WASHINGTON, Aug 21, (Agencies): Hollywood comedian Jerry Lewis, who died Sunday aged 91, perfected a goofy brand of slapstick that endeared him to millions over the course of a career spanning six decades.
One of the most popular American entertainers of the 1950s and ‘60s, Lewis made his name as the clown behind such quirky comedies as “The Nutty Professor” but also won acclaim as a writer, actor and philanthropist.
The comedy legend, who at the peak of his popularity was among the world’s biggest movie draws, died at his home in Las Vegas early Sunday morning.
“I can sadly confirm that today the world lost one of the most significant human beings,” said his publicist Nancy Kane. “Jerry died peacefully at home of natural causes surrounded by family and friends.”
Fans left flowers at the comedian’s two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Honored with accolades at home and abroad, including a Nobel Peace Prize nomination and France’s Legion of Honor, Lewis became known as much for his tireless efforts to promote awareness of Muscular Dystrophy as for his wacky comedy.
Over the course of 45 years, he raised some $2.45 billion for combatting the disease with an annual television event.
Born Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jersey to two entertainers, Lewis first took center stage at the tender age of five, when he performed “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” He began playing at resorts outside New York that catered to Jewish patrons, known by touring entertainers as the Borscht Circuit.
By age 15, he had assembled his own routine of lipsynching and made the rounds of New York talent agents, though to little avail.
At the age of 20, however, everything changed as Lewis embarked on arguably one of the most successful entertainment partnerships of all time with smooth crooner Dean Martin.
The two fed off each other in now-classic comedy gags, including pratfalls, slapstick and lots of seltzer water, signing a long-term contract with Paramount Pictures.
Tributes poured in Sunday from Hollywood royalty.
“Jerry Lewis was a master. He was a great entertainer. He was a great artist. And he was a remarkable man,” said Martin Scorsese, who directed Lewis in 1983 film “The King of Comedy.”
“That fool was no dummy,” tweeted comic star Jim Carrey, who cited Lewis as an inspiration. “Jerry Lewis was an undeniable genius an unfathomable blessing, comedy’s absolute! I am because he was!”
The White House called Lewis “one of our greatest entertainers and humanitarians.”
“Jerry Lewis kept us all laughing for over half a century, and his incredible charity work touched the lives of millions. Jerry lived the American Dream — he truly loved his country, and his country loved him back,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.
Some of the most notable films in Lewis’ extensive repertoire include “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1959), “The Geisha Boy” (1958) and “Funnybones” (1984).
His box office grosses, spanning nearly 50 years, total $800 million — an impressive figure since movie tickets cost no more than 50 cents during the height of his popularity.
After 17 films together, the Lewis-Martin partnership split in 1956, but Lewis continued his career in comedy and Hollywood. He won acclaim for his dramatic role alongside Robert De Niro in Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.”
“Be a hit. Score,” was his simple advice to young comedians, in comments once made to Larry King, the celebrity interviewer and a longtime friend. “Get the audience laughing and happy. That’s the secret.”
At other times he was more humble.
“Funny is fragile. It’s elusive,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. “It’s elusive to everyone because you’re never going to get a handle on what’s funny.”
Fellow comedian Carol Burnett — who worked with Lewis several times — marveled at his physical gifts.
“His voice could go up several octaves when he was supposed to be scared or insecure,” she told CNN. “Our audience was just dying with laughter, because he did such wonderful things with his body.”
Lewis’ long career was not without controversy, however. News reports over the years have criticized him as volatile and ill-tempered and he was accused more than once of berating fans attending his shows.
In 2007, during the 18th hour of his telethon, the then-81-year-old actor used a homophobic slur in introducing a person off stage — later apologizing for “a bad choice of words.”
Eventually, he was dumped as host of the yearly telethon by the Muscular Dystrophy Association, ending a nearly half-century run amid a growing sense that he had overstayed his welcome.
In recent decades, Lewis had been plagued by health problems, and was declared clinically dead in 1982 after a heart attack. Ten years later he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and in 1997 found out he had diabetes. A diagnosis of spinal meningitis in 2000 further caused his health to deteriorate.
