LOS ANGELES — Jerry Lewis, the manic, rubber-faced showman who jumped and hollered to fame in a lucrative partnership with Dean Martin, settled down to become a self-conscious screen auteur and found an even greater following as the tireless, teary host of the annual muscular dystrophy telethons, has died. He was 91.
Publicist Candi Cazau says Lewis died Sunday of natural causes in Las Vegas with his family by his side.
Tributes from friends, co-stars and disciples poured in immediately.
“That fool was no dummy. Jerry Lewis was an undeniable genius an unfathomable blessing, comedy’s absolute!” Jim Carrey wrote Sunday on Twitter. “I am because he was!”
“The world has lost a true innovator & icon,” comedian Dane Cook wrote.
In Las Vegas, a message honouring the comedian is being featured on a marquee at Caesars Palace, where Lewis was once a headliner and had also hosted telethons. In Los Angeles fans and admirers gathered at Lewis’ two Hollywood Walk of Fame stars — one for television and one for film.
Lewis’ career spanned the history of show business in the 20th century, beginning in his parents’ vaudeville act at the age of 5. He was just 20 when his pairing with Martin made them international stars. He went on to make such favourites as The Bellboy and The Nutty Professor, was featured in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and appeared as himself in Billy Crystal’s Mr. Saturday Night.
“Jerry was a pioneer in comedy and film. And he was a friend. I was fortunate to have seen him a few times over the past couple of years. Even at 91, he didn’t miss a beat. Or a punchline,” Lewis’ The King of Comedy co-star Robert De Niro said in a statement.
In the 1990s, he scored a stage comeback as the devil in the Broadway revival of Damn Yankees. And after a 20-year break from making movies, Lewis returned as the star of the independent drama Max Rose, released in 2016.
In his 80s, he was still travelling the world, working on a stage version of The Nutty Professor. He was so active he would sometimes forget the basics, like eating, his associates would recall. In 2012, Lewis missed an awards ceremony thrown by his beloved Friars Club because his blood sugar dropped from lack of food and he had to spend the night in the hospital.
A major influence on Carrey and other slapstick performers, Lewis also was known as the ringmaster of the Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Association, joking and reminiscing and introducing guests, sharing stories about ailing kids and concluding with his personal anthem, the ballad “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” From the 1960s onward, the telethons raised some $1.5 billion, including more than $60 million in 2009. He announced in 2011 that he would step down as host, but would remain chairman of the association he joined some 60 years ago.
“Though we will miss him beyond measure, we suspect that somewhere in heaven, he’s already urging the angels to give ‘just one dollar more for my kids,'” said MDA Chairman of the Board R. Rodney Howell on Sunday.
His fundraising efforts won him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2009 Oscar telecast. But the telethon was also criticized for being mawkish and exploitative of children, known as “Jerry’s Kids.” A 1960s muscular dystrophy poster boy, Mike Ervin, later made a documentary called The Kids Are All Alright, in which he alleged that Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Association had treated him and others as objects of pity rather than real people.
“He and his telethon symbolize an antiquated and destructive 1950s charity mentality,” Ervin wrote in 2009.
Responded Lewis: “You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair, stay in your house!”
Lewis also sassed and snarled at critics and interviewers who displeased him. He pontificated on talk shows, lectured to college students and compiled his thoughts in the 1971 book The Total Film-Maker.
“I am not ashamed or embarrassed at how seemingly trite or saccharine something in my films will sound,” he wrote. “I really do make films for my great-great-grandchildren and not for my fellows at the Screen Directors Guild or for the critics.”
In his early movies, Lewis played loose-limbed, buck-toothed, overgrown adolescents, trouble-prone and inclined to wail when beset by enemies. American critics recognized the comedian’s popular appeal but not his aspirations to higher art; the French did. Writing in Paris’ Le Monde newspaper, Jacques Siclier praised Lewis’ “apish allure, his conduct of a child, his grimaces, his contortions, his maladjustment to the world, his morbid fear of women, his way of disturbing order everywhere he appeared.”
The French government awarded Lewis the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1983 and Commander of Arts and Letters the following year.
Lewis had teamed up with Martin after World War II, and their radio and stage antics delighted audiences, although not immediately. Their debut, in 1946 at Atlantic City’s 500 Club, was a bust. Warned by owner “Skinny” D’Amato that they might be fired, Martin and Lewis tossed the script and improvised their way into history. New York columnists Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan came to the club and raved over the sexy singer and the berserk clown.
Lewis described their fledgling act in his 1982 autobiography, Jerry Lewis in Person: “We juggle and drop a few dishes and try a few handstands. I conduct the three-piece band with one of my shoes, burn their music, jump offstage, run around the tables, sit down with the customers and spill things while Dean keeps singing.”
