Jerry Lewis, the comedian and filmmaker who was adored by many, disdained by others, but unquestionably a defining figure of American entertainment in the 20th century, died Sunday morning at his home in Las Vegas. He was 91.
Lewis knew success in movies, on television, in nightclubs, on the Broadway stage and in the university lecture hall. His career had its ups and downs, but when it was at its zenith there were few stars any bigger. And he got there remarkably quickly. Barely out of his teens, he shot to fame shortly after the second World War with a nightclub act in which the rakish, imperturbable Dean Martin crooned and the skinny, hyperactive Lewis capered around the stage, a dangerously volatile id to Martin's supremely relaxed ego.
After his break with Martin in 1956, Lewis went on to a successful solo career, eventually writing, producing and directing many of his own films.
As a spokesman for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Lewis raised vast sums for charity; as a filmmaker of great personal force and technical skill, he made many contributions to the industry, including the invention in 1960 of a device — the video assist, which allowed directors to review their work immediately on the set — still in common use.
A mercurial personality who could flip from naked neediness to towering rage, Lewis seemed to contain multitudes, and he explored all of them. His ultimate object of contemplation was his own contradictory self, and he turned his obsession with fragmentation, discontinuity and the limits of language into a spectacle that enchanted children, disturbed adults and fascinated postmodernist critics.
‘King of Comedy’
Jerry Lewis was born on March 16th, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey. Most sources, including his 1982 autobiography, Jerry Lewis: In Person, give his birth name as Joseph Levitch. But Shawn Levy, author of the exhaustive 1996 biography King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis, unearthed a birth record that gave his first name as Jerome.
His parents, Danny and Rae Levitch, were entertainers — his father a song-and-dance man, his mother a pianist — who used the name Lewis when they appeared in small-time vaudeville and at Catskills resort hotels. The Levitches were frequently on the road and often left Joey, as he was called, in the care of Rae’s mother and her sisters. The experience of being passed from home to home left Lewis with an enduring sense of insecurity and, as he observed, a desperate need for attention and affection.
An often bored student at Union Avenue School in Irvington, New Jersey, he began organising amateur shows with and for his classmates, while yearning to join his parents on tour. By his 16th birthday, Joey had dropped out of school and was aggressively looking for work, having adopted the professional name Jerry Lewis to avoid confusion with nightclub comic Joe E Lewis. He performed his "record act" solo between features at movie theatres in northern New Jersey, and soon moved on to burlesque and vaudeville.
In 1944 he was performing at the Downtown Theatre in Detroit when he met Patti Palmer, a 23-year-old singer. Three months later they were married, and on July 31, 1945, while Patti was living with Jerry's parents in Newark and he was performing at a Baltimore nightclub, she gave birth to the first of the couple's six sons, Gary, who in the 1960s had a series of hit records with his band Gary Lewis and the Playboys. The couple divorced in 1980.
Dazzled by Dean
Between his first date with Palmer and the birth of his first son, Lewis had met Dean Martin, a promising young crooner from Steubenville, Ohio. Appearing on the same bill at the Glass Hat nightclub in Manhattan, the skinny kid from New Jersey was dazzled by the sleepy-eyed singer, who seemed to be everything he was not: handsome, self-assured and deeply, unshakably cool.
When they found themselves on the same bill again at another Manhattan nightclub, the Havana-Madrid, in March 1946, they started fooling around in impromptu sessions after the evening's last show. Their antics earned the notice of Billboard magazine, whose reviewer wrote, "Martin and Lewis do an afterpiece that has all the makings of a sock act," using showbiz slang for a successful show.
Bookings at bigger and better clubs in New York and Chicago followed, and by the summer of 1948 they had reached the pinnacle, headlining at the Copacabana on the upper East Side of Manhattan while playing one show a night at the 6,000-seat Roxy Theatre in Times Square.
The phenomenal rise of Martin and Lewis was like nothing show business had seen before. Partly this was because of the rise of mass media after the war, when newspapers, radio and the emerging medium of television came together to create a new kind of instant celebrity. And partly it was because four years of war and its difficult aftermath were finally lifting, allowing America to indulge a long-suppressed taste for silliness. But primarily it was the unusual chemical reaction that occurred when Martin and Lewis were side by side.
Among the audience members at the Copacabana was producer Hal Wallis, who had a distribution deal through Paramount Pictures. Other studios were interested — more so after Martin and Lewis began appearing on live television — but it was Wallis who signed them to a five-year contract.