But he was determined not to let ill health keep him from working as long as possible, including on a Broadway musical adaptation of “The Nutty Professor” as recently as 2011.
“I have to finish what I’ve started,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. “I want to do it before I leave.”
Jerry Lewis epitomized what it meant to be a survivor in Hollywood.
Through ups and downs in popularity, health troubles and weight fluctuations and the sorts of seismic shifts that take place over decades in the entertainment industry, Lewis always figured out a way to battle back, to reinvent himself, to stay relevant. It’s what enduring stars know how to do instinctively; perhaps it’s that very drive that makes them stars in the first place.
Through it all, Lewis remained the consummate showman, and his distinctive comic legacy surely will continue to survive for decades to come. The manic, rubber-faced performer who jumped and hollered to fame in a stage, radio, TV and film partnership with Dean Martin, settled to become a self-conscious auteur in movies he wrote, produced and directed, and found new fame as the tireless, teary host of the annual muscular dystrophy telethons, died Sunday at home in Las Vegas surrounded by family. He was 91.
Lewis, who had battled the lung disease pulmonary fibrosis, heart issues, a debilitating back problem and addiction to pain killers, died of natural causes, according to his publicist.
In his 80s, he was still traveling the world, planning to remake some of his earlier movies and 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.
In an interview with The Associated Press from 2016, Lewis, at 90 and promoting the film “Max Rose,” said he still woke up every day at 4:30 or 5 in the morning to write, and he had a handful of standup shows on the schedule.
Although a clear influence on Jim Carrey and other slapstick performers, later generations knew Lewis primarily 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 about $1.5 billion. He announced in 2011 that he would step down as host, but he would remain chairman of the association he joined some 60 years ago.
His fundraising efforts won him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2009 Oscar telecast, an honor he said “touches my heart and the very depth of my soul.” 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.
Responded Lewis: “You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair, stay in your house!”
He was the classic funnyman who longed to play “Hamlet.” He cried as hard as he laughed. He 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 believe, in my own way, that I say something on film. I’m getting to those who probably don’t have the mentality to understand what … ‘A Man for All Seasons’ is all about, plus many who did understand it,” he wrote. “I am not ashamed or embarrassed at how seemingly trite or saccharine something in my films will sound. 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, he played the kind of fellows who would have had no idea what the elder Lewis was talking about: 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 pretensions of higher art. Not the French. 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. Film critic Andrew Sarris observed: “The fact that Lewis lacks verbal wit on the screen doesn’t particularly bother the French.”
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 raved over the sexy singer and the berserk clown.
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, then they began a hit series of starring vehicles: “At War With the Army,” ‘’That’s My Boy,” ‘’Sailor Beware,” ‘’Jumping Jacks,” ‘’The Stooge,” ‘’The Caddy,” ‘’Money From Home,” ‘’Living It Up,” ‘’Three Ring Circus,” ‘’You’re Never Too Young,” ‘’Artists and Models,” ‘’Pardners,” ‘’Hollywood or Bust.”
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 inject Chaplinesque pathos into their movies. He also wearied of the pace of films, television, nightclub and theater 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). 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.
Lewis 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?”
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’ more recent film credits included such low-budget releases as “Arizona Dream,” co-starring Johnny Depp, “Funny Bones,” and “Max Rose,” from 2016. He was seen briefly in Eddie Murphy’s remake of “The Nutty Professor.”
“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 at work and at home.
Joey Levitch made his professional debut at age 5, singing the Depression tearjerker “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” to great applause.
By 16, Jerry Lewis had dropped out of school and was earning as much as $150 a week as a solo performer. Rejected by the Army because of a heart murmur and punctured eardrum, Lewis entertained troops in World War II and toured 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.
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. In his late 50s, Lewis married Sandra Pitnick, 32, a former airline stewardess. They had a daughter, Dani, named for Jerry’s father.
“When the truth comes down to the truth, I am so grateful that I’m on that stage or in front of that camera,” Lewis told The Associated Press in 2016. “To have a career that I had in film, I’m the luckiest Jew that ever lived. I’m so grateful for it. I don’t take advantage of it. I don’t use it improperly. And I love the fact that there’s nowhere I can go where people don’t know me.”