Jeff Lewis likes a good stage. Whether it be in the stadiums of college football, the arenas of live theater or the courtrooms of the legal world, Lewis has always felt comfortable before a crowd. This is easy to understand when considering his childhood.
“I was one of six siblings,” he says of an upbringing that often found his traveling salesman father on the road. “I had three older brothers, and there were times when they wouldn’t let me play with them, which just made me all the more determined to perform for them.”
With such tenacity planted in his youth, Lewis discovered he had talent in many areas. He excelled not only in football but also in acting and academics. Upon completion of a stellar high school career, he renaissanced his way to a scholarship at the University of Georgia.
“I didn’t find any conflict between the acting, football and school,” Lewis explains of multitasking his multitalents. “The academics were priority — that’s why you go to college.”
As a student, Lewis thrived in the university’s honors program. As an actor, he performed in three of Georgia’s main-stage productions, highlighted by his portrayal of Reverend Brown in Inherit the Wind. And as an athlete, the outside linebacker excelled as an eventual captain of the Bulldogs’ “Junkyard Dog” defense. He played a major role in his team’s successful 1976 season, which culminated in a tough loss in the 1977 Sugar Bowl to eventual national champ Pittsburgh (led by Heisman winner Tony Dorsett). This was also the game that brought Lewis a slice of sports immortality.
“Sports Illustrated ran a photo of Dorsett faking out a defender, and guess who is the player in the shot grabbing air?” he asks with a rueful laugh. Salting the wound, “[The magazine] used the image in promotional materials for years to come,” he says. Still, he keeps the photo framed on his office wall.
After earning his bachelor’s degree, Lewis spent a year of postgraduate study at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, before returning home to enter the University of Georgia’s School of Law. He graduated cum laude, and just when it seemed his career path would narrow, he took another detour. After three years of practicing law, the lure to perform started tugging at him again. He decided to place law on the sidelines (although he still practiced part-time) and give acting a full-time shot.
He had moderate success — the credits tell the story. Frequently cast as “Deputy #1, 2 or 3” because of his size (“I could never read for lawyer parts, because I don’t look like a lawyer,” he jokes), Lewis often found his name scrolled toward the end of the cast line. And despite having seen “Jeff Lewis” attached to popular television series such as In the Heat of the Night and I’ll Fly Away, then later to the film My Cousin Vinny (where he plays, yes, a shotgun-toting deputy in an opening scene), Lewis understood that his life, like the craft of acting, required strong choices.
“After three years of full-time, professional acting, I reached that fork in the road,” he recalls. “I was going to have to leave Atlanta if I really wanted to get anywhere as an actor. Because the roles I wanted — the leading roles — weren’t being cast there.
“My wife was four months pregnant,” he continues, “and I literally woke up one morning and said, ‘I’m not going to drag a wife and a baby out to L.A. to chase this career. I’ll stay here and be a gentleman actor with a good day job.”
So Lewis joined Swift, Currie, McGhee & Hiers full-time, where he had been a part-timer, and then signed on with Holland & Knight as a commercial litigator six years ago. In 2002, he was named executive partner of the Atlanta office. He attributes part of his success to the skills he learned on stages and movie sets.
“Acting lends certain techniques to oral argument and especially trial work,” Lewis explains. “Relaxation techniques, imagination techniques, characterization techniques even — although the range of character that you play as a trial lawyer is very narrow in terms of the roles you get in the theater. For example, I wouldn’t get up in front of a jury and do Stanley Kowalski.”
While Lewis’ statistics may not grace the back of a trading card and his name may not be etched onto a golden statue, he is now a man who fully appreciates the road on which his life is paved. “I came back to my original career path, which was to be an attorney in Atlanta with a stable family life,” he says. And it is this focus and dedication — within his work, his city and his family — that has made him such a success in that most important of productions: The Jeff Lewis Show.