Jerry Lewis is nobody's fool. Except his own. First there was the brash young screamer with the plastic face, the gangly neck, out-stretched arms akimbo, paired with a crooner who liked to play drunk. But that life ended, and Jerry became more of a dual personality: still doing the shtick in Las Vegas, but also the serious filmmaker. To the French critics, he was the ultimate auteur -- writer, director, performer. It's all there: 42 films, nearly half a billion dollars in worldwide box office.

Then he became something else: the tearful sponsor of "My Kids," the enemy of a disease that few had heard of until he put it on millions of spare-change cans and eventually made it the beneficiary of a multi-million-dollar promotional campaign.

And that's where he's been for the last 10 years or so: doing his 13 weeks at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, playing to adoring crowds in Europe, hitting the hustings for his Muscular Dystrophy Telethon.

But Jerry the triple-threat filmmaker? The Clown Prince? The Roi du Comedie? He hasn't been heard from much lately.

Until now, "Hardly Working," Lewis' first film to be released in more than a decade, opened in 800 movie theaters last Friday, backed by a $5 million advertising campaign (heavy on TV ads; that's where Jerry's known) from 20th Century-Fox.

Then Lewis begins "Smorgasbord," an almost silent comedy in which he'll play 67 different characters in a return to the "nutty Jerry" of "The Bellboy" and "The Delicate Delinquent." And for the first time, we'll see the "heavy Jerry," playing the title role in "The King of Comedy," which has one of the strangest casting combinations of this era or any other. Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis starring in a Martin Scorsese film. That's right, "Raging Bull" meets "Cinderfella."

The heavy Jerry and the nutty Jerry will even meet in a third film, a cinematic adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's surrealistic novel "Slapstick."

What has happened? Is Jerry Lewis on the comeback trail?

"Comeback? Where have I been? Come back from where? I haven't stopped in 10 years. When people say that, I think they think you're at a CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] camp, hoping they'll let you use the shovel. The word comeback does not annoy or displease me, it hurts me."

Jerry Lewis, now 55, is sitting in the penthouse suite at a hotel here, with a clutch of publicity people, his current companion, SanDee Pitnick, and a yapping Pekinese. His hair is still jet-black, his demeanor more serious and composed. Sure, Jerry still laughs: deep from the chest, roaring, rolling, teeth bared, fingers snapping, reaching for another cigarette.

But something's changed. This isn't nutty Jerry or silly Jerry or dirty Jerry. What it is, says Lewis, is the real Jerry.

Small wonder. In the last year, Lewis has filed for a Chapter 13 backruptcy (which asks the court to organize his debts in an orderly fashion for payment); his wife of 36 years has filed for permanent separation; he lost his father, a vaudeville master of ceremonies who had 5-year-old Jerry singing "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" in New York's Catskill Mountains; and he still faces a $3 million civil suit by investors in the now-defunct Jerry Lewis Cinemas, a lawsuit that Lewis admits could cost him $27 million if he loses it.

This man should be laughing? To listen to Jerry Lewis, in two separate interviews 10 months apart, there's nothing else to do. "It's my turn in the barrell," says Lewis, demonstrating the humor he employs these days, sort of a slapstick that's been slapped once too often. "The marvelous part of where I'm coming from is that I'll start all over again tomorrow like it never happened . . . To just stop dead because of that kind of adversity -- I can't do it."

There isn't much Lewis can't do. Without being vain, he is totally egotistical; the French worship him; he was director Scorsese's inspiration; his IQ is 194 when genius is only 153. He expects to make $2 million this year, he told the Las Vegas bankruptcy judge, and right now he's got $140,000 in his checking account. We should all be doing so poorly.

Lewis has a lot to say about the ebb and flow of his fortunes, especially about how his life has changed, how he's finally grown up and taken responsibility for his actions off the stage as well as on.

"The danger of my honesty is I'm a convert," he said some months ago, sitting in his Las Vegas dressing room after an exhausting show at the Saraha Hotel's Conga Room. "I had to live a whole life style of lies. Now, there's nothing worse than a convert -- an ex-hooker, an ex-drunk and an ex-liar. They're the worst, because they're imbued with a religion. My religion came when I grew up."

These days, Lewis' religion revolves around himself. And he's not afraid to say so. "For me to sit here and say, 'My whole purpose is to give the public joy and pleasure.' Bull! That comes second. There's nothing wrong with that. They wouldn't want me to put them first, because I wouldn't be caring for me. You know, it's not such a glowing, selfless thing that I do. What I'm really doing is terribly selfish, because it's all ultimately for me. Now all those who can benefit from some of that selfishness, I don't see anything wrong with that."

It's hard to reconcile this new Lewis with the one who's reappearing on the movie screen for the first time in 11 years. In "Hardly Working," Lewis plays an out-of-work clown so determined to stay off welfare that he'll try any job given to him and botch them all. But it's still Jerry the lovable boob, solicitous of his kind sister, eager to please, hoping to make us laugh. Still the clown -- only now the sad paint is laid on a bit thicker.

Lewis says he's glad "Hardly Working" is getting to the public at all. Four days after shooting started, he learned that the film's original producer had just $25,000, not the $3.4 million promised to finish the production. So there sat Jerry Lewis and 2,700 extras. He had 160 feet of film in his camera and that was it.

Sitting next to Lewis was James McNamara, the concert promoter who had never had anything to do with a movie when he became Lewis' white knight, riding to the rescue with a consortium of investors and $4 million in badly needed cash. "Hardly Working" went on working, and so did Jerry Lewis.

