THE FIRST THING Jerry Lewis does is not fall down. There are no goofy teeth stuck in his mouth. He is 56, but he looks 39. Last year his chain of theaters went bankrupt and he lost something approaching $27 million. He had not made a film between 1972 and 1981.

This year he has taken on his first straight dramatic role, opposite Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's "The King of Comedy"; written, directed and starred in "Smorgasbord," a typical Jerry Lewis movie in which he plays 10 parts; signed on as a character in the film version of Kurt Vonnegut's "Slapstick"; and published his autobiography.

His IQ is reported to be 194, yet he is America's best-known idiot. His annual Labor Day telethon for muscular dystrophy, now in its 23rd year, is the most successful single fund-raising event in history. It has made him revered by millions as a symbol of tireless advocacy of a worthy cause.

The telethon -- that jangling, tear-swept, sweat-stained tribute to "Jerry's Kids" -- has also nauseated millions, making Lewis, for them, the chief cultural symbol of shameless bathos and self-aggrandizement. No, he has never taken a penny from the telethon. But what excess! What grotesque exhibitionism! What a way to get your name in every 7-Eleven store!

In Europe he is considered a genius. A French biographer, Robert Benayoun, calls him "the foremost comic artist" since Buster Keaton. Jean-Luc Godard says he is " . . . the only American director who has made progressive films . . . he is much better than Chaplin and Keaton." In Europe, he has been named best foreign director eight times.

In America, he has never won an Oscar. He has never been nominated for an Oscar.

He is a man willing to fall down to be loved. "Hey, when I get in trouble on a stage, my friend, I go right for the pratfall. It's the greatest save a comic has." What do we want him to be? A clown who cries? A drug addict, now cured? A Nobel Prize nominee? He is all these things. What else do we want?

His great pride, a pride that wells up in him like tears, is that he makes people laugh. Laughter is the best medicine, Jerry Lewis believes. "An old lady is in the hospital, dying, her daughter says she'll never laugh again, then she sees me, she laughs. And that's what I'm grateful for. That's all that's important. My own mother said to me -- I know all your life you'll have a love affair with humanity. I just hope you don't find them fickle. And I haven't. I have brought so much love, and so much love has been given back to me."

At the age of 15 1/2, Joseph Levitch, 5 feet 8 inches tall, 115 pounds, was called to the office of the principal of his high school in Irvington, N.J., where he punched the principal in the mouth.

"I did," Jerry Lewis confirms. "And was expelled for it. It wasn't meant to be that violent, but it really did some damage. And it was wonderful!" Lewis had caused a disruption in chemistry lab. The principal called him a wise guy, a charge he could hardly deny. Then the principal said, "Why is it that only the Jews . . ."

"POW!" Lewis says, remembering. "Mr. Herter was his name. Sveet Pea, vee called him. If I'd been a white Aryan Protestant everything would have been okay. But I was the gutsiest little schmuck. I took on anybody. I was knocked on my a -- more times than you had hair on your head. But I kept coming."

He had made his debut at age 5, singing "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" at a New York resort hotel. By 15, he had developed his own routine, pantomiming songs in what vaudeville called a "dumb act." In the summer of 1946, in Atlantic City, he teamed with a handsome young straight man named Paul Dino Crocetti, and the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis ran for 10 years.

He has made 41 movies. All along, his screen character has been what he calls -- usually in the third person -- "a 9-year-old idiot." "And he's never going to stop that idiocy. I've got it made and I love doing it. It's never done under duress. Blast the 9-year-old out and watch the audience respond!"

Nevertheless, a different Jerry Lewis stands to be unveiled in two very different films. One is "The King of Comedy," the story of Jerry Langford, a late-night talk-show host held hostage by a mad comedian. The director is Martin Scorsese, of "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull." The comedian is Robert De Niro, not Lewis, and "The King of Comedy" is perhaps the most eagerly awaited film of the Christmas season.

Lewis says he was awestruck by De Niro's performance. "Remember the excitement of Brando? This'll make you forget it, Bobby is that good. This'll make 'Raging Bull' look like a short subject."

