Jerry Lewis

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Jerry Lewis
Jerry Lewis - 1960s.jpg
Lewis in the 1960s
Born Joseph Levitch
(1926-03-16)March 16, 1926
Newark, New Jersey, U.S.
Died August 20, 2017(2017-08-20) (aged 91)
Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.
Cause of death Cardiovascular disease
Occupation Comedian, actor, singer, director, producer, screenwriter, humanitarian and headliner
Years active 1946–2017
Spouse(s) Patti Palmer (m. 1944; div. 1980)
SanDee Pitnick (m. 1983)
Children 7, including Gary Lewis
Jerry Lewis signature.svg

Jerry Lewis (born either Jerome Levitch or Joseph Levitch, depending on the source;[1] March 16, 1926 – August 20, 2017) was an American comedian, actor, singer, director, producer, screenwriter, humanitarian and headliner. He was known for his slapstick humor in film, television, stage and radio and was nicknamed the "King of Comedy". He and Dean Martin were partners as the hit popular comedy duo of Martin and Lewis from 1946 to 1956.

Then soon after, he became a star in motion pictures, nightclubs, television shows, concerts, musicals and recordings. Lewis served as spokesman and national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association and host and emcee of the live Labor Day weekend TV broadcast of The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon for 45 years.

Early life

Lewis was born on March 16, 1926, at Newark Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, to Russian Jewish parents.[2] His father, Daniel Levitch (1902–1980), born in New York, was a master of ceremonies and vaudeville entertainer[3][4][5][6] who used the professional name Danny Lewis.[7][8]:11 His mother, Rachel "Rae" Levitch (née Brodsky; 1903–1983), (born in Mazowieckie, Poland, of a Russian father and Polish mother)[9] went by the stage name Rae Lewis,[8]:12 was a piano player for the radio station WOR and was her husband's musical director.[10][11][12][13][14] Lewis started performing at age five and would often perform alongside his parents in the Catskill Mountains in New York.[15] He was a "character" even in his teenage years, pulling pranks in his neighborhood including sneaking into kitchens to steal fried chicken and pies. He dropped out of Irvington High School in the tenth grade.

By 15, he had developed his "Record Act" miming lyrics to songs while a phonograph played offstage. He used the professional name Joey Lewis but soon changed it to Jerry Lewis to avoid confusion with comedian Joe E. Lewis and heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis.[8]:85 He landed a gig at a burlesque house in Buffalo, but his performance fell flat and was unable to book any more shows. Lewis worked as a soda jerk and a theater usher for Suzanne Pleshette's father Gene at the Paramount Theater[16][17][18][19][20] to make ends meet.

A veteran burlesque comedian, Max Coleman, who had worked with Lewis's father years before, convinced him to try again. Irving Kaye,[21][22][23][24] a Borscht Belt comedian, saw Lewis's mime act at Brown’s Hotel in Loch Sheldrake, New York, the following summer, and the audience was so enthusiastic that Kaye, became Lewis's manager and guardian for Borscht Belt appearances.[25][26] During World War II, he was rejected for military service because of a heart murmur.[27]

Comedy career

Teaming with Dean Martin

Dean Martin and Lewis, 1950

Prime to later years: 1946 to 1989

Lewis initially gained attention as part of a double act with singer Dean Martin, who served as straight man to Lewis' zany antics in the Martin and Lewis comedy team. They were different from other duo acts of the time because they relied on their interaction instead of planned skits. After forming in 1946, they quickly rose to national prominence, first with their popular nightclub act, next as stars of their series The Martin and Lewis Show on the NBC Red Network.[28] The two men made appearances on early live television, their first on the June 20, 1948 debut broadcast of Toast of the Town (later renamed The Ed Sullivan Show on September 25, 1955) on CBS.[29]

This was followed on October 3, 1948, by an appearance on NBC's Welcome Aboard, then a stint as the first of a series of hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1950. Just before appearing on that show, Lewis hired Norman Lear and Ed Simmons to become regular writers for the Martin and Lewis bits.[30][31] The duo began their Paramount film careers as ensemble players in My Friend Irma (1949), based on the popular radio series of the same name. This was followed by a sequel My Friend Irma Goes West (1950).