Hollywood producer Hal Wallis saw them at New York’s Copacabana and signed them to a film contract. Martin and Lewis first appeared in supporting roles in My Friend Irma and My Friend Irma Goes West. Then they began a hit series of starring vehicles, including At War With the Army, That’s My Boy and Artists and Models.
But in the mid-1950s, their partnership began to wear. Lewis longed for more than laughs. Martin had tired of playing straight man and of Lewis’ attempts to add Chaplinesque pathos. He also wearied of the pace of films, television, nightclub and theatre appearances, benefits and publicity junkets on which Lewis thrived. The rift became increasingly public as the two camps sparred verbally.
“I knew we were in trouble the day someone gave Jerry a book about Charlie Chaplin,” Martin cracked.
On July 24, 1956, Martin and Lewis closed shop, at the Copa, and remained estranged for years. Martin, who died in 1995, did make a dramatic, surprise appearance on Lewis’ telethon in 1976 (a reunion brokered by mutual pal Frank Sinatra), and director Peter Bogdonavich nearly persuaded them to appear in a film together as former colleagues who no longer speak to each other. After Martin’s death, Lewis said the two had again become friendly during his former partner’s final years and he would repeatedly express his admiration for Martin above all others.
The entertainment trade at first considered Martin the casualty of the split, since his talents, except as a singer, were unexplored. He fooled his detractors by cultivating a comic, drunken persona, becoming star of a long-running TV variety show and a respected actor in such films as Some Came Running, The Young Lions and Rio Bravo.
Lewis also distinguished himself after the break, revealing a serious side as unexpected as Martin’s gift for comedy.
He brought in comedy director Frank Tashlin for Rock-a-bye Baby, Cinderfella, The Disorderly Orderly, The Geisha Boy and Who’s Minding the Store?, in which he did a pantomime of a typist trying to keep up with Leroy Anderson’s speedy song “The Typewriter.”
With The Bellboy, though, Lewis assumed the posts of producer, director, writer and star, like his idol Chaplin. Among his hits under his own direction was the 1963 The Nutty Professor, playing a dual Jekyll and Hyde role, transforming himself from a nerdy college teacher to a sexy (and conceited) lounge singer, Buddy Love, regarded as a spoof of his old partner Martin.
Lewis was born Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jersey, on March 16, 1926. His father, billed as Danny Lewis, was a singer on the borscht and burlesque circuits. His mother played piano for Danny’s act. Their only child was often left alone in hotel rooms, or lived in Brooklyn with his paternal grandparents, Russian Jewish immigrants, or his aunts in New Jersey.
“All my life I’ve been afraid of being alone,” Lewis once said. In his later years the solitude haunted him, and he surrounded himself with an entourage.
Joey Levitch made his professional debut at age 5, singing the Depression tearjerker “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” to great applause. He recalled that he eventually lost all interest in school and “began to clown around to attract people’s attention.”
By 16, Jerry Lewis (as his billing read) had dropped out of school and was earning as much as $150 a week as a solo performer. He appeared in a “record act,” mouthing crazily to the records of Danny Kaye, Spike Jones and other artists. Rejected by the Army because of a heart murmur and punctured eardrum, Lewis entertained troops in World War II and continued touring with his lip-sync act. In 1944 he married Patti Palmer, a band vocalist.
The following year he met Martin, on a March day in 1945 in Manhattan, Broadway and 54th to be exact. Lewis was on his way to see an agent, walking with a friend, when his friend spotted an “incredibly handsome” man wearing a camel’s hair coat. Lewis and Martin were introduced and Lewis knew right off that this new acquaintance, nine years older than him, was “the real deal.”
“‘Harry Horses,’ I thought,” Lewis wrote in the memoir Dean and Me, published in 2005. “That was what we used to call a guy who thought he was smooth with the ladies. Anybody who wore a camel’s-hair overcoat, with a camel’s-hair belt and fake diamond cuff links, was automatically Harry Horses.”
Lewis couldn’t escape from small-time bookings. The same was true of Martin, who sang romantic songs in nightclubs. In 1946, Lewis was playing the 500 Club, and the seats were empty. Lewis suggested hiring Martin to bolster the bill, promising he could do comedy as well as sing.
Fame brought him women and Lewis wrote openly of his many partners. After 36 years of marriage and six sons, Patti Lewis sued her husband for divorce in 1982. She later wrote a book claiming that he was an adulterer and drug addict who abused their children. Son Gary became a pop singer whose group, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, had a string of hits in 1965-66.
In his late 50s, Lewis married Sandra Pitnick, 32, a former airline stewardess. They had a daughter, Dani, named for Jerry’s father.