I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know who Jerry Lewis was. As a kid in the 60s, I loved his films. As someone who liked music, I loved his son’s group, Gary Lewis and the Playboys. And, as I got older and was allowed to stay up late, I loved watching him every Labor Day on the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon he hosted every year. Tomorrow will be a sad day because Mr. Lewis won’t be a part of it. He died today at the age of 91.
Born Jerome Levitch in Newark, New Jersey in March 1926, he was 20 years old when he was teamed up with singer Dean Martin and the duo became the most popular nightclub comedy act of the time. Capitalizing on their stage personas (Dean was the good looking singer, Jerry the spastic goof) they made a successful number of films for Paramount. The duo broke up in 1956 and the next year found Jerry starring by himself in the comedy “The Delicate Delinquent.” After success in a series of films created by others (“The Sad Sack,” “The Geisha Boy”) he decided to write and direct himself, beginning with 1960’s “The Bell Boy.” He wrote and/or directed 10 films in 10 years including “The Ladies Man,” “The Errand Boy” and the film he was most closely associated with, “The Nutty Professor.”
Critics dismissed Lewis’ films but other cultures, notably the French, hailed him as a comic genius. Lewis was also technically brilliant as a filmmaker, developing the “video assist” system employed by most directors today, giving them the chance to see what they have just shot instead of waiting for the film to be developed. In 1972 he took on a personal project dealing with the Holocaust, writing, directing and starring in “The Day the Clown Cried.” The story of a former clown who is used to escort young children to the gas chambers, the film has rarely been seen. For many years Lewis kept the only print of the film locked up in a vault. However, in 2015 he donated it to the Library of Congress with the stipulation that it not be shown until 2025.
As his film career slowed down Lewis turned his attention more and more to finding the cure for Muscular Dystrophy, raising almost $2.5 billion when he stopped hosting in 2010. One of the highlights of the show came in 1976, when Frank Sinatra reunited Lewis with Dean Martin on air. To me it is one of the greatest live moments caught on television. Everything from Jerry muttering “you son of a bitch” to Sinatra to him wiping the tears from his eyes is genuine.
After a decade away from films, Lewis returned with a flourish, playing late-night talk show host Jerry Langdon in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant film “The King of Comedy.” Starring opposite Robert De Niro, Lewis received the best reviews of his life. He continued to work in film, television and theater through 2015. In 2009 he was given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Scientists for his 50 years of work with Muscular Dystrophy.