Legendary entertainer Jerry Lewis dead at 91

Legendary entertainer Jerry Lewis dead at 91
Jerry Lewis
Jerry Lewis

(NEW YORK DAILY NEWS) – Love or hate Jerry Lewis, you knew he was in the room.

Lewis, who died Sunday at age of 91, turned himself into an American entertainment institution, first as a maniacal slapstick comedian and then as the 45-year host of tear-jerking annual TV telethons that raised a staggering $2.6 billion for muscular dystrophy research.

His death was confirmed in a statement tweeted by a reporter for the Las Vegas Review Journal.

“Legendary entertainer Jerry Lewis passed away peacefully today of natural causes at 91 at his home w/ family by his side,” the statement read.

Inside the comedy world, Lewis was revered as a genius. The 2011 Lewis documentary “Method to the Madness” featured comedians from Billy Crystal to Eddie Murphy to Chevy Chase praising his singular style of comic lunacy and pathos.

“I get paid,” Lewis once said, “for what most kids get punished for.”

“If you don’t get Jerry Lewis,” Jerry Seinfeld said in “Method,” “you don’t understand comedy.”

For American audiences, Lewis’ career had three major segments: his early television, stage and movie collaboration with Dean Martin, which ended in 1956; his solo movie career, which peaked in the 1960s; and his return every Labor Day for the Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon, which he hosted until 2010.

His tearful pleas for “Jerry’s Kids” and his rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” became television signatures.

Lewis was also known throughout his career as an attentive and demanding businessman who knew the nuts and bolts of his business — though not all his projects worked out.

In 1969, he cofounded the Jerry Lewis cinemas, a chain of intimate movie theaters that initially showed only family-friendly films. While it folded a decade later, it foreshadowed the modern-day multiplex model of small theaters.

Inside the movie industry he was known for pioneering a filmmaking process known as “video assist,” which was eventually adopted by all the major studios.

But he made his most indelible mark as a comedian, with a style that featured physical comedy, prominently including facial contortions, and rapid-fire repartee.

His prominent influences included early comedians like Charlie Chaplin and vaudeville, in which his Russian immigrant parents had worked.

Lewis’ dialogue often sounded improvised even when it wasn’t, reflecting the style of free-form banter he developed while working on stage with Martin.

The two met in 1945, when Martin was a rising nightclub singer and Lewis a comic who specialized in zany lip-synching to recorded music.

They formed an act in 1946, with Lewis as the wise guy and Martin as the straight man.

Team comedy was a popular shtik from vaudeville, but Martin and Lewis distinguished themselves by often breaking away from traditional scripted sketches.

Their improv could occasionally run out of control. A notorious pirated recording that surreptitiously circulated for years had the two swapping increasingly explicit obscenities.

They became stars on the nightclub circuit, reportedly earning $30,000 a week at the Copa. They also moved from radio to television variety shows to the movies, making 16 pictures for Paramount from 1949 to 1956.

These light comedies, from “My Friend Irma” to “Hollywood or Bust,” made them international stars who even had their own comic book. From 1952 to 1957, DC published “The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.”

The movies eventually began featuring the expressive Lewis more than Martin, and that contributed to the friction that led to an unpleasant breakup in 1956.

Neither spoke of the split for years, though at Frank Sinatra’s urging they reconciled before Martin’s death in 1995.

Asked about Martin in 2011, Lewis said, “In order for me to talk about my partner I would need some time, because he earned that. Not only the time, but the respect of the work, and the admiration and the courage, and all of the good stuff he made of me in the 10 years he was my teacher.”

When Lewis embarked on his solo movie career, he got a profit-sharing deal and an extensive creative leeway.

The result was Lewis character-driven movies that included “The Bellboy,” “Cinderfella,” “The Errand Boy,” “The Family Jewels” and “The Nutty Professor.”

With the exception of “The Nutty Professor,” a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” takeoff that drew widespread praise, many of his films were criticized as excessive, indulgent and juvenile.

Lewis said in 2011 that didn’t bother him, “because I didn’t know it. I never read negative things.”

For many years it became a running joke that Lewis’ movies were more highly regarded in France than in the United States.

Lewis’ American critics said that showed what the French knew about comedy, while his French defenders said it just proved Americans didn’t appreciate true culture.

