Comedy legend Jerry Lewis dies at 91

At his prime, Jerry Lewis was embraced as the ultimate 20th-century village idiot


Jerry Lewis, the “king of comedy” who dominated 1950s Hollywood, has died at the age of 91. The American comic had suffered a heart condition for decades and suffered a near-fatal cardiac arrest in December 1982. His death was reported by Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John Katsilometes and Variety reported that Lewis’ agent confirmed the news.

Lewis, at his prime, was embraced as the ultimate 20th-century village idiot, a pocket tornado who blended slapstick prowess with squeaky-voiced histrionics. It was a combination that helped make him the industry’s top box-office draw for several years running. “I was about as discreet as a bull taking a piss in your living-room,” he once confessed. Yet, while beloved by the masses, the comic also found himself lauded by the artistic elite in France, where he was eventually awarded the prestigious Legion d’honneur. The critics at Cahiers du Cinema hailed him as an American auteur, a visionary to rank alongside John Ford and Orson Welles.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, Lewis honed his act on the borscht-belt comedy circuit. He found early fame in tandem with the entertainer Dean Martin. The pair collaborated on 17 pictures, including The Stooge, Living it Up and Three Ring Circus, with Martin typically playing the suave straight man to Lewis’s unruly clown. Following the partnership’s acrimonious breakdown in the late-1950s, Lewis went on to score solo successes with the likes of Cinderfella, The Bellboy and The Nutty Professor. Yet what was reputed to have been Lewis’s most ambitious, personal production remains unseen to this day. In 1971 the comic directed and starred in The Day the Clown Cried, about a children’s entertainer at the Nazi concentration camps. The film was reportedly buried by horrified studio bosses and has since become a dark piece of Hollywood folklore.

Lewis, who was rumoured to possess the lone copy of the film, refused to discuss it. With his movie career on the wane, Lewis took a job teaching classes at the University of Southern California, where his students included George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg. He also kick-started what would become his annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon, which went on to raise $2.45bn for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. In later years, Lewis appeared on screen in Hardly Working, Arizona Dream and Funny Bones. For many, however, his finest film performance came courtesy of 1982’s The King of Comedy, which cast Lewis in the role of Jerry Langford, a successful TV host who finds himself preyed on by a stalker. A box office flop on its first release, Martin Scorsese’s acid black comedy has since been hailed as a classic portrait of modern celebrity.

Jerry Lewis, for his part, was bullish about his legacy. “I’m a multi-faceted, talented, wealthy, internationally famous genius,” he once remarked. “I have an IQ of 190 - that’s supposed to be a genius. People don’t like that. But my answer to my critics is simple: I like me. I like what I’ve become. I’m proud of what I achieved.”

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