Starting with At War with the Army (1950), Martin and Lewis were the stars of their own vehicles in fourteen additional titles, That's My Boy (1951), Sailor Beware (1952), Jumping Jacks (1952), The Stooge (1952), Scared Stiff (1953), The Caddy (1953), Money from Home (1953), Living It Up (1954), 3 Ring Circus (1954), You're Never Too Young (1955), Artists and Models (1955) and Pardners (1956) ending with Hollywood or Bust (1956). All 16 films were produced by Hal B. Wallis. They also starred as cameos in Bing Crosby and Bob Hope's film Road to Bali (1952). Attesting to the duo's popularity, DC Comics published The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis from 1952 to 1957.

In 1954, the team appeared on episode 191 of What's My Line? as mystery guests, hosted the 27th annual Academy Awards in 1955 and then appeared on The Steve Allen Show and The Today Show in 1956. As Martin's roles in their films became less important over time, the partnership came under strain. Martin's participation became an embarrassment in 1954 when Look magazine published a publicity photo of the team for the magazine cover but cropped Martin out.[32] The partnership ended on July 24, 1956. Both Martin and Lewis went on to successful solo careers, and neither would comment on the split nor consider a reunion. They made occasional public appearances together until 1961.

They were not seen together again until a surprise reunion on Lewis' MDA telethon in 1976, arranged by Frank Sinatra.[33] The pair eventually reconciled in the late 1980s after the death of Martin's son, Dean Paul Martin, in 1987. The duo were seen together on stage for the last time when Martin was making what would be his final live performance at Bally's Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas in 1989. Lewis wheeled out a cake for Martin's 72nd birthday, sang "Happy Birthday" to him, and joked, "Why we broke up, I'll never know."[34]

Going solo

Late 1950s

Lewis in 1973.

After his partnership with Martin ended in 1956, Lewis and his wife Patty took a vacation in Las Vegas to consider the direction of his career. He felt his life was in a crisis state: "I was unable to put one foot in front of the other with any confidence. I was completely unnerved to be alone".[27] While there, he received an urgent request from his friend Sid Luft, who was Judy Garland's husband and manager, saying that she couldn't perform that night in Las Vegas because of strep throat,[27] and asking Lewis to fill in.

Lewis had not sung on a stage since he was five years old, twenty-five years before, but he appeared before the audience of a thousand nonetheless, delivering jokes and clowning with the audience while Garland sat off-stage, watching. He then sang a rendition of a song he'd learned as a child, "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody" along with "Come Rain or Come Shine." Lewis recalled, "When I was done, the place exploded. I walked off the stage knowing I could make it on my own".[27]

At his wife's pleading, Lewis used his own money to record the songs on a single.[35] Capitol Records heard it and insisted he record an album.[36] The album, Jerry Lewis Just Sings, went to number three on the Billboard charts, staying near the top for four months and selling a million and a half copies.[27][37] Further more music albums Lewis did were More Jerry Lewis and Somebody Loves Me.

Having now proven he could sing and do live shows, he began performing regularly at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, beginning in late 1956, which marked a turning point in his life and career. The Sands signed him for five years, to perform six weeks each year and paid him the same amount they had paid Martin and Lewis as a team.[36] The critics gave him positive reviews: "Jerry was wonderful. He has proved that he can be a success by himself," wrote one.[36]

He appeared in his first solo TV show for NBC in January 1957, followed by performances for clubs in Miami, New York, Chicago and Washington. In February, he followed Judy Garland at the Palace Theater in New York and his ex-partner Martin called during this period to wish him the best of luck.[36] "I've never been happier," said Lewis. "I have peace of mind for the first time."[36] Lewis rose to stardom as a solo act in television and movies starting with the first of six appearances on What's My Line? from 1956 to 1966, then starred in "The Jazz Singer" episode of Startime. Meanwhile, DC Comics published a new comic book series titled The Adventures of Jerry Lewis, running from 1957 to 1971.

Lewis remained at Paramount and became a comedy star in his own right with his first solo film, The Delicate Delinquent (1957). Teaming with director Frank Tashlin, whose background as a Looney Tunes cartoon director suited Lewis's brand of humor, he starred in five more films, The Sad Sack (1957), Rock-A-Bye Baby (1958), The Geisha Boy (1958), Don't Give Up The Ship (1959) and appeared uncredited as Itchy McRabbitt in Li'l Abner (1959). By the end of his contract with producer Hal B. Wallis, Lewis had several productions of his own under his belt.

