belgium – which of course means ‘The Kid’! [laughs]. I would stumble home drunk, I would run out of money, but Paul was the most generous man who ever lived.”
“They gave me a key to the main house, and I would sneak into the house while they were out and grab a bottle of wine or something, then I’d go in the next day and offer an apology [laughs]. Oddly enough, though, when Etyl was very ill towards the end of her life [she died in 2020], she took me to one side and said, ‘You were the only guy who paid Paul back’ – and I took such pride in that. After Paul died, I would bring Etyl flowers and cookies every Monday, and we would talk about stuff. She missed Paul so terribly. Such a storied lady. A Holocaust survivor, she was a pleasure to listen to.”
“It sounds strange, but I was in my mid-twenties, and Paul was my best friend. I spent so much time with him. Every night we would play cards in the dining room. Etyl would be watching TV – like General Hospital – in the next room, and Paul and I would sit and smoke cigarettes. Kind, warm, and so self-effacing too. He never thought he was anything great, and never gave himself any credit, but he repeatedly praised those around him. He loved making films more than anything in the whole world. He was so much fun on a film set too, and never raised his voice once.”
J.D. Lewis (centre)
For Lewis, it was through the films of Paul Leder that he was able to get his first few breaks as an actor. Brief on-screen appearances came in The Eleventh Commandment (1986) and The Education of Allison Tate (1986) – the latter of which remains close to his heart.
“Yeah, The Education of Allison Tate was probably the most exciting movie for me, probably because it was my first, and the cast were unreal. Although I really got a lot out of Killing Obsession (1994) too. I got to work with John Savage. We’d shoot the film in the day, and then at night we’d go to this place in the valley to see the dailies. John came along, and we had a few scenes together which we were watching back. Then I went to the bathroom and I was standing at the urinal, and suddenly John appears next to me and goes [adopts impeccable John Savage voice] ‘YOU, are such an amaaaazing actor’ [laughs]. At which point I said, ‘Well, I’m glad I’m standing here because if I wasn’t then I’d be wetting my pants’ [laughs].”
“Someone like Viveca Lindfors, though. I didn’t know who she was, and Paul was insistent that I should find out. He would make me pick her up every day so that I would get to know her, and we subsequently became friends. Paul would always introduce people to others in order to better their lives.”
“Then there’s his kids! You know, I was the wild child that lived in the guesthouse. They were apprehensive when I moved in, but we’re family now, and they’ve been so good to me. Geraldine gave me my first job as a casting director on L.A. Law, and Reuben is just like a big brother – I call him when I’m in a jam or I need good advice [laughs]. Let’s not forget Midnight Caller either.”
Indeed. By the time 1989 came around, Lewis was wowing a mainstream audience in one of the most cutting edge moments of television drama that’s ever graced a network: ‘After it Happened’, the third episode of Midnight Caller featured a storyline that was one of the first to centre around the subject of AIDS. It was daring, provocative, and compassionate. The director? Mimi Leder.
“I adopted both of my boys as a single parent. When we did our round-the-world trip, the Leders were SO supportive of us doing it, and my kids regard them as family, and have always thought of Etyl as their grandmother. Unfortunately Paul didn’t get a chance to meet them, he died a year before the eldest was born, and I always say that that’s one of my great regrets.”
“Paul was progressive in his opinions, and quite flamboyant to an extent as well. I’m gay, but with the Leder family it was never, EVER, an issue. They embraced everybody. I don’t think they were religious Jews, but they were committed Jews to their heritage. Even Etyl on her deathbed – at 97 years of age – would say ‘Why isn’t everybody equal, and why can’t we all get along?’. They were never separatists in any way, and always so inclusive.”
“I was there at the house near the end, and I came in to see him one day, after the doctors had told him that the cancer had spread to his bones.”
“‘I’m so depressed’, he said. ‘There’s so much more I want to do.’”
“It was heart-breaking.”
Leder might be gone, but his body of work lives on. It’s a legacy that warrants a great deal more attention.
“You know who his biggest fan was? Quentin Tarantino!”
“I was an acting coach for thirty five years, and I’d go onto Sunset Boulevard sometimes to a little Vietnamese restaurant called Toi. Quentin wrote his early screenplays there, and I would always say hi. The first time I met him, though, I said ‘Hey, how are you. I live in the Leders’ guesthouse’ because I knew he knew Mimi from E.R. [Mimi produced ‘Motherhood’, an episode QT directed in early ’95]. ‘Oh my God, I LOVE Paul Leder. His films have changed my life’.”
“But that was Paul: you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who didn’t admire him!”
J.D. Lewis. Photo Courtesy of The Actor’s Lab