That the French would love Jerry Lewis should surprise no one who saw him perform at his peak from the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s.
That Americans would mock the French for it is perhaps more surprising. For the great physicality, cartoonish faces and slapstick sound effects that Lewis used to make merry needed no translation around the world. From his smash success as a duo act with Dean Martin, through his dozens of starring movies (10 of which he also wrote and directed) and his 44 years of fundraising service for the Muscular Dystrophy Association through annual Labor Day telethons for “Jerry’s Kids,” Lewis served as an inspiration to generations of comedians. He also served as Abbot of The Friars Club in New York City, which renamed its historic headquarters after him in 2014. Lewis also angered many for his brash opinions, particularly in later years about women in comedy or about politics. Either way, Lewis did not go silently into the night. Instead, he died in his Las Vegas home on Sunday morning. He was 91.
Jerry Lewis was a true Jersey boy, born Jerome Levitch in Newark, NJ, on March 16, 1926. Born into show business — his father a Vaudeville act, his mother a piano player — young Jerry began singing with them as the Lewis family in the Catskills at age 5, and by his teens had developed the ability to mime along to records, a skill that’d continue to serve him well in multiple motion pictures.
After trying on the stage name Joey Lewis, he switched to Jerry to avoid confusion with two much more famous Joes in the game, the comedian Joe E. Lewis and the boxer Joe Louis.
The military rejected him from serving in World War II due to a heart murmur, and Lewis would go on to suffer multiple heart attacks, the first coming in 1960 while working on Cinderfella. That same year, 1960, he invented the video assist, allowing film directors to view dailies immediately on set.
But before that, Lewis caught his biggest break by teaming up with Dean Martin in 1946. Two years later, they’d risen from nightclub act to a nightly show at the 6,000-seat Roxy Theater in Times Square, and their first TV appearance on NBC. Martin and Lewis began hosting The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1950 (with a young Norman Lear as one of their writers), and had made the leap to feature films with My Friend Irma. They starred in 16 movies from 1950-1956, before the duo broke up as the hammy Lewis overwhelmed the straight man Martin. They eventually reconciled decades later.
Later in 1956, Lewis released a hit album, Jerry Lewis Just Sings, which reached #3 on the Billboard charts and sold 1.5 million copies. He’d headline the Sands in Las Vegas for the next five years, six weeks per year. He’d also have his own DC Comics comic book series, and star in his own series of films. By the end of the decade, he’d negotiated a new contract with Paramount Pictures for $10 million plus 60% of the profits for 14 films over the next seven years. The first film he wrote, directed, produced and starred in was 1960’s The Bellboy.
He followed that up with The Ladies Man, The Errand Boy, It’s Only Money and The Nutty Professor. He also hosted a weekly TV series for ABC in 1963 and a one-hour variety special for NBC in 1967.
Fun fact: Lewis also taught film directing at the University of Southern California, and among his students were Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
Of course, the even more infamous Jerry Lewis film story involves his epic failure at making a Holocaust movie about a clown in a Nazi concentration camp, The Day The Clown Cried. Lewis vowed never to let it screen, but perhaps his death and will may allow it to come out from the vaults.
Lewis did produce a very compelling dramatic performance in Martin Scorsese’s film The King of Comedy, portraying a version of himself as late-night TV talk show host, stalked by two fans with completely different motives in Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard.
Here are two scenes showing Jerry as “Jerry” in The King of Comedy:
Lewis would make guest-starring appearances on TV in Wiseguy, Mad About You, The Simpsons and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, as well as parts in films such as Mr. Saturday Night and Funny Bones.
Of course, there’s also the blemish on his reputation for claiming in the late 1990s that women weren’t funny, and reiterating or clarifying his point even in 2013, saying “I cannot sit and watch a lady diminish her qualities to the lowest common denominator. I just can’t do that.” The one time I was in the same room with Lewis, at the 2013 Friars Club Roast of Jack Black, the women on the dais (Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer among them) certainly roasted Lewis for his ridiculous assertions.
He didn’t win an Emmy or an Oscar, but the television academy gave him the Governor’s Award in 2005, while the Academy Awards bestowed him with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2009.
The Friars Club posted:
August 20th 2017. Today is the day the clown cried…
It is with profound sadness that we share the news of the passing of our Abbot, leader and dear friend, Jerry Lewis.
He was always there for the Friars, and was never shy about espousing his love for our club.
He leaves an unrivaled legacy, as comedian, filmmaker and humanitarian.
We Friars must cherish the time we spent with him and continue to live up to the high standards he set as our Abbot.
Heaven just got a little funnier…
Good night , Mr. Lewis , the world will miss you.
Larry King, Dean.
Bruce Charet, Scribe.
Michael Gyure, Executive Director.
Fellow Friars and fans were welcomed to post their remembrances today at the club.
— The Friars Club (@friarsclub) August 20, 2017