Jerry Lewis, the comedic actor-filmmaker who for more than 70 years delighted audiences and grated critics with his nasal voice and pliable face, died Sunday. He was 91.
His publicist, Candi Cazau, told The Associated Press that Lewis, the star of such movies as “The Bellboy,” “The Family Jewels” and his widely acknowledged masterpiece, “The Nutty Professor,” died of natural causes in Las Vegas with his family by his side.
A product of the post-World War II golden era of showbiz, Lewis was a multi-hyphenate entertainer whose abilities extended beyond the broad comedy that delighted his fans and annoyed his detractors.
Lewis first played the zany counterpart to Dean Martin’s suave crooner in their popular nightclub act during the 1940s, but he also transformed himself into a film star, a successful Las Vegas singer in his own right, an innovative filmmaker who changed the way movies are made — Lewis invented the “video assist” that allows directors to immediately view a new take — and a telethon personality who raised billions of dollars for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
He was to appear at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury on Sept. 8 with his show “Jerry Lewis Live,” in which he shared stories about his life and career and showed clips from his films.
Although critics often sniffed at the slip-and-fall comedy and his tear-jerking telethon speeches, Lewis always maintained a loyal following. Even in recent years he regularly toured as a one-man show, telling tales from his colorful past.
“There’s never been an in-between,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1995. “You will either find Jerry Lewis fanatics, crazy nuts over him, or other Jerry Lewis fanatics that say, ‘Not while I’m eating.’ ”
Among that crazy-nuts group are the French, who famously embraced Lewis as a visionary filmmaker. The revered film magazine Cahiers du Cinema interviewed him frequently; the director Jean-Luc Godard once compared Lewis’ framing to that of “great painters.” France welcomed Lewis into its legion of honor as a chevalier in 1984 and as a commander in 2006. (During the latter ceremony, Lewis pretended to check his watch and fall asleep.)
Even Lewis’ critics give high marks to “The Nutty Professor” (1963), in which Lewis plays a milquetoast college professor, Julius Kelp, who invents a potion that turns him into Buddy Love, a macho, hard-boozing lounge singer (also Lewis). Thanks to that perfectly played dual role, stylish direction and a psychological theme inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the film is widely regarded as the comedian’s finest work.
During the 1970s, Lewis essentially bowed out of movies save for “The Day the Clown Cried,” a notoriously misguided drama in which Lewis plays a German clown who leads a group of unwitting Jewish children to the gas chamber in Auschwitz. The film was never released, reportedly because of litigation but also from Lewis’ own embarrassment over the material. Today it’s a near-legendary piece of forbidden cinema, seen by only very few people. Interviewed by the Los Angeles Times last year, Lewis refused to answer questions about it. “Can’t talk about it,” he said. “I won’t.”
Lewis also spent much of the 1970s fighting an addiction to Percodan, a painkiller he began taking after chipping his spine with a pratfall at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in 1965.
“I have taken more falls than any other 20 comedians put together,” Lewis told USA Today in 2002. “I’ve taken them on everything from clay courts to cement to wood floors, coming off pianos, going out a two-story window, landing on Dean, falling into the rough. You do that and you’re gonna have problems.” After a near-suicide attempt with a handgun, Lewis finally kicked his habit in 1978.
A few years later, Lewis returned to the screen in an unlikely dramatic role in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” (1983). As the talk-show host Jerry Langford, who is kidnapped by an unfunny stand-up comic (Robert De Niro), Lewis essentially played a version of himself, though not for laughs. Surprisingly, he earned perhaps his best reviews yet, with The New York Times praising the “brilliant solemnity” of his performance.
“Jerry Lewis was a master,” Scorcese said Sunday. “He was a giant. He was an innovator. He was a great entertainer. He was a great artist. And he was a remarkable man. I had the honor of working with him, and it was an experience I’ll always treasure. He was, truly, one of our greats.”
A scene in that film speaks to the thick skin and resilient ego that Lewis developed as an entertainer over the years. Lewis’ character is approached by an adoring fan who pleads for a personal favor and then, once turned down, instantly hisses, “You should only get cancer!” A similar encounter, Lewis said, happened to him once in Las Vegas.
“She never took a breath,” Lewis recalled in an interview years later. “That’s how quick they turn.”
Jerry Lewis was born Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey, to Russian Jewish parents who were both performers: Daniel Levitch, a vaudevillian, and Rachel Levitch, a pianist. The young Joey Lewis began performing when he was 5 and eventually changed his name to avoid confusion with the comedian Joe E. Lewis.
A chance encounter with Dean Martin at a New York nightclub in 1945 led to a collaboration in Atlantic City, where the two discovered they improvised well together. A radio show followed in 1949, along with the Paramount comedy “My Friend Irma.”
Through the 1950s, Martin and Lewis released a string of popular movies, with Martin playing the cool lady-killer and Lewis as his man-child sidekick.
In 1956, Martin, feeling sidelined, walked out, and the two men would not speak to each other other than for a brief impromptu reunion at the Sands in 1960 for another 16 years when they were famously reunited by Frank Sinatra during an MDA telethon. Although some suspected that Lewis was mocking Martin with his Buddy Love caricature in “The Nutty Professor,” Lewis always insisted otherwise.
Even from his earliest days as a star, Lewis gave his time to the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He first held a telethon in 1952. Although his weepy approach and use of the word “cripple” struck some as condescending and insensitive — his telethon even became the object of a boycott effort in 1991 — Lewis raised an estimated $2.6 billion for the association until his final telethon in 2010.
Lewis endured a number of health problems over the years, including three heart attacks (the first while filming 1960’s “Cinderfella”), his pratfall-induced back injury, viral meningitis and, in the late 1990s, treatment for pulmonary fibrosis that led to noticeable weight gain.
In 1995, Lewis made his Broadway debut, at the age of 69, in a revival of “Damn Yankees” (he played the devil). Last year, he played an aging jazz pianist in his final film, “Max Rose.”
“I do every single thing a performer can do to entertain an audience,” Lewis told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1993. “In the words of my dad, there’s only one way to be a pro: Sweat.”
JERRY LEWIS CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
FILMS WITH DEAN MARTIN
“My Friend Irma” (1949)
“That’s My Boy” (1951)
“The Stooge” (1952)
“Jumping Jacks” (1952)
“Sailor Beware” (1952)
“Living It Up” (1954)
“You’re Never Too Young” (1954)
“Artists and Models” (1955)
“Hollywood or Bust” (1956)
“The Delicate Delinquent” (1957)
“The Bellboy” (1960)
“The Errand Boy” (1961)
“The Nutty Professor” (1963)
“Who’s Minding the Store?” (1963)
“The Patsy” (1964)
“The Family Jewels” (1965)
“The King of Comedy” (1983)
“Funny Bones” (1995)
“The Colgate Comedy Hourt” (1950-55)
“The Jerry Lewis Show” (1963 and 1967-69)
“The Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day Telethon” (1966-2010)
“Damn Yankees” (March 1994-February 1995)