The goofy and unbridled comedic antics of Jerry Lewis entertained the world for 70 years. Last weekend, the internationally acclaimed performer died at his Las Vegas home at age 91.
In 2005, however, there was a visibly shaken man who opened the annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon. In the previous 40 years of the event, Lewis had never strayed from comedy nor delved into political discussion. But the funnyman had no jokes that evening. With his voice breaking, Lewis noted that he’d never included a plea for another cause on his signature fundraising event, but that changed as he saw coverage of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and other Gulf Coast regions.
“I know my kids will understand if I hold up the beginning of their show because there are hundreds of thousands of people who know what suffering is,” he told the audience. “I had a box of Kleenex and I’m bawling like a child and I’m not believing it. If I had the slightest chance of helping them a little, how do you not? These people are in trouble now. It is stunning to watch this unfold in America in 2005. Embarrassed?…you bet. And while the needs of my kids are with us year-round, Hurricane Katrina is a national disaster on a scale that’s difficult to comprehend, and we simply can’t ignore the need to help. So, if you want to send me 20 bucks for my kids, send $10. Send the other $10 to the people in this trouble. The disaster is literally that and it has to be addressed. They’re running out of time. And we, as generous and loving Americans, must help them.”
That announcement resulted in $1 million being raised for Hurricane Katrina disaster relief. “I’m overjoyed we were able to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina and at the same time continue our 40-year tradition of helping my kids,” Lewis said.
Jerry Lewis was one of the most popular comic actors of the 1950s and 1960s in perfecting the role of the quirky but vulnerable clown in a number of slapstick comedies such as “Rock-A-Bye-Baby,” “The Errand Boy,” “The Disorderly Orderly” and “The Nutty Professor.” Lewis starred in more than 45 films over the course of his career which began professionally with singer Dean Martin in 1947. Lewis was the perfect foil to Martin’s ‘King of Cool” persona and at one point early on, in 1948, they were suddenly headlining in New York City at Copacabana on the Upper East Side and at the Roxy Theatre in Times Square. And they did well in the early days of television and in motion pictures in films such as “Scared Stiff” and “The Caddy” in 1953 and “Hollywood or Bust in 1956. Lewis’ career spanned vaudeville, radio, television, film and philanthropy. His early days playing the resorts in the Catskills of New York allowed him to hone the image of the manic, juvenile jokester which belied darker, more self-lacerating elements below the surface in giving his seemingly silly performances a fascinatingly edgy undercurrent. Lewis once said he modeled himself after Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, two earlier comedians who where known for taking control of their idiosyncratic and deeply personal art by writing, directing and sometimes producing their own material. As he wrote in his 2005 memoir “Dean and Me: A Love Story”: “I was tall, skinny, gawky; cute but funny-looking. I always saw the humor in things, the joke possibilities. At the same time, I didn’t have the confidence to stand on a stage and talk.” Lewis found that portraying the broad clown—wearing goofy wigs, pantomiming in an exaggerated fashion—opened up a rich vein of comic possibilities. “God hadn’t made me handsome, but He’s given me something, I always felt: funnybones.” Martin and Lewis made 16 movies over 10 years, each becoming major stars by juxtaposing Martin’s leading-man demeanor with Lewis’ screwball tomfoolery. The partnership ended in 1956—and the two famously didn’t speak to one another for the next 20 years until being reunited by Frank Sinatra during the annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon. Lewis hosted this event from 1956 through 2011, in the process raising more than $2.6 billion. In 1977 Lewis was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his charitable work.
“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.’ thank you Jerry, you are our hero. God bless you,” said MDA Chairman Rodney Howell.
The MDA’s kind words upon Lewis’ death stand in stark contrast to the abrupt and bitter end to hosting the iconic fundraiser. He was suddenly fired in 2012 and denied a farewell show. Lewis never discussed the ouster nor did he give an extended interview on the matter, only saying afterwards, “they’ve made their decision and I must respect that.”
Lewis once said his brand of physical comedy, later adopted by a number of popular performers including Dick Van Dyke’s “Rob Petrie,” Penny Marshall’s “Laverne DeFazio,” Cindy Williams’ “Shirley Feeney,” John Ritter’s “Jack Tripper,” and even Jaleel White’s “Steve Urkel” came from a childhood desire to make people laugh. “I look at the world through a child’s eyes because I’m nine,” Lewis told Reuters news agency in 2002. “I stayed that way. I made a career out of it. It’s a wonderful place to be.” Jerry Lewis, caught the acting bug early, appearing on stage with his parents, Danny and Rae Levitch, when he was six years old. His mother was a pianist and his father was a song-and-danceman, and Lewis made his stage debut in the summer of 1932 singing the Depression-era anthem “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” at a Jewish resort hotel. At age 12, Lewis began to demonstrate his ability to make people laugh while working as a “tea boy” at a resort hotel in Lakewood, NJ where his father was performing for the winter.
