Legendary comic was known for slapstick comedy and for hosting the MDA telethon…
Legendary comedian Jerry Lewis, whose rubber-faced antics propelled a career in movies, television, and stand-up that spanned eight decades, died Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017. He was 91.
Lewis gained fame as one-half of the Martin & Lewis comedy duo alongside crooner Dean Martin, and as their star rose in the 1950s, they became two of the hottest and best-loved entertainers in the business. When they parted 10 years into the partnership, Lewis parlayed his solo status into an even bigger film career. Often undervalued as just a slapstick screwball, Lewis was seen by those in the know as one of the great auteurs of comedy, who not only took pratfalls from movie to movie but also wrote, directed, and produced them. Along the way, he influenced generations of comics.
Lewis used his star power for good, becoming the face of the Muscular Dystrophy Association for almost half a century’s worth of fundraising. He helped generations of “Jerry’s Kids” — bringing the sort of love to children that he himself had wished for during the strained childhood that molded him into a comedian.
Born March 16, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey, he seemed destined from an early age to be a performer: His father was a vaudeville star, his mother a piano player, young Jerry (then named Joseph Levitch) their only child. By the time he was 5, he was joining his parents onstage, discovering how much he liked getting a laugh from the audience. But the same parents who passed on their love of performing spent little time or energy expressing affection toward their son.
Lewis’ parents, as vaudevillians, found near-constant travel a necessary part of their job. But they didn’t instill in their son a love of the stage by bringing him with them. Instead, he was left with a succession of relatives as his parents traveled, even missing his bar mitzvah. On the rare occasions when they were around, they didn’t shower their son with love, and it was the pain caused by this love-starved childhood, Lewis said, that made him seek the adulation of fans.
Lewis was just a kid when he got started in showbiz, dropping out of high school to travel with vaudeville and burlesque shows just as his parents did. And he was still in his teens when he began his partnership with Martin, a duo that began in 1946 as a one-off when Martin was hired to fill in some gaps in the schedule at the club where Lewis was doing comedy shows.
The two men, already friends when they began working together, found a rapport that was rooted in their genuine fondness for each other. Even as they riffed and joked, as Martin crooned and Lewis goofed, their friendship shone through, and that, Lewis believed, was the key to the whole thing. “I felt lightning in a bottle right off,” he told GQ.
While other comics were using prewritten gags, Martin and Lewis were ad-libbing and improvising, making the audience laugh simply by having fun together. Martin would sing while Lewis repeatedly interrupted; they bantered and bickered and chased each other around the stage. Their joy at performing together was evident and infectious, and they soon became one of the hottest comedy tickets around.
They built the act into a massive draw, bringing it to television in a series of classic spots on “The Colgate Comedy Hour” and to the big screen in 14 Martin and Lewis comedies released in just seven years, including “That’s My Boy” and “Sailor Beware.” The pair stood alongside Elvis Presley as the most famous performers of the 1950s, known and loved everywhere.
Martin and Lewis had serious sizzle as a duo, but what they did not have was longevity: They performed together for just 10 years before things went sour. It was Lewis’ rapidly growing appeal that was at the heart of the rift. Fans clamored more for the rubber-faced funnyman than for the handsome singer, and for Martin, the snubs stung. Tired of playing boring straight-man roles and offended at being cropped out of a prominent publicity photo, Martin walked out on Lewis.
The friendship was as over as the partnership: Martin and Lewis wouldn’t speak for 20 years. And Lewis’ career was briefly in disarray as he cast about for how to go on as a solo act. It was Vegas that showed him how to put the pieces back together, as Lewis, while on vacation in the city, did a favor for a friend and filled in for a sick Judy Garland. Singing, dancing, and clowning around onstage, he was a huge hit, and he realized he had a future on his own.
By 1957, Lewis was starring in movies without Martin. The first, “The Delicate Delinquent,” had been written with Martin and Lewis in mind, but with the partnership dissolved, Darren McGavin took over the Martin role. The film was a box office success and a springboard for nearly two dozen other movies Lewis would do before the ‘60s were up.
Among his most notable films was “The Bellboy” (1960), his first outing as writer, director, and producer. A strange little film with not much plot and even less dialogue for its main character – Lewis’ bellboy doesn’t speak a word until the very end of the movie – “The Bellboy” was a gamble that Lewis was much surer of than the suits at Paramount were. The executives feared that they were bankrolling a silent movie, decades after such things went out of vogue (and despite Lewis’ assurances that everybody else in the film did speak), and that didn’t feel anything like a guaranteed moneymaker. So Lewis sank his own money into the production, to the tune of a million dollars.
