Jerry Lewis, the slapstick-loving comedian, innovative filmmaker and generous fundraiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, died Sunday after a brief illness, his publicist Candi Cazau. He was 91.
Cazau would not elaborate on the illness from which Lewis was suffering.
Lewis first gained fame for his frenzied comedy-and-music act with singer Dean Martin. When that ended in the mid-1950s, Lewis went solo, and by the early ’60s, he had become a top draw in movies such as “The Bellboy,” “The Nutty Professor” and “The Patsy.” Along the way, he pioneered the use of videotape and closed-circuit monitors in moviemaking, a now-standard technique called video assist.
He first helped raise money for muscular dystrophy in a telethon in 1956. He was so successful, and so devoted to the cause, that children affected by the disease became known as “Jerry’s kids.” The telethon, long known as “The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon,” began airing on Labor Day weekend in 1966, and Lewis served as host until 2011.
Loved and criticized
Despite his success, Lewis also was a controversial figure. A number of people suffering with muscular dystrophy claimed Lewis presented victims as childlike and worthy of pity, rather than as equal members of society.
Lewis lost some fans when he criticized women doing comedy — “I think of (a female comedian) as a producing machine that brings babies in the world,” he once said — and when he lashed out at MDA critics. “You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair? Stay in your house!” he said in 2001 on the “CBS Morning Show.” He later apologized.
When Lewis was one of America’s leading box office attractions, critics mocked him for the broadness of his comedy — and took more shots at him when he became a renowned figure in France. In 1984, the French awarded Lewis the Legion of Honor, the country’s highest tribute.
He was emotional, big-hearted, eccentric — once successful, he never wore a pair of socks twice — proud and forever playing to the back row.
He seldom apologized for it.
“Let me tell you that probably 50% of the film community plays a game and does their thing because they’re prominent and they’re making a lot of money. And what they do is they give up a piece of their soul … and for them, they’re comfortable, and they feel that’s fine,” he told CNN’s Larry King in 2000. “It was never fine for me and I wouldn’t go there. I told (legendary Hollywood gossip columnist) Louella Parsons I thought she was a fat pig, because I thought she was. I had an opinion.”
The controversy Lewis stirred up over the years did little to dampen his peers’ and successors’ appreciation of his art. Several celebrities took to social media to share their sadness over his passing.
Comedian Jon Lovitz called Lewis an “amazing talent,” while “Star Trek” actor George Takei thanked him for “the laughs and the feels.”
“I sincerely hope his afterlife is a warm, peaceful… …haven,” actor Patton Oswalt wrote.
A lonely boy
Joseph Levitch — he changed the name to Lewis as a teenager — was born in Newark, New Jersey, on March 16, 1926. Entertainment ran in the family: His father was a vaudeville performer, his mother a piano player. Lewis occasionally performed with his parents, and by the time he was a teenager he had developed his own act. He was a regular in New York’s Catskill Mountain resorts, popular summertime retreats for area Jews.
But Lewis was also a lonely boy, essentially raised by his grandmother. Lewis told King that his comedy was rooted in hurt.
“I found (the comic) through pain. And the pain was that I couldn’t buy milk like the other kids in school at recess time,” he said.
He met Martin at a club in 1945 where the two were performing as soloists. The next year they premiered as a duo in Atlantic City, New Jersey. According to show business lore, their first show flatlined and the team was warned by the club manager to improve or be fired. For the second show, the two went wild with a no-holds-barred mix of comedy and music. It was a hit.
Within four years, they were headlining and breaking records at New York’s Copacabana club. Lewis later wrote that they set off Beatlemania-type reactions among fans — especially female fans — long before the term Beatlemania was coined.
Martin played the romantic, crooning straight man, and Lewis was the anything-for-a-laugh comedian of chaos. (Some observers called them “the organ grinder and the monkey.”) The act often featured a stint of Martin chasing Lewis around the stage. They appeared on the very first “Ed Sullivan Show” (then called “Toast of the Town”) and shrewdly negotiated control of their various appearances, earning them millions.
But over the course of a decade — a period that included 17 movies, beginning with 1949’s “My Friend Irma” — the two grew apart. Toward the end, Martin told Lewis he was “nothing to me but a dollar sign.” Martin’s last performance with Lewis — also at the Copa — was on July 25, 1956.
Big life post-Martin
Despite the acrimonious breakup, the two eventually reconciled, and Lewis and James Kaplan released a book in 2005 with a title that explained how Lewis saw the relationship: “Dean and Me (A Love Story).”
