Like many of our neighbors, 81-year-old Derrik Lewis came to Palm Springs to retire.
In moving to the desert, Lewis left a long career acting in movies and TV shows, performing on cruise ships, and producing performances. But fortunately for the desert theater community, his short-lived retirement didn’t stick.
Since arriving in Palm Springs a quarter century ago, Lewis has performed in several plays and an estimated 15 musicals, and played a regular gig with his lounge trio at Tropicale for more than a decade.
Every day Lewis gets to perform, he says, he’s doing his dream job.
“I think that’s why the concept of retirement never made sense to me,” he said. “I came here to retire, and I’ve worked harder than I’ve ever worked in my entire life.”
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In 1959, Lewis was one of the thousands of bright-eyed 18-year-olds hoping to make it as a professional actor in Hollywood. But he had a leg up on some of the other actors by living over the hill in the San Fernando Valley.
“I think living there helped make the dream seem attainable,” he said. “I would go to the store and run into someone you just saw in a movie like it was no big deal.”
After starting down a creative path by playing the violin at the age of eight and piano at 10, Lewis knew that he would be an actor by the ripe old age of 12. Lewis credits influential school field trips to the opera and the theater, as well as the impact of his mother, who was a dancer, for sparking his interest in the arts. “Thank goodness my parents were supportive,” he added.
Lewis’ professional acting career started off strong. “I appeared on the local LA show ‘Spotlight on Youth’ as a teenager, so that showed casting directors I had some experience in front of the camera,” he said.
Soon after, he was booking acting gigs on shows like “The Twilight Zone,” “The Monkeys” and “Route 66,” among many others. Lewis is likely most well-known for his recurring role as Lieutenant O’Brien on the TV series “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.”
Lewis remembers his time as a young man in Hollywood fondly. It felt like he was watching a monumental transition happen before his eyes, he said; once the traditional studio system dissolved, big-time movie actors had the freedom to choose different projects.
“That era of Hollywood was iconic,” he said. “It was when things were starting to transition from movies to television.”
To illustrate just how fast things were advancing in Hollywood, Lewis points to “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.” “We shot the first year in black and white and the next year in color,” he said. “It felt like the end of one era and the beginning of another.”
Lewis has countless stories of encounters with what seems like every golden age actor in the book. Growing up in the valley and working with so many different actors, it was mostly hard for him to feel starstruck. But he was still human.
“Once in a while, I would meet someone and just go speechless,” he said. “Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Kathryn Hepburn, Danny Kaye and Vincent Price – there were moments that were absolutely jaw-dropping.”
Roles came easily to Lewis when he was just starting out, but eventually the field started getting too competitive.
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“It only lasted about 10 or 15 years,” Lewis said of his acting prime. “I realized I had to have something to do as a backup, and that was my music.” Lewis survived the dry periods by playing music in clubs and hotels. Finally, he left Hollywood and landed in Santa Fe, where he began producing concerts
“I didn’t have a huge acting career in Hollywood,” he admits. “But then I think of all the thousands of people who go to Hollywood to ‘make it’ and never book anything. I was lucky, I worked on all these shows, TV pilots and movies.”
Whether Lewis is performing in front of a camera or on stage with local amateur actors, he’s just happy to be acting. As soon as he touched down in Palm Springs in 1997, he started appearing in plays and musicals at the Palm Canyon Theatre. His history with the local theater stretches far back; “I performed in the very first show they ever did, and I’ve been on and off with them ever since.”
His time in Palm Springs is also marked by his long stint playing at the Tropicale, which continues to this day. Lewis also started a concert series called “Musical Chairs” featuring songs from the “Great American Songbook.”
One of the actor’s favorite more recent roles was as Isidor Straus in the musical “Titanic.” Lewis doesn’t take those parts for granted; as he gets older, there are naturally fewer and fewer roles for him, especially in musicals.
Now, audiences can catch Lewis in the small – but standout – role of Liberace in “Palm Springs Getaway: A Musical Romp,” playing this month. “I take about an hour in hair and makeup for a ten-minute cameo, but it’s so worth it,” he said.
Lewis has so much enthusiasm for the part that he even wrote many of the lines himself and took them from real Liberace performances.
Ever the performer and creator, Lewis said he always needs something to look forward to. (“I want to create something new,” he says cheerfully. “I have an idea for a new project in my 80s!”) And when he looks back on a long career in acting, music and production that never really ended, he realizes how lucky he got.
“Even if I’m phasing out because there aren’t a lot of roles, in theater there will always be a character for me,” he said. “As long as I can walk on stage and remember my lines, I should be okay.”
Make sure to catch Lewis in the Palm Canyon Theatre production of “Palm Springs Getaway,” which is showing today and also next weekend. Turn here for tickets and additional information. Get to know Lewis a bit more below.
NAME: Derrik Lewis
NEIGHBORHOOD: Movie Colony
HOW LONG HAVE YOU LIVED IN THE DESERT? 25 years as my residence. Visiting since 1959.
WHAT BROUGHT YOU HERE? It’s a good place to retire. Plus, I was chasing my music.
WHAT KEEPS YOU HERE? The mountain. The great health support. And my music.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE TIME OF YEAR IN THE DESERT? The winter.
HOW DO YOU BEAT THE HEAT? It’s easy. I’m up early, I siesta all day, and I go out at night.
DO YOU HAVE A PERSONAL PHILOSOPHY BY WHICH YOU LIVE: I am a Stoic. I also think you should always be looking forward to something.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PLACE TO EAT? Billy Reed’s, Loco Charlie’s, Elmer’s, Sherman’s Deli, and Tropicale.
WHAT’S THE BIGGEST ISSUE FACING OUR COMMUNITY? The homeless crisis.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE THING TO DO OR PLACE TO GO IN THE DESERT? Dining out with friends and going to cabaret shows.
WHAT’S SOMETHING ABOUT PALM SPRINGS PEOPLE NOT KNOW? It’s safer and friendlier than many other places.
WHAT’S YOUR GUILTY PLEASURE? I take a lot of naps.
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