He started them off slowly, slipping them into a low-budget project already in the pipeline. Based on a popular radio show, "My Friend Irma" (1949) starred Marie Wilson as a ditsy blonde and Diana Lynn as her levelheaded roommate, with Martin and Lewis providing comic support. The film did well enough to generate a sequel, "My Friend Irma Goes West" (1950), but it was not until "At War With the Army" (1951), an independent production filmed outside Wallis' control, that the team took centre stage.
“At War With the Army” codified the relationship that ran through all 13 subsequent Martin and Lewis films, positing the pair as unlikely pals whose friendship might be tested by trouble with money or women (usually generated by Martin’s character), but who were there for each other in the end.
The films were phenomenally successful, and their budgets quickly grew. Some were remakes of Paramount properties — Bob Hope’s 1940 hit “The Ghost Breakers,” for example, became “Scared Stiff” (1953) — while other projects were more adventurous.
"That's My Boy" (1951), "The Stooge" (1953) and "The Caddy" (1953) approached psychological drama with their forbidding father figures and suggestions of sibling rivalry; Lewis had a hand in the writing of each. "Artists and Models" (1955) and "Hollywood or Bust" (1956) were broadly satirical looks at American popular culture under the authorial hand of director Frank Tashlin, who brought a bold graphic style and a flair for wild sight gags to his work. For Tashlin, Lewis became a live-action extension of the anarchic characters, like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, he had worked with as a director of Warner Bros. cartoons.
As his artistic aspirations grew and his control over the films in which he appeared increased, Lewis’s relationship with Martin became strained. As wildly popular as the team remained,Martin had come to resent Lewis’s dominant role in shaping their work and spoke of reviving his solo career as a singer. Lewis felt betrayed by the man he still worshipped as a role model, and by the time filming began on “Hollywood or Bust” they were barely speaking.
After a farewell performance at the Copacabana on July 25th, 1956, 10 years to the day after they had first appeared together in Atlantic City, Martin and Lewis went their separate ways.
Lewis signed a contract with NBC for a series of specials and renewed his relationship with the Muscular Dystrophy Association — a charity that he and Martin had long supported — by hosting a 19-hour telethon.
Lewis made three uninspired films to complete his obligation to Hal Wallis. He saved his creative energies for the films he produced himself. The first three of those films — "Rock-a-Bye Baby" (1958), "The Geisha Boy" (1958) and "Cinderfella" (1960) — were directed by Tashlin. After that, finally ready to assume complete control, Lewis persuaded Paramount to take a chance on "The Bellboy" (1960), a virtually plotless homage to silent-film comedy that he wrote, directed and starred in, playing a hapless employee of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach.
It was the beginning of Lewis's most creative period. During the next five years, he directed five more films of remarkable stylistic assurance, including "The Ladies Man" (1961), with its huge multistory set of a women's boardinghouse, and, most notably, "The Nutty Professor" (1963), a variation on "Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde," in which Lewis appeared as a painfully shy chemistry professor and his dark alter ego, a swaggering nightclub singer.
"The Nutty Professor," a study in split personality that is as disturbing as it is hilarious, is probably the most honoured and analysed of Lewis' films. (It was also his personal favourite.) For some critics, the opposition between the helpless, infantile Professor Julius Kelp and the coldly manipulative lounge singer Buddy Love represented a spiteful revision of the old Martin-and-Lewis dynamic. But Buddy seems more pertinently a projection of Lewis' darkest fears about himself: a version of the distant, unloving father whom Lewis had never managed to please as a child, and whom he both despised and desperately wanted to be.
“The Nutty Professor” was a hit. But the studio era was coming to an end, Lewis’s audience was growing old, and by the time he and Paramount parted ways in 1965 his career was in crisis. He tried casting himself in more mature, sophisticated roles — for example, as a prosperous commercial artist in “Three on a Couch,” which he directed for Columbia in 1966. But the public was unconvinced.
Although he retained a preternaturally youthful appearance for many years, Lewis had a series of serious illnesses in his later life, including prostate cancer, pulmonary fibrosis and two heart attacks. Drug treatments caused his weight to balloon alarmingly, though he recovered enough to continue performing well into the new millennium. He was appearing in one-man shows as recently as 2016.
In 1983, Lewis married SanDee Pitnick, and in 1992 their daughter, Danielle Sara, was born. Besides his wife and daughter, survivors include his sons Christopher, Scott, Gary and Anthony, and several grandchildren.