He is almost scornful of his own dramatic debut, during most of which a .357 magnum pistol is held to his head. "You don't have to do a damned thing, and it's called dramatic acting. I would love to have you think it's a great acting job, but all I really had to do was react to this fanatic. Remember, De Niro goes from being a fan, with love and respect and infinite admiration, to being a cuckoo bird. He crosses that fine line from love and admiration to hate, and it's frightening to watch the development of that."

In a vault in Sweden is an equally unusual performance by Jerry Lewis. The movie is called "The Day the Clown Cried." Lewis directed and starred in it 10 years ago, and it has been frozen in litigation since. He believes that the suits may be settled this summer, allowing the movie to be released for the first time.

In it, Jerry Lewis plays Helmut Doork, an aged clown at Auschwitz who is beloved by the children of that Nazi death camp. At the conclusion of the film, Lewis leads the children into the gas chambers.

"Whenever it comes out, it'll still be just as powerful as when we made it," Lewis says. "The shock of seeing a comic you've grown up with become 77 years old, a dissipated and shattered human being, emaciated to a degree impossible to comprehend, is never going to be lost."

Still no pratfalls. No goofy stuff. He chain-smokes Gauloises, the French cigarettes. With him in this suite at the Madison Hotel is his friend Sam (short for SanDee) Pitnick. For 35 years Lewis had been married to Patti, father of his six sons. "Now Patti and I are getting a divorce. Of all the lines in this book, that one is the hardest to write," he says in his autobiography, "Jerry Lewis in Person." There is a dog loose in the room, a Shih Tzu that Lewis calls "Angel Face." The dog has a gold tag that reads, "I love Jerry and Sam."

There is a place in Jerry Lewis' life for outpourings of love. A big place. Is a laugh an expression of love? To make you laugh, to make you love him, he would fall down on his back -- and he has a bad back. There is a chip out of the spine, caused by a pratfall on the stage of the Sands Hotel on March 20, 1965. He would fall on the bad side of his back for you. "The bad side is what I fall on. It's the good side I'm worried about," he explains.

Humor, love, honesty is what he stands for -- and the truth. The truth is, he says, "that I want a lot of space in your newspaper to sell my autobiography. That's why I'm here. That's the truth."

In a comedic way, although not necessarily a funny way, he reminds you of Lenny Bruce. Both men wanted to be loved, both men were comics. Bruce was celebrated for his rage -- a rage so bitter and indulgent that his self-destruction seemed, in retrospect, inevitable. Yet it was Jerry Lewis who punched his principal in the jaw. What rage is that? What mad, unquenchable kid bravado? What switch from loon to avenger? Is he, indeed, the opposite of Lenny Bruce?

"Yes, I think I am. I think he was brilliant in what he did and he also recognized that it was very commercial. I have a hunch -- from knowing Lenny -- that in one-to-one debate, he wouldn't be the same man as when he was being paid. That's not diminishing him. But remember, Lenny started off as a straight comic, and he didn't make it straight . . ."

To be funny, that is the highest calling. To make them love you if you can. To get up there and do whatever it takes. So it is that he admires Chevy Chase, Woody Allen, but dismisses S.J. Perelman, the Marx Brothers writer who later became perhaps the most influential author of humor in the second half of the 20th century.

"I think Mr. Perelman comes from a whole other place. Writing comedy is one thing. It's very safe. You don't have to face the jury. I think that Perelman's writing as opposed to getting in the arena is not unlike when you buy a $3 ticket for the bullfight and and sit there and yell Ole'! whenever you feel like it. But the matador has got these horns going for his groin. Come down here and yell a little!"

Sometimes, frankly, Jerry Lewis feels that the press is out to get him. This goes back to 1945, when the Variety reporter reviewed his first show in a way that proved to Lewis that the reviewer hadn't seen the show. Frequently the press is negative, he feels. He is honest about this, he has the courage to take the press on. "Would you like to hear what I think about the critics today?" he offers, his face gone flat with portent.