In 1959, a contract between Paramount and Jerry Lewis Productions (Lewis' production company) was signed specifying a payment of $10 million plus 60% of the profits for 14 films over a seven-year period.[38] Lewis hosted the Academy Awards three times in 1956, 1957 and the 31st Academy Awards in 1959, which ran twenty minutes short, forcing Lewis to improvise to fill time.[39]


For late-night television, Lewis made many appearances on Tonight Starring Jack Paar and The Ed Sullivan Show while in 1960, Lewis had finished his contract with Wallis with Visit to a Small Planet (1960) and wrapped up production on his own work Cinderfella, which was postponed for a Christmas 1960 release. Paramount Pictures, needing a quickie motion picture for its summer 1960 schedule, held Lewis to his contract to produce one.[40]

As a result, he made his first self-directed feature film, The Bellboy (1960). Using the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami as his setting — on a small budget, with a very tight shooting schedule, and no script — Lewis shot the film during the day and performed at the hotel in the evenings.[40] Bill Richmond collaborated with him on many of the sight gags. Lewis later revealed that the Paramount studio was not happy about financing a "silent movie" and withdrew backing. Lewis used his own funds to cover the movie's $950,000 budget.

He starred in an episode of Celebrity Golf followed by a guest spot on an episode of The Garry Moore Show in 1961. Lewis followed The Bellboy by directing several more films he co-wrote with Richmond, including The Ladies Man (1961) and The Errand Boy (1961). Lewis then starred in his first special in three years The Wacky World of Jerry Lewis. In 1962, Lewis was a guest host during the transition from Jack Paar to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, that same year he starred in It's Only Money (1962), directed by Tashlin. Lewis then directed, co-wrote and starred in the smash hit The Nutty Professor (1963), did a cameo in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and starred in Who's Minding the Store? (1963).

Lewis would serve as host of his own show (first, as a 13-week lavish, big-budget show for ABC, which aired from September to December in 1963 and then as a one-hour variety show for NBC, which ran from 1967 to 1969).[41] Lewis went on and starred in The Patsy (1964) followed by The Disorderly Orderly (1964). Lewis then directed, co-wrote and appeared in The Family Jewels (1965) about a young heiress who must choose among six uncles, one of whom is up to no good and out to harm the girl's beloved bodyguard who practically raised her. Lewis played all six uncles and the bodyguard.

In The Jerry Lewis Show (1973)

He next appeared in Boeing Boeing (1965).[42] Lewis directed and appeared on an episode of Ben Casey, a dramatic role. He also appeared on The Andy Williams Show and Hullabaloo with his son Gary Lewis. By 1966, Lewis, then 40, was no longer an angular juvenile, and with popular tastes changing, Paramount Pictures new executives declined to renew his 1959 profit sharing contract.[citation needed] Undaunted, Lewis packed up and went to Columbia Pictures, where he made Three on a Couch (1966).

Next, Lewis appeared in Way...Way Out (1966), with Connie Stevens for 20th Century Fox, then for television, he guest starred in Batman, Password and in a pilot for Sheriff Who. Lewis made and starred in The Big Mouth (1967) followed by Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968). In 1968, Lewis appeared as a guest on an episode of Playboy After Dark. He then starred in Hook, Line & Sinker (1969).


In 1970, Lewis appeared on The Red Skelton Show and then directed an episode of The Bold Ones. He appeared in an episode of The Engelbert Humperdinck Show. He directed and made his first offscreen voice performance as a bandleader in One More Time (1970), which starred Sammy Davis Jr., a friend. He produced, directed and starred in Which Way to the Front? (1970) for Warner Bros. Pictures. He then guest appeared in an episode of The Carol Burnett Show on CBS in 1971.

Lewis then directed and starred in the unreleased The Day the Clown Cried (1972), a drama set in a Nazi concentration camp. Lewis rarely discussed the film, but stated litigation over post-production finances and copyright prevented the film's completion and theatrical release. During his book tour for Dean and Me he also said a factor for the film's burial was that he was not proud of the effort. He further spoke of the emotional difficulty of the subject matter. Within historical context, The Day the Clown Cried was the earliest attempt by an American director to address the subject of The Holocaust, preceding by thirteen years Claude Lanzmann’s groundbreaking Shoah.[43] Significant speculation continues to surround the film.