Lewis’ gamble paid off; the film was a huge hit and came to be regarded as a classic. Its success opened the door for more movies written, directed, and produced by Lewis, including the 1963 classic “The Nutty Professor,” which canonized the bumbling, nerdy character Lewis had already been performing for years. Other popular Lewis films of the era include “Cinderfella,” “The Ladies Man,” and “The Family Jewels.”
As Lewis built his successful solo career, he continued to rely on the pratfalls that had made him a household name. But all that physical comedy began to take its toll on Lewis as the years went on, notably when he had to spend four months in the hospital in 1965 after throwing himself off a piano and landing badly, chipping a chunk off his spine. He would go on to have a number of back surgeries, which stood alongside a host of other health problems through the years.
Lewis’ increasing pain led to a struggle with addiction to painkillers, particularly Percodan. He got to a point where he was taking almost a dozen a day and contemplating suicide. “I was terribly jumpy, irritable, intolerant, impatient,” he told People magazine years later. “The drug was tearing my system apart. It was troubling my friends, but they knew there was nothing else I could do — nothing they could give me.” But friends finally intervened, getting him to the hospital, where doctors helped him kick the Percodan and developed a new approach to managing his pain. “I felt cleansed,” Lewis said of the experience, and he wouldn’t return to his addiction again.
By the end of the ‘60s, Lewis had become less of a box office draw, and he all but dropped movie acting in the ‘70s. But he remained in the public eye, most notably with the annual Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon, airing each Labor Day weekend from 1966 to 2010. As national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Lewis created some of the most must-see TV of the era, putting on the yearly 21.5-hour broadcast – and he raised an impressive $2.45 billion for the cause over the many years it aired.
Lewis’ association with the MDA ended abruptly in 2010 when the organization first announced that Lewis would only be one of several hosts of a shortened telethon in that year. Soon after, the news broke that Lewis would no longer be associated with the MDA in any way, nor would he appear on the telethon. The shorter telethon continued without him for a few years, only to be pulled from the air in 2015.
What exactly happened to destroy the relationship between Lewis and the MDA was never fully revealed, but a combination of factors was probably in play. The excitement the telethon once held was a thing of the past: Audiences had become increasingly less interested in toughing it out all night with Lewis. Add to that his reputation as a difficult star who occasionally said things that caused offense, and the criticisms leveled at his schmaltz for muscular dystrophy victims by disability activists who wanted nothing to do with a victim mentality, and it was clear that Lewis’ involvement with the telethon was a throwback that simply couldn’t maintain its strength in 21st-century America.
Yet the telethon did a lot of good, and that wasn’t just in terms of the dollars raised for the MDA. It was on the 1976 broadcast of the telethon that Lewis was first reunited with Martin in a move orchestrated by mutual friend Frank Sinatra. In one of the most memorable moments of ‘70s television, the two former friends embraced, but they wouldn’t fully reconcile until more than 10 years later, when Lewis reached out upon the death of Martin’s son, Deal Paul Martin, in 1987.
While Lewis was often seen as a tasteless clown in his home country – despite his wild popularity in the 1950s and ’60s – it was across the Atlantic that his comedy career received its greatest accolades and held the most staying power. In France, Lewis’ comedy was prized long after it had passed from fashion in the U.S., and he was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 2006.
But even years after his heyday in the U.S., Lewis had his admirers, among them some of the younger kings of comedy who followed in his footsteps. “If you don’t get Jerry Lewis, you don’t really understand comedy, because he is the essence of it,” Jerry Seinfeld asserted in the documentary “Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis.” Eddie Murphy called Lewis a genius, and Jim Carrey, clearly influenced by Lewis’ physical comedy, called his work astounding.
Lewis also continued to work for years after his greatest fame, with notable films including the 1982 Martin Scorsese movie “The King of Comedy” and the 2016 drama “Max Rose,” his final film. When Eddie Murphy remade “The Nutty Professor” in 1996, Lewis both gave it his blessing and served as executive producer, repeating the endeavor with Murphy’s sequel in 2000.
Among the many honors conferred upon Lewis were the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a lifetime achievement award from the American Comedy Awards, and an Ellis Island Medal of Honor.
Lewis is survived by his wife, SanDee Pitnick, and by his children, Gary, Ronald, Scott, Christopher, Anthony, and Danielle. He was preceded in death by his son Joseph in 2009.
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