After seventy years of entertaining audiences, Jerry Lewis has passed away at the age of 91 years old. He has left a legacy in film, television and stage that has shaped the way people look at comedy for decades. With a mischievous smile, goofy facial expressions, and hyperactive energy, Lewis was iconic for his comedy. It was his ability to be silly without any personal shame that made his characters explode to life. Without hesitation, his brand of funny felt like it was by the seat of his pants; his smile let us know he is in on the gag. What he will be remembered most for is his partnership with Dean Martin, the embodiment of the entertainment double act. Icon, comedy legend, and humanitarian, Lewis will be fondly remembered.
The Child Performer
We know him as Jerry Lewis, however, he was born Joseph Levitch in Newark New Jersey, 16th of March 1926. At the age of 5, he made his debut on stage in Brother Can You Spare a Dime?. A reputed prankster, Lewis dropped out of school in year 10 and was performing in burlesque houses at the age of 15. The shows would give birth to his ‘Record Act’ which acted as a prototype for his future schtick – exaggerated movement and miming humour. In 1942, he gained a manager in Irving Kaye, himself a legendary comic who organised bookings for the young performer originally known as Joey Lewis; the change was to avoid confusion with bigger names at the time.
Two Stars Were Born
No examination of the life of Jerry Lewis should go without mentioning the double act that was Martin and Lewis. It began in 1946 at the 500 club in Atlantic City and culminated at the Copacabana in New York. Hall Wallis saw the duo and poached them for Paramount Pictures. For ten years they would churn out hits including My Friend Irma, The Stooge, The Caddy and Pardners, all Box Office gold with none earning below $5 million. Hollywood Or Bust built animosity between the two and would end up being their last film together, just like that the partnership was over. The Copacabana would host their final appearance… or so it seemed. It was poetic that the place where their career blossomed would also host the last show of these two legends.
Neither Martin or Lewis would starve for work, and in fact, both found incredible success. Martin became a member of the Rat Pack with Frank Sinatra and Sammie Davis Jr. Lewis replaced Judy Garland in Las Vegas due to illness. Lewis would continue to hone and refine his comedy and perform in Vegas until 2016. Not limited to the stage, he signed a $10 million deal with Paramount and made films like Rock-A-Bye-Baby, and 1961’s The Ladies Man and Cinderfella. In 1963, he starred in the original The Nutty Professor. Sadly more people today will think of Eddie Murphy’s version. The movie grossed over $19 million and showcased his range; this comedy classic would last beyond its time. He made a string of flops after but had quipped:
Jerry Lewis leaves an incredible legacy on film. He appeared in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, working with Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard. Nominated for a BAFTA, he scored a prime-time Emmy award and Golden Lion during his career. Beloved in France and seen as a comedy deity, he was an auteur in that nation. Although his movie The Day the Clown Cried (1972) has never been released, with some saying it was legendarily awful. Lewis was the one who prevented its release he admitted later. While his humour had fallen out of favour back in the US, France awarded the Legion of Honour award in 1983. Lewis was even an Honorary Member of the Order of Australia in 2013, due to his service in support of charities for Muscular Dystrophy.
Lewis was well-known for hosting Telethons and would reunite with Dean Martin on television in 1976 thanks to Frank Sinatra. Lewis would claim it was “pure ignorance” that led to the two to stop talking to each other. His work for Muscular Dystrophy would raise over $2 Billion.
Lewis did face justified criticism to his humour. His views on women and racial humour, in particular, have been met with utter disdain by some critics. He even told tasteless homophobic jokes during a televised event. Lewis was dauntless and offered no apologies despite a public backlash. Comedy is an art form, but for some those sins would take away from his legacy.
Jerry Lewis was survived by SanDee Pitnick his seven children, six sons and a daughter. Lewis was compassionate, a consummate showman and most of all dearly loving to his family. In 2016, Lewis confessed his fear to die as that would mean leaving behind his wife and daughter. For decades Jerry Lewis shaped comedy and left a legacy that won’t soon be forgotten, and now we bid him all the best.JERRY LEWIS 1926 – 2017