In 1973, Lewis was a guest on The Dick Cavett Show and then appeared on Celebrity Sportsman in 1974. Next, Lewis starred with Lynn Redgrave in a revival of Hellzapoppin in 1976, but it closed on the road before reaching Broadway.[44] Lewis served as guest host (as ringmaster) of Circus of the Stars in 1979.


Lewis' motion picture star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6821 Hollywood Blvd

After an absence of 11 years, Lewis returned to film in Hardly Working (1981), a movie in which he both directed and starred. Despite being panned by critics, it eventually earned $50 million. Lewis next appeared in Martin Scorsese's film The King of Comedy (1983), in which he portrayed a late-night television host plagued by two obsessive fans, played by Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard.

Lewis guest hosted Saturday Night Live and also appeared in Cracking Up a.k.a. Smorgasbord (1983) and Slapstick (Of Another Kind) (1984). In France, Lewis starred in both To Catch a Cop a.k.a. The Defective Detective (1984) and How Did You Get In? We Didn't See You Leave (1984). Lewis stated that as long as he had control over distribution of those movies, they would never have an American release.

A syndicated talk show Lewis hosted for Metromedia in 1984 was not continued beyond the scheduled five shows. Lewis starred in the ABC televised drama movie Fight For Life (1987) with Patty Duke. In 1988, he starred in five episodes of Wiseguy, forcing Lewis to miss The Museum of the Moving Image’s first retrospective of his work. He then appeared in Cookie (1989).


Lewis in 2005

Lewis had a cameo in Mr. Saturday Night (1992), and then in 1993, guest appeared in an episode of Mad About You as an eccentric billionaire. He was then in the film Arizona Dream (1994), as a car salesman uncle. Lewis then starred as the celebrity father of a young comic in Funny Bones (1995). In 1995, realizing a lifelong ambition, he made his Broadway debut, as a replacement cast member, playing the devil in a revival of Damn Yankees.[45] He performed in both the national and London runs.

Lewis did guest appearances on The View and Larry King Live. In 1996 (and with the sequel in 2000), Lewis served as executive producer of the Eddie Murphy remake of The Nutty Professor and The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps for Universal Pictures.


Lewis appeared as guest on The Martin Short Show in 2000. In 2003, Lewis did a guest voice as Professor Frink's father in an episode of The Simpsons. He made a cameo appearance in Miss Cast Away and the Island Girls in 2004, followed by 2005 appearances on Late Night with Conan O' Brien and Live with Kelly and in 2006, Lewis guest starred in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit as Munch's uncle.


In 2012, Lewis directed a musical theatre version of The Nutty Professor[46][47] at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville from July 31 to August 19. In Brazil, Lewis appeared in Till Luck Do Us Part 2 (2013). In 2014, Lewis was guest on The Talk and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. He next starred in a small role in the crime drama The Trust (2016). Lewis made a comeback in a lead role in Max Rose (2016), his final solo film.[48]

In September 2016, Lewis gave an interview on Marc Maron's podcast WTF with Marc Maron, then in December 2016, Lewis expressed interest in making another film.[49] Lewis' last appearance was a guest spot on the Netflix show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which will air posthumously in 2018.

Video assist

During The Bellboy’s production, Lewis pioneered the technique of using video cameras and multiple closed circuit monitors,[50] which allowed him to review his performance instantly. His techniques and methods of video assist, documented in his book and his USC class, enabled him to complete most of his films on time and under budget. Lewis stated he worked with the head of Sony to develop the prototype. While he popularized the practice, he did not explicitly invent it.[51][52]

USC film class

Starting in 1967, Lewis taught a film directing class at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles for a number of years. His students included George Lucas, whose friend Steven Spielberg sometimes sat in on classes.[53] Lewis screened Spielberg's early film Amblin' and told his students, "That's what filmmaking is all about."[54] His book The Total Film Maker, was based on 480 hours of his class lectures.[55]

Popularity in France

Lewis has remained popular in France, evidenced by consistent praise by French critics in the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma both for his absurdist comedy, and because he had gained respect as an auteur who had total control over all aspects of his films, comparable to Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Satyajit Ray. Liking Lewis has long been a common stereotype about the French in the minds of many English-speakers, and is often the object of jokes in English-speaking world pop culture.[56]

"That Americans can't see Jerry Lewis' genius is bewildering," says N. T. Binh, a French film magazine critic. Such bewilderment was the basis of the book Why the French Love Jerry Lewis.[57] In interviews Lewis has said he is more popular in countries such as Germany and Australia.

