Comedian Jerry Lewis at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 7, 2015. Photo by Larry French/Getty Images for The Friars Club

Jerry Lewis, comedian and filmmaker, dies at 91


Jerry Lewis, the Jewish slapstick comedian, singer, actor, film producer and director, screen writer and humanitarian, died Sunday morning at his home in Las Vegas. He was 91 and had been in poor health for some years.

Lewis was born in Newark into a show business family, as the son of Daniel Levitch, an all-around performer, and mother Rachel (“Rae”), a pianist and her husband’s musical director.

As with many other aspects of their son’s life, even his first name is a matter of controversy. According to his birth certificate, he was born Jerome Levitch, but in his autobiography, he gave his fist name as Joseph.

During a professional career spanning some seven decades, Lewis appeared in and directed at least 46 films, and made innumerable radio, television and stage appearances.

He made his debut as a five-year old, singing “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” in a Borscht Belt resort in New York state’s Catskill Mountains.

In 1946, he teamed up with crooner Dean Martin in what was often lauded as the most successful comedy duo in history. Within a few months, the duo’s earnings went from $250 a week to $5,000.

Lewis himself described the collaboration between the handsome, singing Martin and himself as a “sex and slapstick” collaboration.

Together, Lewis and Martin made 16 films together, including “My Friend Irma Goes West,” “The Stooge,” and “Hollywood or Bust.”

The duo separated, with considerable acrimony, after 10 years, and though embittered, Lewis went on to a hugely successful and lucrative solo career. In the mid-fifties, his solo album “Jerry Lewis Just Sings,” sold a phenomenal 1.5 million copies.

His movie career also hit new highs, and in 1959, Lewis signed a pathbreaking new contract with Paramount, which paid him $10 million up front and 60 percent of box office profits. Among his most successful movies during the 1960s was “The Nutty Professor” and “Three on a Couch.”

Unlike many Jewish comedians and celebrities, Lewis rarely talked, or made jokes, about his Jewish heritage. The closest he came was in the 1972 film  The Day the Clown Died.”

The film was about a non-Jewish German circus clown, played by Lewis, who is imprisoned in a bar for mocking Hitler. In the camp, he insists on performing for Jewish children and the SS guards use the clown to lead the children to the Auschwitz gas chambers.  He insists on joining them as they are killed.

First passionate about the project, Lewis eventually hid all the footage, saying he was too embarrassed to show it. “ “I was ashamed of the work,’ he said. “It was bad, bad, bad.”

Lewis began hosting the annual Labor Day weekend Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon in 1966, remaining as host of the telethon and his beloved “Jerry’s Kids” until 2010, raising more than $2 billion during those years.

He received the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences’ Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his charitable activity in 2009. He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — one for his movie work, the other for television.

Lewis, whose comedy style remained popular in France, was inducted by the French government into the Légion d’Honneur in 2006.

In 2015, the Library of Congress announced that it had acquired Mr. Lewis’s personal archives. In a statement, he said, “Knowing that the Library of Congress was interested in acquiring my life’s work was one of the biggest thrills of my life,” according to the New York Times.

Lewis had two heart attacks, prostate cancer and pulmonary fibrosis. He also had suffered from a painkiller dependency in the 80s.

He had six sons with his first wife Patty Palmer, Gary, Ronnie, Scott, Anthony, Christopher and Joseph, who died in 2009.  He is survived by his second wife, SanDee Pitnick, and their daughter.

 

JTA contributed to this report.