Upon their breakup, Martin was expected to be the greater success. He was an established singer and was beginning to make inroads as a respected actor, including performances in two 1958 films: “The Young Lions” (opposite Marlon Brando) and “Some Came Running” (with Frank Sinatra, with whom Martin would become longtime pals as part of the Rat Pack).
Lewis, on the other hand, was considered a lightweight, if crowd-pleasing, clown. His early solo films, such as “The Delicate Deliquent” (1957) and “Rock-a-Bye Baby” (1958), made under a longstanding contract with producer Hal Wallis, were more of the same.
But upon the end of his Wallis contract, in 1959, Lewis set out to take greater control of his work. He signed a huge contract with Paramount, a seven-year deal promising him $10 million and 60% of the profits for 14 films, according to his agency biography. He starred in “Cinderfella,” written and directed by the noted comedy director Frank Tashlin, and — when that movie was held for release — came up with “The Bellboy,” a silent-film-style story of pratfalls and adventures that Lewis wrote, directed and starred in.
It was for “The Bellboy” that Lewis first used video assist, so he could monitor his performance as he directed. He received a patent for the invention.
“The Bellboy” was released in July 1960 and was a hit, helping establish Lewis as an auteur. He exercised similar writing-directing-starring control over several successive films, including “The Errand Boy” (1961), “The Nutty Professor” (1963) and “The Patsy” (1964).
“The Nutty Professor” was perhaps the prototypical Lewis vehicle. A twist on Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the film starred Lewis both as nebbish professor Julius Kelp as well as smooth-talking boor Buddy Love, the man he turned into after drinking a strange potion. (More than one commentator has compared Love to Martin, Lewis’ former partner, but the filmmaker regularly denied Martin was the basis for the portrayal.)
Lewis considered it his best film, and the American Film Institute ranked it as the 99th-best American comedy of all time. Eddie Murphy remade the film in 1996, and Lewis brought a musical version to the stage in 2012.
‘Mozart of humor’
In 2015, the Library of Congress announced it had acquired a huge collection of films and documents from Lewis, including copies of his most popular films, home movies and spoof films made by Lewis at home, which sometimes starred neighbors such as Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh.
“For more than seven decades I’ve been dedicated to making people laugh. If I get more than three people in a room, I do a number,” Lewis told the library. “Knowing that the Library of Congress was interested in acquiring my life’s work was one of the biggest thrills of my life.”
Though Lewis’ humor sometimes left reviewers cold, he had a sizable fan base.
“My generation, we grew up on Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. They were our heroes,” said the late British funnyman Marty Feldman, crediting Lewis as one of the reasons he became a comedian. “Jerry Lewis actually has genius.”
“Lewis is the Mozart of humor,” wrote Agnes Poirier of the UK newspaper The Guardian in 2006. “You can keep sneering. I don’t care.”
Lewis remained a box office attraction during the 1960s, but his popularity waned with changing tastes in comedy and some dismal films, such as “Way … Way Out” (1966) (“About as funny and unusual as the daily trip on the subway,” wrote The New York Times) and “Which Way to the Front?” (1970).
One attempt at an early-’70s film comeback, “The Day the Clown Cried” — intended to be Lewis’ first serious film — became Hollywood legend.
In the rarely seen film, Lewis plays a circus clown, Helmut Doork, who ends up entertaining children at a concentration camp — and eventually leads them to the gas chamber. The movie was never released but has been viewed by a select few, including comedian and “Simpsons” star Harry Shearer, who was blunt in his assessment.
“This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is,” Shearer told Spy magazine in 1992. “‘Oh, my God!’ — that’s all you can say.”
Lewis rarely lacked for activity or money — he performed regularly, including an annual Las Vegas gig that paid him well — but he struggled to remain relevant. His 1980 comeback comedy, “Hardly Working,” was given zero stars by Roger Ebert, who said it was “one of the worst movies ever to achieve commercial release in this country.” (But it was a smash hit in Europe.)
In the 1980s and ’90s, Lewis picked a handful of serious roles that earned him positive reviews. He played a kidnapped talk show host in Martin Scorsese’s 1982 film “The King of Comedy,” earning a BAFTA nomination for best supporting actor. He was a clothing business owner in a plotline on the late-’80s show “Wiseguy,” and he played a wise comedy legend in the 1995 British film, “Funny Bones.”
Lewis stayed active, touring and working periodically in TV and films. In 2013 he starred in the drama “Max Rose,” and in 2016 he had a role in “The Trust,” which starred Nicolas Cage and Elijah Wood. Both films were flops with critics, but RogerEbert.com’s Glenn Kenny, in reviewing “Max Rose,” said Lewis’ performance was “full of virtues: He’s committed, disciplined and entirely credible.”
For more on comedians who changed our world, see CNN’s “The History of Comedy.”