No, not really. Instead, explain why the Europeans think you're a genius.

"Well," Lewis says, "They like the total filmmaker. It's never just the Jerry Lewis on the screen. My films played there before I got into the technical aspect, and they didn't mean anything. I'll give you two numbers: A Jerry Lewis film where he just appeared was worth $700,000 to $800,000 in revenue, total Europe. The moment he directed, they were worth $7.5 to $10 million. The French are not the only ones. If you want to compare the German audience, the Italians, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain -- it's staggering, the love affairs going on between these countries and myself. Last year I brought a film "Hardly Working" to Germany, and in four weeks we took in $7.25 million in no more than 100 theaters. This movie is not the best work that I've done, nor is it something I'm proud of. But they don't want to hear that I'm not proud of it. They loved it.

"In Europe and the Far East, those people really live for films. They get dressed up in a shirt and tie like gentlepeople to go to a movie. They have intermissions, even in an hour-and-40-minute film, just so they can talk about the first four or five reels. They have a drink in the theater. The critics go to see a movie two or three times before they review it, and then if they knock your brains out you have to respect it."

In 1976, during the period in which he made no films, the period during which he was addicted to the painkilling drug Percodan, Jerry Lewis, live, on stage, sold out the 10,000-seat Olympia Theater in Paris for 10 straight days. "Jerry Lewis is more than a very great artist, he is a great man," said the newspaper L'Aurore.

Those who think Jerry Lewis is a total jerk, who find his humor excruciatingly infantile, who bridle at what they see as ghastly poor taste, who see Jerry Lewis' entire career as a Freudscape for which his telethon is the living museum, can think of those laugh-soaked Parisians, applauding with tears in their eyes.

Let us turn to simpler matters. Jerry, is it true that you never wear the same pair of socks twice?

"Yeah. And if I change socks this afternoon, a new pair then, too. You wouldn't have to be a psychiatrist to know where it comes from. It revolves around rich and cuckoo. It's one of the little quirks that comes with the dinner. Because remember, we're not normal people, who get up in front of an audience. The need to entertain, whether you want to go back to your parents or however far back in the id, goes to the very beginning. I happen to be a very voracious reader of Freud, and I believe him. I think that a child still in the water bag who knows he's not wanted will kill a president one day."

When he grew up, when he proved beyond anybody's doubt that he could make it without Dean Martin, when he had six sons, when he had a lot of money, when he had an outpouring of love from all over, Jerry Lewis developed an ulcer the size of a lemon and an addiction to Percodan that almost killed him.

"I got clean in October 1978," Lewis said. "October 6. It was as bad as any drug addiction could be. Four years of my life are a blank. I know nothing of them. If Dr. Michael DeBakey didn't get me off when he did, I'd have been dead 10 days later. I never even knew I had the ulcer, it was disguised by the Percodan, and when they operated it was ready to burst. I just hear the word Percodan now, I shake from fright."

Jerry Lewis was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978 by Rep. Les Aspin of Wisconsin. Aspin noted that the telethon had raised $95 million in 11 years. The Norwegian parliament accepted the nomination.

Was he struck by a feeling of unworthiness?

"Oh yeah, it's very humbling. After you come off the wall after about 10 days you're actually embarrassed. Although the committee is not stupid and they must've looked at whatever the dossier was, and decided it was valid, you're proud of that, but you're embarrassed. You accept it with some dignity, and a feeling that--it's not an accident."

Jerry Lewis' banner, the banner unfolded in the Norwegian parliament, unfolds in America across the entrances to 7-Eleven stores, and then slips inside, where it wraps itself around jars filled with pennies dedicated to "Jerry's Kids." It is a very conspicious banner, a banner raised in Las Vegas, where there are 63 7-Eleven stores, and where since 1973 the telethon has been broadcast to audiences now exceeding 80 million. The telethon, more than his movies, more than his comedy, more than his pratfalls, has made Jerry Lewis who he presently is.

Would he listen to something he will probably not like?

"Don't depress me, I've had too good a day."

