Movie Stars: Lewis, Jerry–Genius Comedian-Actor-Director Dies at 91

Jerry Lewis, the brilliant and legendary comic, whose career spanned more than 60 years, has died in Las Vegas, at 91.

Lewis died at his home at 9:15 a.m. Sunday morning.

The brash slapstick comic was first known for his teaming with Dean Martin in the 1950s.

Blessed with huge and original talent, Lewis achieved fame and success quickly in every form of entertainment: movies, TV, nightclubs, Broadway stage.

He later starred in such commercial hits as “The Nutty Professor” and “The Bellboy” before launching the annual Muscular Dystrophy telethon, which was very successful.

Over the past ten years of his life, the icon’s reputation soured slightly as he was forced to apologize for making a gay slur on camera during the 2007 telethon.

He also made some racist and misogynistic jokes, and shared openly his right-wing political views.

Lewis was a complicated and sometimes polarizing figure. An undeniable comedic genius, he pursued a singular vision and commanded a rare amount of creative control over his work with Paramount Pictures and other studios. He legacy also includes more than $2.5 billion raised for the Muscular Dystrophy Association through the annual Labor Day telethon that he made an end-of-summer ritual for decades until he was relieved of the hosting job in 2011.

But Lewis’ brand of humor did not wear well as times and attitudes changed. Over the last 10 years of his life, his reputation soured slightly as he was forced to apologize for making a gay slur on camera during the 2007 telethon, continued to make racist and misogynistic jokes, and didn’t hesitate to share his right-wing political views.

In addition to his famous films, Lewis also appeared in a number of notable works, such as Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.”

But he was largely offscreen from the late 1960s, keeping active with his telethon and philanthropic efforts. As late as 2016, Lewis continued to perform in Las Vegas, where he first debuted his comedy routine back in 1949.


Jerry Lewis dead

The high regard in which his comic abilities were held in France — he received the Legion of Honor award in 1983 — became a running joke in the U.S. long after Lewis’ style of broad physical comedy fell out of fashion.

His final film, “Max Rose,” screened at France’s Cannes Film Festival in 2013.

The telethon also was beset by controversy. The comic’s offstage persona was anything but humorous. He was, by his own admission, an impatient man, and over the years battled numerous illnesses and a prescription drug dependency. His parting with Martin in 1956 after 10 years as a duo was acrimonious. And the telethons were awash in claims that there was a disparity between the money pledged and the money collected.

Lewis’ pairing with Martin, featuring their improvisatory backbiting and physical chicanery, was an instant hit in 1946. When producer Hal Wallis saw them performing at the Copacabana and at Slapsie Maxie’s in Hollywood, he saw the potential for a new Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and signed them to a Paramount Pictures contract.

For the next 10 years, Martin and Lewis turned out rather silly films, starting with “My Friend Irma” in 1949 and including “The Caddy,” “The Stooge,” “Artists and Models” and “Pardners.” But they all made money.

The more Martin and Lewis worked together, the more disparate they appeared. In 1956, after their film “Hollywood or Bust,” they made their last dual appearance at the Copacabana.

Over the next five years Lewis developed a slicker, more sophisticated stage persona and continued to play Vegas until 2016.

Onscreen he appeared in “The Delicate Delinquent” and “Rock-a-Bye Baby.” Lewis even had a million-selling single in the “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby” title track, which led to several albums on Decca Records

He then began writing, producing and directing films, signing a kucrative $10 million deal with Paramount. The first two, 1961’s “The Ladies Man” and 1962’s “The Errand Boy,” showed him at his best. His talents also were manifest in director Frank Tashlin’s films, such as “Cinderfella” and “The Disorderly Orderly.”

“The Nutty Professor” (1963) was his biggest success, grossing $19 million.

Lewis signed a nonexclusive deal with Columbia that resulted in several uninspired films such as “Three on a Couch,” “The Big Mouth” and “Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River.” Even Lewis had to admit, “Jerry Lewis is never just OK or adequate; he’s either very funny or he’s awful.”

While Americans largely dismissed him, Lewis had developed a following at the two most prestigious French film journals, Cahiers du Cinema and Positif.

He was born Joseph Levitch in Newark, N.J. to parents in show business.  At the age of 5, Lewis made his debut at a Borscht Belt hotel singing “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”

He attended Irvington High School in New Jersey.  By age 15, he was pantomiming operatic and popular songs and was booked into a burlesque house in Buffalo.

In 1942, he tried out his comic pantomiming at Brown’s Hotel in upstate New York, where he was also working the summer as a bellboy. Comic Irving Kaye was impressed, landing Lewis bookings and becoming his road manager.

Lewis met the young singer Dean Martin at New York nightclub the Glass Hatt and was first paired with him in 1946.

Martin made a surprise appearance on the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon in 1976, a reunion orchestrated by their mutual friend Frank Sinatra. The pair also reconciled after the death of Martin’s son in the late 1980s.  Dean Martin died in 1995.

In the early 1970s he continued to direct such fare as “Which Way to the Front?” and then tried a serious film, “The Day the Clown Cried,” though he famously shelved the completed work (some footage of it finally surfaced in 2013). He attempted a live TV variety show that failed, as did an attempt at a Broadway musical, “Feeling No Pain”; it was followed by the acrimonious “Hellzapoppin,” which was ditched out of town in Boston at a loss of $1.25 million.

In 1972 he lent his name to a string of 200 movie theaters for Network Cinema Corp., which led to bankruptcy proceedings in 1974. His heavy schedule also brought him to the verge of a nervous breakdown, serious ulcer problems and painkiller drug dependency. In 1982 he had double-bypass heart surgery and gave up his heavy smoking habit.

Lewis was offscreen until 1979’s “Hardly Working,” which he also directed, but it was not successful.

In 1982, director Martin Scorsese harnessed the brash, cynical side of Lewis’ persona for the role of a kidnapped late night talk show host in “The King of Comedy.” Though he reportedly resented being upstaged by Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard, the film represented some of Lewis’ finest work.

Another high point was a similarly caustic appearance as a lethal underworld figure on the TV series “Wiseguy.”

Most of his later film work failed to impress, such as “Slapstick of Another Kind,” “Cookie” and 1992’s “American Dreamer.”

In 1995, he appeared in Peter Chelsom’s film “Funny Bones.”

Lewis took over the role of the devil in a Broadway revival of “Damn Yankees,” with which he toured in the U.S., and then appeared in the London production.