Jerry Lewis was the consummate entertainer. He was one of the most versatile and durable performers of his time. He could sing, dance and act, and he was a successful film producer, director and screenwriter. In addition, he was a great humanitarian. For example, for over 40 years he hosted a Labor Day Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy. However, he was best known for his unique and zany brand of comedy. He entertained audiences with his unique nasal, whiny voice, malleable face, and slapstick style. Often, he would not even have to say a word, just make a zany face or take a crazy pratfall and audiences would laugh uproariously. In 2002 he told USA Today: ” I have taken more falls than any other 20 comedians put together. I have taken them on everything from clay courts to cement to wood floors, coming off pianos, going out a two-story window, landing on Dean, falling into the rough.” He entertained us for nearly 90 years.
Joseph (or, by some accounts, Jerome) Levitch was born on March 16, 1926 in Newark, NJ. Entertainment was in his blood. His parents were Russian Jews who were in the business. His father, Daniel (aka Danny), was a vaudeville entertainer. His mother, Rae, was a piano player for a radio station. Jerry began performing as part of his parents’ act at the age of five, notably at the various Catskill Resorts – the so-called “Borscht Belt.”
To no one’s surprise, young Joey was an inveterate prankster, and he was not exactly a devoted student in school. In fact, he dropped out in the tenth grade to pursue entertaining full time. By fifteen he had developed his own act, which he called the “Record Act.” He would mime lyrics from songs as they played on a phonograph. Around this time, he changed his name to Jerry Lewis. Supposedly, he felt Joey Lewis to be too close a resemblance to comedian Joe E. Lewis and heavyweight champion boxer, Joe Lewis.
In 1946, after a chance encounter with singer Dean Martin at a NYC night club, they teemed up to form one of the most popular and successful acts ever. Martin was the straight man; Lewis was the zany comedian. Unlike most other comedy acts of the time, their act did not feature any preplanned skits. They just interacted with each other. Audiences could not get enough of them. They began performing in night clubs. Then, they graduated to tv. First, they guest-starred on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town, which was one of the most popular shows on tv. Soon after, they got their own tv show, The Martin and Lewis Show. Next came the movies. They signed a deal with Paramount in 1949 to make a series of films.
They made 16 movies for Paramount between 1949 and 1956, all of which were produced by the renowned Hal B. Wallis. Over time, however, Martin’s roles in these movies began to decline in relation to Lewis’. This caused considerable strain on their partnership. Finally, on July 24, 1956, they split up.
Their legion of fans was very upset, and many of them begged the two to reconcile. Not only did they not reconcile, but neither would comment on the reasons for the split. Both Martin and Lewis went on to very successful careers as solo acts, and they would not appear together again until 1976. They did not formally reconcile until 1980, perhaps, spurred on by the untimely death of Martin’s son, Dean Paul.
After the breakup with Martin, Lewis was unsure of what to do. Later, he would admit: “I was unable to put one foot in front of the other with any confidence. I was completely unnerved to be alone.” As it happened, while Lewis was vacationing in Las Vegas, Judy Garland, who was performing at one of the casinos, became ill and could not go on. Her manager prevailed upon Lewis to fill in. With some trepidation, he did so, and he was a big hit singing and clowning with the audience. That success gave him the confidence that he could succeed as a solo act.
Lewis’ career as a solo act took off. He was a success in Vegas, on tv and in the movies. The Sands Hotel signed him to a long term contract. He got his own tv show on NBC. He made additional movies. My personal favorite was “The Nutty Professor,” in which he plays two characters, a milquetoast professor and a macho, hard-drinking lounge performer, sort of like a modern version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He even enjoyed success as a writer and director. As a director he is credited with inventing the “video assist,” which enables a director to view a new “take” immediately.
As previously mentioned, Lewis had always been a fundraiser for Muscular Dystrophy. He was national chairman for many years. In addition, he hosted a Labor Day telethon from 1952 – 1959 and 1966-2010 for the organization. Over that period, he raised in excess of $2.5 billion for the cause. Furthermore, Lewis founded a place for abused and traumatized children called Jerry’s House.
Lewis was not active politically. He was a strong advocate of the US, in general, but did not advocate for any particular political party. He would lament other people’s “lack of pride” in the country. “I do not say anything negative about the president…I don’t do that. And I don’t allow my children to do that.” In that regard, he said that he was heeding the advice of former president John F. Kennedy who had advised him: “Don’t get into anything political. [It] will usurp your energy.” Lewis also felt that politics “did not belong at the Oscars.”
Lewis was married twice and had seven children – six sons (one of which was adopted) and one adopted daughter. Even though he lived a long life, he was not a well man for much of it. For example, for many years he was plagued by a back injury he had suffered on stage in 1965; he became addicted to the powerful painkiller, Percodan; he had two heart attacks; he contracted several serious diseases at one time or another, such as viral meningitis, prostate cancer, diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis. The Prednisone he was taking for the latter caused him to gain considerable weight and “blew him up like a balloon.” Through it all, he persevered and continued to perform. Even at the time of his death he had performances scheduled. “I do every single thing a performer can do to entertain an audience,” he said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times in 1993. “In the words of my dad, there’s only one way to be a pro: sweat.”
Lewis received dozens of honorariums and awards for movies, tv and his humanitarian activities – too many to list here. Perhaps, the following quote from superstar director, Martin Scorsese will sum up his legacy: “Jerry Lewis was a master. He was a giant. He was an innovator. He was a great entertainer. He was a great artist. And he was a remarkable man.”
In a 2016 interview with Inside Edition Lewis disclosed that he was “afraid of dying as it would leave his wife and daughter alone.” Unfortunately, we all have to die sometime.
Lewis passed away on August 20, 2017. Rest in peace, Jerry. You were truly one of a kind, and you will be sorely missed.