Jerry Lewis was famous for 70 years. He never stopped being famous. By 1982, when he appeared in The King of Comedy for Martin Scorsese, he had established the status of a show business legend. He remained an elder statesman for the following decades.
All this was, however, merely the aftershock from a period of incomparable celebrity that spanned the two decades succeeding the second World War. His partnership with Dean Martin quickly became the most successful comic act of its day. Lewis was the bumbling fool. Dean was the suave Italian-American with the vermouth voice. “Who were Dean’s fans? Men, women, the Italians,” Lewis later explained. “Who were Jerry’s fans? Women, Jews, kids. Who were Martin and Lewis’ fans? All of them.”
Following an acrimonious – and still slightly mysterious – falling out in 1956 both went on to differently successful careers. Lewis appeared in such hit films as The Bellboy and The Nutty Professor. Like so many of his generation, he couldn’t quite cope with the cultural changes of the 1960s. But his status remained undimmed with French film critics who (to the puzzlement of many Americans) regarded him as one of the great post-war auteurs.
Lewis was born as Joseph Levitch to Jewish parents in Newark, New Jersey. Dad was a vaudeville entertainer. Mum played piano on the radio. He was performing as a boy and, after the war, now Jerry Lewis, he worked as a comedian in the clubs of New York City. It was there that Dean Martin spotted him and suggested they work out some kind of double act.
“Martin and Lewis” debuted in Atlantic City on July 25th, 1946. Martin was essentially the straight man, but the act depended on an innovative back-and-forth banter that proved hugely influential. A smash radio show ran from 1949 until 1953. They appeared together in hit films such as My Friend Irma, That’s My Boy and You’re Never Too Young.
Their success played to a desire for smooth, light entertainment that surged after the inconveniences of war and profited from growing prosperity. There was a car in every suburban drive and Lewis and Martin record within every living room. It seems as if Martin eventually began to tire of films in which, cast as the bland romantic lead, he had to watch Jerry get all the laughs. Exactly 10 years after they had first got together, Dean walked away for a career as a crooner.
Lewis was uneasy about going it alone, but, just a few months after the split, he had a hit with the album Jerry Lewis Just Sings. A regular gig at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas followed. Later he met up with Frank Tashlin, an eccentric director who had come from the world of animation, and they developed such zany films as The Delicate Delinquent and Rock-a-Bye Baby.
It was, however, when he took over directing that he began to attract the attention of those critics in Cahiers du Cinema. The two most durable Lewis films remain The Bell Boy (1960), a physical comedy in the style of the old silent movies, and the deranged, irresistible The Nutty Professor (1963). In those pictures Lewis perfected his gift for an unsettling, heightened persona that, if encountered in the real world, would send any sane person screaming for safety.
David Thomson wrote: “The Bellboy is a masterpiece of visual comedy in which Jerry is still a simpleton while the mind that sees the jokes is a mathematical genius”. Thomson gets at the power and the problem of Lewis’s stock creation. He was not lovable like Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp. He was not urbane like Groucho Marx’s onscreen personae.
As the 1960s war on, the younger audiences failed to stay with Lewis. They could see only reminders of their parents’ taste. His id-centred genius got lost in the counter-cultural fug.
This is not to suggest Jerry Lewis vanished. From 1966 until 2010 he hosted a popular telethon in aid of Muscular Dystrophy. He had a recurring role on the interesting, late-1980s crime drama Wiseguy.
The up-and-coming generation of film directors remained loyal to the guy they'd watched on TV throughout their childhoods. He taught at the University of Southern California's film school when Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were students and was reportedly blown away by Spielberg's debut short Anblin'.
In the early 1970s he directed and starred in one of the most famous (possibly notorious) unseen films of all time. The Day the Clown Cried followed a circus clown who finds himself entertaining children in a concentration camp. He seemed to accept that the project was in poor taste and did not permit its release. The comedian Harry Shearer was among those who saw a rough cut. He later remarked: “This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. ‘Oh My God!’—that’s all you can say.” For all that, the premise sounded eerily similar to that of Roberto Benigni’s later Oscar-winning Life is Beautiful.
His performance in The King of Comedy was a revelation even to his fans. Playing the short-tempered chat-show who attracts the fanatical interest of Robert De Niro’s lonely idiot, Lewis was still, disciplined and terrifyingly dismissive. There was almost nothing of the High Lewis fool in his turn. Among other things, The King of Comedy anticipated the millennial craze for cringe comedy.
Lewis was married twice. He stayed with Patti Palmer, a singer, from 1944 until 1980. He is survived by SanDee Pitnick, whom he married in 1983, and by seven children. His influence is woven into all the US comedy that followed his glory days, but it is the physical comedians who owe him the greatest debt. "That fool was no dummy," Jim Carrey, very much in the same school, commented. "Jerry Lewis was an undeniable genius an unfathomable blessing, comedy's absolute! I am because he was!"