What follows is a paragraph from "George Mills," a novel by Stanley Elkin excerpted in the September Playboy magazine, circulation 5 million. In the excerpt, Jerry Lewis and his telethon appear as the background in the life of a character named Cornell Messenger:

Messenger doesn't know what he thinks of Jerry Lewis. He suspects he is pretty thin-skinned, that he takes seriously his critics' charge that he's made his fortune mimicking crippled children, that for him, the telethon is only a sort of furious penance . . . I guess he's OK, Messenger thinks. If only he will stop referring to them as his kids. He doesn't have to do that. Maybe he doesn't know.

But Jerry Lewis says he does know.

"I'm only going to say it louder, my friend. Loud and clear, for the reasons I do it. It's not for your benefit, or Stanley Elkin's . It's for the benefit of those who want it that way, and I stand to take the heat. As saccharin, as overly phony showmanship sentimentality as that might be by his standards, I can't help that. I think there is infinite credibility in what I do for the reason I do it."

Which is to make money for muscular dystrophy?

"No, no, not only that. These kids never had anything to cling to. They were throwaways. I've never said it without feeling uncomfortable, based on others having to hear it. See, for the kids, it's fine. But to stand there, naked, on Labor Day knowing full well it's resented by an audience I'm looking to get to pay attention . . . But what do I do, change it for Elkin ? It hurts like a sonofabitch, but what's my alternative?"

Well, you could announce that next year you don't want to say "my kids" anymore, for example. Get another slogan.

"What do I tell the child in the hospital?"

The children would feel let down?

"That's what they make me understand. Look, I feel like Bert Parks out there in the first place. But the end result is the whole concern. A dystrophic child had an eight-months' life expectancy before we did the telethon. Now we're keeping them alive 9, 10, 11 years. What do I say to Elkin : Let them die, but I'll please you as much as I can? What crime have I committed? It gives him dissatisfaction? He's displeased with what he sees? Don't watch it.

"Don't you think I'd like to run away from all that garbage? All the love I got on the phone today, and all this tour that has been so super, it should overshadow that -- but it doesn't. Don't you think that in my heart I want to say, hey, not to ever have that said to me again, I'll do whatever's necessary? Oh really? Sorry. Do it all you want, pal! You lose, I win! Except the scars are thicker every day."

Under his clothes is the glint of gold. Gold chain around the neck, gold something under the sleeve cuff. He seems a very quick study: The man who would be loved.

It can be argued that Jerry Lewis is one of a kind, and therefore intrinsically noteworthy; that his broad humor is universal and has successfully defied the subtle tyranny of language; that as a director he has time and again contributed timeless set-pieces to the history of comedy.

"I'm a fan, really," says Mike Clark of the American Film Institute. "Just think of the scene in 'The Nutty Professor' after he takes the potion. It's a very long tracking pan, and you see him walking down a wet street, and hear the sound of his footsteps. You can't see his face. There are shots of passersby reacting to him as he goes along. And then finally at the end, you get to see his face. You're expecting Mr. Hyde, all misshapen, but what do you see? What he's turned into is this real smooth, nice-looking guy! It's really a marvelous sequence."

Yes, and with De Niro and Scorsese and "The King of Comedy," he may yet have a shot at an Academy Award.

The problem, in the end, is not with his work after all. His films have grossed more than half a billion dollars at the box office, and "Hardly Working" -- panned by most American critics -- has turned a handsome profit. He does make people laugh.

No, the problem is the style. His is not an ennobling style. He has great pride -- it is instantly apparent whenever his face is in repose -- but he throws it away by becoming an idiot. He has made himself a one-man American game show, and the refrigerator behind the curtain is us. What he wins, when he wins, is us.

Outpourings of love are what Jerry Lewis deals in. One comes suddenly from his little dog.

The dog is doing tricks for his ice cream.

"Say please!" Jerry Lewis says to the dog. "Say please!"

"Say please! Say please!" SanDee says to the dog.

"OK, give her," Lewis says finally. "Don't make her beg a lot."