Jerry Lewis, Comic Turned Telethon Fund-Raiser, Dies at 91

  • Helped raise an estimated $1.7 billion for muscular dystrophy
  • With Dean Martin, he was top box-office act from 1950-1956

Jerry Lewis, who teamed with Dean Martin to create one of show business’s most famous acts and redefined slapstick comedy with his hammy, sappy on-screen persona, has died. He was 91.

Jerry Lewis

Source: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

The entertainer died Sunday morning of natural causes at his home Las Vegas with his family at his side, Nancy Kane, his publicist of almost 25 years, said in an interview.

Lewis’s 45-year run as a telethon host introduced him to a younger generation of viewers while raising an estimated $1.7 billion for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, where he was national chairman. Beginning in 1966, he appeared on television every Labor Day as host of the round-the-clock telethon to raise funds to fight neuromuscular diseases.

His 21 1/2-hour telethon in 2008 raised a record $65 million. His final telethon, in September 2010, raised $58.9 million. The 2011 telethon, the first without Lewis, was shortened to six hours and held the day before Labor Day. It raised $61.4 million. Neither Lewis nor the Muscular Dystrophy Association explained their abrupt separation in detail.

As part of the 2009 Academy Awards, Lewis was honored with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his long-running philanthropy.

“For most of my life, I thought that doing good for someone wouldn’t mean you’d receive commendation for that act of kindness, at least until now,” Lewis said in his acceptance speech. “This award touches my heart and the very depth of my soul because of who the award is from, and those who will benefit. The humility is staggering, and I know it will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

Split With Martin

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lewis played the manic juvenile to Martin’s debonair, crooning straight man in their nightclub, film and broadcast act. After a public split in 1956, Lewis embarked on a successful solo acting and directing career in films including “The Nutty Professor” (1963) and “The King of Comedy” (1982).

Fans regarded him as the comedic successor to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Like Chaplin, Lewis could slip effortlessly between maudlin pathos and sidesplitting physical comedy. His slapstick and idiot savant antics influenced physical comedians such as Jim Carrey, Mike Myers and Adam Sandler. And his tart tongue landed him in hot water on occasion, such as when he uttered an anti-gay slur during the 18th hour of his telethon in 2007.

Joseph Levitch was born on March 16, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey, to vaudeville performers Danny and Rae Lewis. He debuted at 5, singing “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” in the Borscht Belt clubs of New York’s Catskill Mountains that catered to Jewish vacationers. Lewis developed a manic stand-up comedy routine as a teenager, impersonating popular singers.

Goofy Partner

In 1946, he teamed with Martin, another singer-comedian. Martin played the straight man to the goofy Lewis; their routines often consisted of Lewis trying to disrupt Martin’s musical numbers with immature antics.

Lewis and Martin debuted on screen in “My Friend Irma” (1949), reprising their nightclub routine. Over the next decade, they appeared in a dozen successful comedy films for Paramount, in nightclubs, on radio and the nascent medium of television.

Lewis and Martin became the highest grossing box office stars from 1950 to 1956. Their best films, including “Living It Up” (1954) and “You’re Never Too Young” (1955) were remakes of earlier screwball comedies.

Relations between the duo soured by the mid-1950s. They last performed at the Copacabana on July 25, 1956.

Movie Career

As Martin became a successful singer and actor, Lewis proved his juvenile stage persona could succeed without Martin’s straight man in movie hits such as “The Sad Sack” (1957) and “Don’t Give Up the Ship”(1959). Lewis’s mentor, former Warner Bros. cartoon director Frank Tashlin, directed six of these films, including “Rock-a-Bye Baby” (1958), “Cinderfella” (1960) and “Who’s Minding the Store?” (1963).

Lewis’s films in the 1960s got mixed reviews in the U.S., with detractors calling his characters forced, grating and witless.

His films of the period often performed better overseas. European critics, especially in France, lionized him as a comedic genius, “Le Roi de Crazy.” In 1984, he was named a commander of the French Legion of Honor.

The French named “The Nutty Professor” the best film of the year for 1963. In it, Lewis starred as geeky scientist Julius Kelp, who creates a potion to transform himself into lounge lizard Buddy Love in a send-up of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Many critics viewed Buddy Love as a caricature of Martin.

Film Flop

In 1963, Lewis hosted a two-hour Saturday night variety show that bombed as TV viewers quickly tired of his egotistical, abrasive personality. His film career cooled by the late 1960s and derailed with the notorious “The Day the Clown Cried,” in which Lewis, who also co-authored and directed, starred as a clown who entertains Jewish children in a Nazi concentration camp. The film, completed in 1972, wasn’t released.

At the 1976 MDA telethon, Frank Sinatra surprised Lewis by reuniting him with Martin. “I was in a time warp. My hands got sweaty, my mouth turned dry,” Lewis said of the moment in “Dean and Me (A Love Story),” his 2005 memoir. “For the first time in 20 years, we stood side by side -- as always, Dean stage right, me stage left.”

Lewis said he and Martin rebuilt their friendship gradually after that meeting. Martin died in 1995. “I think of him with undying respect,” Lewis wrote. “I miss him every day I’m still here.”

Lewis returned to film with a serious and critically acclaimed performance in the Martin Scorsese-directed “The King of Comedy,” playing a talk-show host stalked by an obsessed fan, played by Robert De Niro.

‘Damn Yankees’

Lewis became the highest-paid performer in Broadway history when he took over the role of the devil in a 1994-1995 revival of “Damn Yankees.”

He fell off a piano during a performance at the Sands Hotel in 1965 and chipped off a piece of spine, causing chronic back pain for over 30 years. He became addicted to the painkiller Percodan. He had open-heart surgery in 1983 and was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1992 and pulmonary fibrosis, a scarring of the lung tissue, in 2001.

He took prednisone, an anti-inflammatory drug, that caused him to gain more than 50 pounds. Lewis told People magazine in 2002 that he considered committing suicide. He later shed the weight during a three-month hospital rehabilitation stay in 2003.

Lewis had five sons and adopted another with his first wife, Patti Palmer. That marriage ended in divorce. With his second wife, SanDee Pitnick, Lewis adopted a daughter.

— With assistance by Laurence Arnold

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