Jerry Lewis, one of Hollywood’s greatest slapstick comedians, a filmmaker of exceptional popularity and novelty, and a humanitarian who transformed the celebrity telethon into a massive fundraising tool, has died. He was 91 and died at 9:15 this morning at his home, surrounded by family, according to a family statement and his publicist, Candi Cazau.
“He had been slightly ill and spent some time in local hospitals,” according to Cazau, “but came home and was planning on making stage appearances in New York and Las Vegas.”
Lewis, whose partnership with crooner Dean Martin in the 1940s and 1950s was one of comedy’s most beloved teams, also conquered the casino entertainment culture of Las Vegas and built an international audience that, as so many punchlines would have it, made him a critical favorite in France long before he earned the respect of American cineastes.
Lewis had been in ill health in recent years and suffered a heart attack in 2006. He also had a long bout with pulmonary fibrosis, which caused his face and body to swell. But he continued to make public appearances, performing in Las Vegas as late as last year. His final film, Max Rose, was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013.
Lewis was one of the dominant figures in show business during the 1960s and 1970s. His comedy act with Martin made them one of the most successful teams of all time, and Lewis’ films following that break-up made him one of the top movie draws of the era. Such comedy classics as The Bellboy (1960) and The Nutty Professor (1963) were huge successes.
Lewis also is remembered for his Herculean efforts as the national chairman – and face of – the Muscular Dystrophy Association. For years, his Labor Day telethon marked the end of summer for many, and it helped raise close to $2.5 billion for research into the disease. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for those efforts. Lewis left the telethon in 2011, but his annual closing song, You’ll Never Walk Alone, became one of the indelible moments of those efforts.
“Labor Day is not the same,” said publicist Cazau on CNN. “Without Jerry Lewis, Labor Day Weekend just comes and goes.”
His international success, particularly in France, where he was revered as a comedy genius, was no less impressive. Lewis won eight “best director” awards in Europe, and was presented with the French Legion of Honor award in 1984.
With Martin, Lewis appeared in such films as The Caddy, The Stooge, Artists and Models and Pardners, all of them earning decently at the box office. Their last film together, Hollywood or Bust, came in 1956. Shortly thereafter, following an appearance at the Copacabana nightclub, the team split.
Lewis went on to develop a slick solo nightclub act, and made a million-selling single, Rock-a-Bye Your Baby. He later released several record albums.
His biggest film success was on the horizon. In 1961, The Ladies Man and The Errand Boy were hits, preceded by Cinderfella and followed by The Disorderly Orderly. A string of hits directed by Frank Tashlin marked Lewis’ most popular and prolific Hollywood period from the late 1950s through the mid-’60s, including Rock-A-Bye Baby, The Geisha Boy, Cinderfella, It’s Only Money, Who’s Minding the Store? and The Disorderly Orderly.
Certainly his biggest and most memorable film was 1963’s The Nutty Professor, in which Lewis transformed from nerd to the ultra-suave Buddy Love thanks to a lab-created chemical, a performance thought by many to be a parody of Lewis’ old partner, Martin. It grossed $19 million, a huge number in that era, and was later remade with Eddie Murphy in the starring role, with Lewis credited as executive producer and for the screenplay. The film was also transformed into a stage production that ran in Nashville for seven weeks and featured a score by Marvin Hamlisch.
Along with his successes, Lewis had some failures. In 1972, he lent his name to a chain of movie theaters that went bankrupt after two years. He also made some less-than-memorable films, had a live TV variety show that failed, and two Broadway musicals that didn’t last long. One of his attempts at drama, the infamous concentration camp-set The Day The Clown Cried, was shelved without public viewing, although some excerpts made it to the public in 2013.
Lewis was born Joseph Levitch March 16, 1926 in Newark, N.J. The son of professional entertainers, he made his own debut at age 5 by singing “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” at a Borscht Belt hotel in upstate New York. He later dropped out of high school to work on a comedy routine, working as a soda jerk and theater usher to support his career development.
In 1946, he was working an Atlantic City nightclub when he made the acquaintance of an Ohio-born crooner named Dean Martin. The two had an instant rapport, and teamed up to conquer nightclubs, then film and TV. But the magic didn’t last, and in-fighting led the team to break up near the height of their popularity in 1956. Frank Sinatra was a key to bringing them together for a surprise appearance on the 1976 Lewis telethon, the only public reunion before Martin’s death in 1995. Lewis later wrote about their relationship in the 2005 book Dean & Me (A Love Story). “Other comedy teams never generated anything like the hysteria that Dean and I did, and that was because we had that X factor – the powerful feeling between us,” Lewis wrote. “And it really was an X factor, a kind of mystery.”
Lewis did no films for a long stretch following 1970’s Which Way to the Front? But he made an impact in 1983 with director Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, winning kudos for his portrayal of a talk-show host kidnapped by two crazed fans, played by Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard. That same year, he married Sandra Pitnick, with their daughter, Dani, born in March, 1992.
He was earlier married to Patti Palmer, a union which ended in 1982 and produced five sons: Ron, Scott, Chris, Anthony and musician Gary, whose string of mid-1960s hits with Gary Lewis and the Playboys included “This Diamond Ring,” “Save Your Heart for Me,” and “Count Me In.”