Activism with MDA

Lewis hosting the MDA Telethon in 1981

Throughout his adult life and career, Lewis was a world-renowned humanitarian and "number one volunteer" who supported fundraising for research into muscular dystrophy. From 1956 to 2011, he served as national chairman of and spokesman for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (formerly, the Muscular Dystrophy Associations of America).[58]

Lewis began hosting telethons to benefit the organization from 1952 to 1959, thus leading to the live annual Labor Day weekend event of The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon (also referred to as Jerry Lewis Extra Special Special, Jerry Lewis Super Show and Jerry Lewis Stars Across America) running from 1966 to 2010 and over nearly half a century, the entertainer raised over an estimated $2.6 billion in donations for the cause.[59] In 1977, Lewis was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on behalf of MDA.

On August 3, 2011, it was announced that Lewis would no longer host the MDA telethons[60] and that the star was no longer associated with the Muscular Dystrophy Association.[61] Then on May 1, 2015, it was announced that in view of "the new realities of television viewing and philanthropic giving", the telethon was being discontinued.[62]

In early 2016, Lewis broke a five-year silence by making an online video statement for the organization on its website in honor of its rebranding marking his first (and as it turned out, his final) appearance in support of MDA since his last telethon in 2010 and the end of his tenure as national chairman in 2011.[citation needed]

Other ventures

Theater chain

In 1969, Lewis agreed to lend his name to "Jerry Lewis Cinemas", offered by National Cinema Corporation as a franchise business opportunity for those interested in theatrical movie exhibition. Jerry Lewis Cinemas stated that their theaters could be operated by a staff of as few as two with the aid of automation and support provided by the franchiser in booking film and other aspects of film exhibition. A forerunner of the smaller rooms typical of later multi-screen complexes, a Jerry Lewis Cinema was billed in franchising ads as a "mini-theatre" with a seating capacity of between 200 and 350. In addition to Lewis's name, each Jerry Lewis Cinemas bore a sign with a cartoon logo of Lewis in profile.[63] Initially 158 territories were franchised, with a buy-in fee of $10,000 or $15,000 depending on the territory, for what was called an "individual exhibitor".

For $50,000, Jerry Lewis Cinemas offered an opportunity known as an "area directorship", in which investors controlled franchising opportunities in a territory as well as their own cinemas.[64] The success of the chain was hampered by a policy of only booking second-run, family-friendly films. Eventually the policy was changed, and the Jerry Lewis Cinemas were allowed to show more competitive movies. But after a decade the chain failed and both Lewis and National Cinema Corporation declared bankruptcy in 1980.[65]

Short film for UNICEF

In 1990, Lewis wrote and directed a short film for UNICEF's How Are The Children? anthology. The segment, titled Boy, was about a young Jewish child in a black world.[66]

Jerry's House

In 2010, Lewis met with seven-year-old Lochie Graham, who shared his idea for "Jerry's House", a place for vulnerable and traumatized children. Lewis and Graham entered into a joint partnership for an Australian and a U.S.-based charity and began raising funds to build the facility in Melbourne, Australia.[67][68]

Political views

Lewis kept a low political profile for many years, having taken advice reportedly given to him by President John F. Kennedy, who told him "Don't get into anything political. Don't do that because they will usurp your energy".[69] Nevertheless he campaigned and performed on behalf of both JFK and Robert F. Kennedy. Lewis once stated political speeches should not be at the Oscars. “I think we are the most dedicated industry in the world. And I think that we have to present ourselves that night as hard-working, caring and important people to the industry. We need to get more self-respect as an industry”.[70]