Lewis and two waiters would do comedic parodies of current movies for the guests in the hotel lobby. Later with Dean Martin, he would revive this act as Martin would sing and Lewis, dressed as a waiter, would do signature pratfalls while pretending to serve guests. The audience roared with laughter. Lewis always admitted he was a “class clown” which was probably why he was expelled from school at age 15. He reportedly dropped out of a vocational high school just shy of his 16 birthday to make a go of it in show business. He got some early bookings in New York City with a lip-synch act in which he mugged outlandishly to records by Betty Hutton, Frank Sinatra, Carmen Miranda and opera star Igor Gorin. By the time he was booked into the 500 Club in Atlantic City in 1946, Lewis was 20 but still struggling to make his mark in show business. By then he and wife, Patti, had a year-old son (Gary, later frontman of the 60s pop group Gary Lewis and the Playboys) and one evening a singer on the bill at the club recommended to Lewis a singer that might be helpful to his act. That singer was Dean Martin who, himself, had a knack for comedy. “A handsome man and a monkey,” Lewis later described the heavily improvised act he and Martin began crafting. They were an immediate hit.
In his 1982 autobiography “Jerry Lewis in Person,” he recalled the madcap monkeyshines: “We’d juggle and drop dishes…and try a few handstands. I conduct the three-piece band with one of my shoes, burn their music, jump offstage, run ’round the tables, sit with the customers and spill things while Dean keeps singing.”
From the start Lewis received the lion’s share of the attention from reviewers. When they hosted their first “Colgate Comedy Hour,” a New York Times review referred to Lewis as the team’s “works,” while Martin was simply the “competent” straight man. In his autobiography, Lewis said the public really didn’t understand Martin’s “brilliance” as a straight man in describing his ex-partner as “the greatest straight man in the history of show business.” In time as they continued making pictures, doing television and making nightclub appearances, Martin eventually grew tired of “playing a stooge,” tired of Lewis being singled out as the “crazy, funny” one and, in fact, tired of Lewis himself. By the time of “Hollywood or Bust,” Martin reportedly told Lewis: “You’re nothing to me but a…dollar sign.” That was the end of Martin and Lewis.
Any fears Lewis may have had about going solo were quickly put to rest. Four years later he signed a $10 million contract with Paramount Pictures for seven motion pictures, and the comedy star introduced himself to a new generation of film fans. As a filmmaker in the early ’60s, Lewis was known for experimenting in sound, editing, set décor, cinematography and plotting. He also created the “video assist,” the now-extensively used closed-circuit television system that allows a director to watch takes on a monitor. Beforehand, the director had to wait 24 hours for the film to be developed.
In these Paramount films, Lewis created a style of humor that was almost half-anarchy and half-excruciation with a series of pratfalls that eventually led to serious back pain that caused him to rely on strong medications later in life. By the mid-60s, however, Lewis’s brand of physical comedy had fallen out of fashion and movies such as “The Big Mouth,” “The Kid” or “The Idiot” as his bumbling and naïve screen character began to wear thin on the audience.
“I never allowed my character to be any older than 9 years old,” he said years ago. “You just keep that age as a center point to work from and the mischief comes. I put it in the body of an adult man and I’ve made it work.”
During this period, Lewis spent time teaching film at the University of Southern California and helped to shape a new generation of filmmakers, including George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who took his classes. Lewis was proud of mentioning: “Steven told me one night ‘I get more information from a Jerry Lewis evening than I do from a university.’”
Lewis continued to tour and play Las Vegas, releasing only one movie in the 1970s called “Which Way to the Front?” There was another film that, Lewis admits, was terrible. “The Day the Clown Cried” from 1972 was never released. He portrayed a German circus clown who was sent to a Nazi death camp and used by his captors to lead unsuspecting Jewish children into the gas chamber. “Can’t talk about it…and I won’t,” he told the Los Angeles Times last year. “I lost my magic. That’s all I’ll say about it.”
In 1984 Lewis received the French Legion of Honor, and one year later the Medical for Distinguished Public Service, the latter the U.S. Defense Department’s highest civilian award. At the Academy Awards ceremony in 2009, Lewis received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his fundraising work on behalf of MDA.
Lewis had a number of health problems later in life. He underwent double bypass surgery in 1982, suffered from pulmonary fibrosis and was plagued by chronic pain resulting from his signature pratfalls as a young man. His back pain led to a highly publicized addiction to the painkiller Percodan in the 1970s, but in 2002 he underwent surgery to have a device implanted that stopped the need for steroids and, in effect, prevented the nerves in the spinal cord from relaying pain messages to the brain.
Lewis took a rare dramatic turn in the early 1980s in Martin Scorsese’s caustic show-biz comedy “The King of Comedy” in which he portrayed a Johnny Carson-like talk-show host who was stalked and later kidnapped by Robert De Niro’s demented aspiring comic Rupert Pupkin.
“I was fortunate to have seen him a few times over the past couple of years,” De Niro said upon hearing of Lewis’ death. “Even at 91, he didn’t miss a beat. Or a punchline.”