France’s prestigious Cannes Film Festival honored Lewis in 2013, and the whole subject inspired the title for a 2001 book by Rae Beth Gordon, “Why the French Love Jerry Lewis.”

He continued making and producing movies all his life. For years he taught a filmmaking class at the University of Southern California, where his students included Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

Spielberg, a Lewis fan, recalled that Lewis saw his first movie, “Amblin,” in 1968 and said, “That’s what a movie should look like.”

Lewis’ own movies included at least one notable misfire, “The Day the Clown Cried” in 1972. Lewis played a circus clown who is sent to a concentration camp, and it stirred such controversy it was never released. In later years Lewis said that was just as well.

He did better playing a late-night talk show host in the dark 1983 satire “King of Comedy.”

In 1996 he executive-produced the remake of “The Nutty Professor” with Eddie Murphy. He went back and forth in later years whether he was pleased with the result, which he said wasn’t as “perfect” as the original.

In one of Lewis’ last on-camera roles, he starred in the 2013 film “Max Rose” as an aging jazz pianist.

“I’ll keep making movies as long as there are things I want to say,” said Lewis in 2011.

He didn’t get that option with the Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon, from which the MDA abruptly dismissed him after the 2010 production.

At its peak, the telethon ran 21½ hours on Labor Day, with Lewis pleading, cajoling, joking and welcoming a stream of celebrity guests, all the while standing in front of a giant toteboard with rolling donation totals.

He raised an estimated $2.6 billion for the MDA during his 45 years, and he was clearly wounded when the association decided to shorten the show and go with multiple cohosts starting in 2011.

“This is a hurt man,” Lewis’ friend Richard Belzer told Time magazine.

Lewis resigned from the MDA board and plans for a farewell appearance in 2011 were canceled.

But he said later that year that the telethon remained one of his proudest life achievements.

He also had multiple health issues in his own life.

He suffered at least three heart attacks, in 1960, 1982 and 2006. He suffered from prostate cancer, type 1 diabetes, and viral meningitis, for which he was hospitalized for five months in Australia in 1999.

One of his most dramatic illnesses was pulmonary fibrosis, for which he was treated with Prednisone in the early 2000s. The drug resulted in weight gain that dramatically changed his lean appearance.

He suffered a serious back injury during a comic pratfall at a club in 1965, narrowly escaping paralysis, and later admitted he became addicted to his painkiller, Percodan, for the next 13 years.

In 2012, he collapsed at a Friars Club event from hypoglycemia.

Lewis was born Joseph Levitch in Newark, N.J., on March 16, 1926. His mother was a piano player and by the time young Joseph was 5, he was joining his parents for their stage routine in the Catskills.

He soon developed his “Record Act,” miming lyrics to recordings, and he dropped out of Irvington High School in the 10th grade to pursue a show business career.

He was married twice, to Patti Palmer from 1944 to 1980 and to SanDee Pitnick from 1983 until his death. He was 56 when he married Pitnick, a Las Vegas dancer who was 32.

He had six sons with Palmer, one adopted, and an adopted daughter with Pitnick.

His oldest son, Gary, became a pop music star with Gary Lewis and the Playboys in the 1960s. His youngest son, Joseph, died of a drug overdose in 2009.

Lewis hosted three TV variety shows of his own, but none were successful. He didn’t succeed in getting to Broadway with a 1976 revival of “Hellzapoppin,” in which he costarred with Lynn Redgrave, but he did eventually hit the Great White Way with a short 1995 run in “Damn Yankees.”

He received only two major awards nominations for his ongoing work, a primetime Emmy nod in 1952 and a BAFTA nomination for “King of Comedy” in 1983.

Later he received a slew of honorary awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Comedy Awards in 1997 and a Governor’s Award from the primetime Emmys in 2005.

He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2009 from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

He also had no problem appreciating his own work.

“People hate me,” he once said, “because I am a multifaceted, talented, wealthy, internationally famous genius.”

Asked in 2011 if he felt he had fulfilled his life destiny, he said, “Not yet, but I’m getting close. Get the cure for muscular dystrophy. Then I’m fine.

“Otherwise, I’m the happiest old man you’ve ever seen.”


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