Jerry Lewis, the Jewish slapstick comedian, singer, actor, film producer, director, screenwriter and humanitarian, died Aug. 20 at his home in Las Vegas. He was 91 and had been in poor health for some years.
Lewis was born March 16, 1926, in Newark, N.J., into a show business family, the son of Daniel Levitch, an all-around entertainer, 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 5-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 often is lauded as the most successful comedy duo in history. Within a few months, the pair’s earnings went from $250 a week to $5,000. Lewis described the partnership 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 although embittered, Lewis went on to a hugely successful and lucrative solo career. In the mid-1950s, his solo album, “Jerry Lewis Just Sings,” sold 1.5 million copies.
His movie career also hit new highs, and in 1959, Lewis signed a pathbreaking 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 were “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 his unreleased 1972 film, “The Day the Clown Cried.” The film was about a non-Jewish German circus clown, played by Lewis, who is imprisoned for mocking Hitler. In the prison camp, he insists on performing for Jewish children, and the SS guards eventually 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 all 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 and 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. And Lewis, whose comedy style remained popular in France, was inducted by the French government into the Légion d’Honneur.
In 2015, the Library of Congress announced it had acquired Lewis’ 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 1980s.
He had six sons with his first wife Patti Palmer — Gary, Ronnie, Scott, Anthony, Christopher and Joseph, who died in 2009. He is survived by his second wife, SanDee Pitnick, and their daughter, Danielle Sara.
— JTA contributed to this report