Jerry Lewis, the slapstick-loving comedian, innovative filmmaker and generous fundraiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, died Sunday after a brief illness, said his publicist, Candi Cazau. He was 91.
Cazau would not elaborate on the illness from which Lewis was suffering.
Lewis first gained fame for his frenzied comedy-and-music act with singer Dean Martin. When that ended in the mid-1950s, Lewis went solo, and by the early ’60s, he had become a top draw in movies such as “The Bellboy,” “The Nutty Professor” and “The Patsy.” Along the way, he pioneered the use of videotape and closed-circuit monitors in moviemaking, a now-standard technique called video assist.
He first helped raise money for muscular dystrophy in a telethon in 1956. He was so successful, and so devoted to the cause, that children affected by the disease became known as “Jerry’s kids.” The telethon, long known as “The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon,” began airing on Labor Day weekend in 1966, and Lewis served as host until 2011. Despite his success, Lewis also was a controversial figure. A number of people suffering with muscular dystrophy claimed Lewis presented victims as childlike and worthy of pity, rather than as equal members of society.
Lewis lost some fans when he criticized women doing comedy — “I think of (a female comedian) as a producing machine that brings babies in the world,” he once said — and when he lashed out at MDA critics. “You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair? Stay in your house!” he said in 2001 on the “CBS Morning Show.” He later apologized.
When Lewis was one of America’s leading box office attractions, critics mocked him for the broadness of his comedy — and took more shots at him when he became a renowned figure in France. In 1984, the French awarded Lewis the Legion of Honor, the country’s highest tribute.
The White House also paid respects to Lewis, with a statement released late Sunday night.
“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. Our thoughts are with his family today as we remember the extraordinary life of one of our greatest entertainers and humanitarians. Thank you, Jerry. You will be missed,” the White House statement said.
Lewis was emotional, big-hearted, eccentric — once successful, he never wore a pair of socks twice — proud and forever playing to the back row.
He seldom apologized for it.
“Let me tell you that probably 50% of the film community plays a game and does their thing because they’re prominent and they’re making a lot of money. And what they do is they give up a piece of their soul … and for them, they’re comfortable, and they feel that’s fine,” he told CNN’s Larry King in 2000. “It was never fine for me and I wouldn’t go there. I told (legendary Hollywood gossip columnist) Louella Parsons I thought she was a fat pig, because I thought she was. I had an opinion.”
The controversy Lewis stirred up over the years did little to dampen his peers’ and successors’ appreciation of his art. Several celebrities took to social media to share their sadness over his passing.
Comedian Jon Lovitz called Lewis an “amazing talent,” while “Star Trek” actor George Takei thanked him for “the laughs and the feels.”
Joseph Levitch — he changed the name to Lewis as a teenager — was born in Newark, New Jersey, on March 16, 1926. Entertainment ran in the family: His father was a vaudeville performer, his mother a piano player. Lewis occasionally performed with his parents, and by the time he was a teenager he had developed his own act. He was a regular in New York’s Catskill Mountain resorts, popular summertime retreats for area Jews.
But Lewis was also a lonely boy, essentially raised by his grandmother. Lewis told King that his comedy was rooted in hurt.
“I found (the comic) through pain. And the pain was that I couldn’t buy milk like the other kids in school at recess time,” he said.
He met Martin at a club in 1945 where the two were performing as soloists. The next year they premiered as a duo in Atlantic City, New Jersey. According to show business lore, their first show flatlined and the team was warned by the club manager to improve or be fired. For the second show, the two went wild with a no-holds-barred mix of comedy and music. It was a hit. (Courtesy BBC)