To hear the new producers and studio executives, Jerry Lewis is a has-been, all washed up, behind the times. "I think his problem is the basic infantilism of his humor," said one studio head, who, of course, asked not to be identified. "That's not the humor that speaks to the 1980s. Or that '70s. Or, for that matter, much of the 1960s. He lost his audience after the 1950s."

Lewis doesn't care what anyone thinks about his films. Especially not the critics. His venom for film critics is so all-encompassing as to be scary. For the first time in the conversation, he becomes fully animated, his eyes narrowing, the blood pumping.

"The critics in this country are whores. [He draws out the syllables, giving the word an especially shabby inflection.] They're worthless. They don't mean anything." But not all critics are bad. The ones who love Jerry are terrific. And most of their names are German, Belgian, Spanish, Dutch and, especially, French. The French, in particular, perceive Lewis as a succesor to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy.

Lewis says that in "Smorgasbord," which he will write and co-direct with Steven Paul, he will rediscover his prototypical character, the 9-year-old inside of all of us. "I decided to write a script where I could bring everything that Jerry does, from the standpoint of entertaining and comedy, that I've never had him do," says Lewis, speaking of himself as actor in the third person. "I've got him playing 67 characters. But it's all the one person -- he's everybody. The story is about everybody trying to get through life day by day."

With "The King of Comedy," the De Niro-Scorsese project, Lewis will be taking a big chance. It will be his first overtly dramatic role, and he will not be in control of the film as its director. The challenge is clearly invigorating (filming is due to begin in June), and maybe a little frightening. The role sounds rich, so rich that the question is put whether "King of Comedy" will finally bring Lewis an Oscar nomination, an honor he's never enjoyed in his 31 years of movie-making.

The question starts him on a verbal rampage, an outpouring or resentment, not so much that he's been passed over ("I've never made the product that would be in contention, so it's not sour grapes") but a red-eyed glare of rage over a subtle kind of discrimination.

"I got better than an Academy Award. There's nobody in show business history that ever got a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. [He received one in 1971 for his work fighting muscular dystrophy]. It's not that I wouldn't take an Academy Award, but it's not in the cards. We don't even have a category for what I do, a thing called comedy. It's sad. I don't even want the award, I swear to God. But I would love to beam them [the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] into recognizing why they wait for the Stan Laurels and Chaplins to die. Posthumous awards? Bull. What about now?"

He's off and runing now, his words racing out, his fingers jabbing the air for emphasis.

The Academy is based on the picture business, and the picture business started with the Keystone Kops. We got the attention of the world through this nonsense called slapstick. How do you not acknowledge comedy? I'm looking for nothing more than respect for our art form. It must be fairly special if only that many people do what I do. But you've got to remember the Academy is the most snobbish body in life. It would be so much more elegant in the eyes of the public if it would think sometimes emotionally. We're in a highly sensitive, emotional business, and they brush that under the rug."

Before Lewis takes on the Academy and the rest of the no-gooders out there, he first has to clean up his own act, and not the one in Vegas. He faces myriad legal problems, which are presently in limbo while his bankruptcy petition moves toward resolution.

His home life, too, is in disarray. He is reluctant to discuss last fall's legal separation from his wife, Patty, whom he married in 1946. "There's strain, but none of the garbage or mud or crap. I was married to a lovely lady for almost 36 years. She produced six sons for me. I'm the heavy in the piece. I needed some air and that's all it is."

Even his wife's request for $450,000 per year in alimony and child support has been put on hold by the bankruptcy action. In her filing for separation, made last Sept. 5, Lewis' wife accuses him of being a lavish spender, of paying for chartered Lear jets to have his friends join him on vacations, of "misplacing" a briefcase with almost $10,000 in it, of never wearing a pair of socks more than once.

Lewis doesn't wish to discuss these allegations or the bankruptcy either. Or even the 30 investors in the Jerry Lewis Cinemas who first sued him in 1973 for a dream that turned into a financial nightmare. Lewis says that his legal fees have cost him a "fortune," but that if given the chance, he'd do the Jerry Lewis Cinemas all over again.

"I was very proud of it. It was a marvelous concept that I had dreamed of for 20 years. It was right. It was perfect. The only thing we didn't do, and I was just as guilty as any one of the poeple I worked with, we really didn't see if we had enough product. We were not able to supply the family-oriented films I had built this whole empire for. I had in my contract they could not run anything unless it was family-oriented. The moment the R-rated films started, I washed my hands of it, I knew where it was going to go. We had $144 million in the master account in March 1970. Four weeks from that day, we were broke."

But Lewis has no regrets for past mistakes and errors, "adversities," as he calls them. Instead, he believes in turning them into "positives," benefits and realizations that he has only recently come to.

What has changed the old Jerry to the new Jerry is a simple cliche: "A newfound peace of mind in what I was doing." Lewis says he really dates this from the time he and Dean Martin broke up their act in 1956. For the new Jerry, the idea is to look forward, not backward. Retribution isn't revenge, it's doing good work.

"The point is I have never found 'angry' or 'mad' or ''ll get you' to be productive. They are counterproductive. The person you're hating is having a block party somewhere while you're getting cancer. It's not in my best interest to hate. It's creative suffocation.

"There are people who have hurt me. As of late, in the last five years, I have been able to figure why they did and almost defend them. And it's better for me. I even make up reasons why they did it so it works for me. Okay? If people would learn to do that, they would see that the air is not all that polluted, and the grass is terrific, and a five-iron to the green is the best thing in life, and we're not here that long."