Today, an undeniable comedy legend, Jerry Lewis has passed away at the age of 91 this morning at his home in Las Vegas, his agent confirmed.
Where does one when trying to sum up the life of Jerry Lewis? Could it be how he dominated showbiz in the 1950s with Dean Martin as Martin & Lewis were one of the most popular duos if all time? Maybe roles like The Nutty Professor or The Bellboy that define him? Maybe it’s the Labor Day telethon he hosted for decades to raise money for Muscular Dystrophy?
It’s all of the above and more as Lewis was one of the zaniest, frantic, and creative folks to work in comedy.
Lewis was born Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926, in Newark, NJ. His mother played the piano, and his father was a musical arranger. Lewis made his debut at age 5 at a hotel in the Borscht Belt singing “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” He dropped out of high school, working as a soda jerk and theater usher, all the while cultivating a comedy routine, in which he mimed phonograph records. He paired with Dean Martin in 1946 at an Atlantic City club when his previous partner quit. Their report was electric and their career took off – tours, nightclubs, and 16 total movies in the span of 10 years.
“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,” said Lewis, who wrote about their relationship in the 2005 book Dean & Me (A Love Story). “And it really was an X factor, a kind of mystery.”
After he and Dean Martin went their separate ways, he dominated the movies in the 60s and was Paramount’s biggest star cementing himself in 1963’s The Nutty Professor, which he directed himself.
He wasn’t just an American star as he became extremely popular in France where he won numerous awards for his acting and directing. Being awarded high honors in in Europe and in the US for his humanitarian efforts as well. Coming from the telethon where he hosted for more than 50 years (1955 – 2011) raising nearly $2.5 billion and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.
For most of the 1970s Lewis hit a creative low but still worked, he later revealed that he had a drug addiction. Perhaps his most controversial film came in 1972, The Day the Clown Cried — a drama set inside a Nazi concentration camp. The film was never released due to controversy. Lewis donated a copy to the Library of Congress in 2015 under the agreement that the film not be shown for a decade.
Later in life he came under fire for some controversial statements about social issues and conservative views that were seen as out of touch with modern society. Though they caused buzz for the course of a media cycle, they never were major enough to undo the decades of humanitarian and goodwill the comedian had generated.
He recorded records that sold millions, hosted the Oscars (twice), residencies in Vegas, hundreds of movies, millions of tickets, an infinite number of laughs delivered to people. It’s unclear exactly how deep the legacy of Jerry Lewis is, but it is deep and it is immeasurable, and will last for years to come.