In a 2004 interview with The Guardian, Lewis was asked what he was least proud of, to which he answered, “Politics”. Not his politics, but the world's politics - the madness, the destruction, the general lack of respect. He lamented citizens' lack of pride in their country, stating, "President Bush is my president. I will not say anything negative about the president of the United States. I don't do that. And I don't allow my children to do that. Likewise when I come to England don't you do any jokes about 'Mum' to me. That is the Queen of England, you moron." “Do you know how tough a job it is to be the Queen of England?”[71]

In a December 2015 interview on EWTN's World Over with Raymond Arroyo, Lewis expressed opposition to the United States letting in Syrian refugees, saying "No one has worked harder for the human condition than I have, but they're not part of the human condition if 11 guys in that group of 10,000 are ISIS. How can I take that chance?"[72] In the same interview, he criticized President Barack Obama for not being prepared for ISIS, while expressing support for Donald Trump, saying he would make a good president because he was a good "showman". He also added that he admired Ronald Reagan's presidency.[73][74][75]

Personal life


Lewis was married twice:[76][77][78][79]

married October 3, 1944, divorced September 1980[88][89]
  • Gary Lewis (born July 31, 1946);[8]:128 known for his 1960s pop group Gary Lewis & the Playboys[90]
  • Ronald Steven "Ronnie" Lewis (born December 1949 [adopted])
  • Scott Anthony Lewis (born February 22, 1956)
  • Christopher Joseph Lewis (born October 1957)[91]
  • Anthony Joseph Lewis (born October 1959)
  • Joseph Christopher Lewis (January 1964 – October 24, 2009 [from a narcotics overdose])[92]
  • SanDee Pitnick; a former stewardess who had a part in Lewis’ film Hardly Working.[89]
married February 13, 1983 in Key Biscayne, Florida[93]

According to Anthony, Lewis’ youngest surviving son, his father was a neglectful and emotionally abusive parent. Three of Lewis’ sons did not attend his funeral.


Lewis had a number of illnesses and addictions related both to aging and a back injury sustained in a comedic pratfall from a piano while performing at the Sands Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip on March 20, 1965.[101][102] The accident almost left him paralyzed. In its aftermath, Lewis became addicted to the painkiller Percodan for thirteen years.[101] He said he had been off the drug since 1978.[102] In April 2002, Lewis had a Medtronic "Synergy" neurostimulator implanted in his back,[103] which helped reduce the discomfort. He was one of the company's leading spokesmen.[102][103] In the 2011 documentary Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis, Lewis said he had his first heart attack at age 34 while filming Cinderfella in 1960.[104][105] In December 1982, he had another heart attack. En route to San Diego from New York City on a cross-country commercial airline flight on June 11, 2006, he had another.[106]

It was discovered that he had pneumonia, as well as a severely damaged heart. He underwent a cardiac catheterization[when?] and two stents were inserted into one of his coronary arteries, which was 90 percent blocked. The surgery resulted in increased blood flow to his heart and allowed him to continue his rebound from earlier lung problems. Having the cardiac catheterization meant canceling several major events from his schedule, but Lewis fully recuperated in a matter of weeks. In 1999, Lewis' Australian tour was cut short when he had to be hospitalized in Darwin with viral meningitis.[citation needed] He was ill for more than five months. It was reported in the Australian press that he had failed to pay his medical bills. However, Lewis maintained that the payment confusion was the fault of his health insurer.

The resulting negative publicity caused him to sue his insurer for US$100 million.[107] Lewis had prostate cancer,[108] diabetes,[102] pulmonary fibrosis,[101] and a decades-long history of cardiovascular disease. Prednisone[101] treatment in the late 1990s for pulmonary fibrosis resulted in weight gain and a noticeable change in his appearance. In September 2001, Lewis was unable to perform at a planned London charity event at the London Palladium.[citation needed] He was the headlining act, and he was introduced but did not appear. He had suddenly become unwell, apparently with heart problems.[citation needed]

He was subsequently taken to the hospital. Some months thereafter, Lewis began an arduous, months-long therapy that weaned him off prednisone and enabled him to return to work. On June 12, 2012, he was treated and released from a hospital after collapsing from hypoglycemia at a New York Friars Club event. This latest health issue forced him to cancel a show in Sydney.[109] In an October 2016 interview with Inside Edition, Lewis acknowledged that he might not star in any more films, given his advanced age, while admitting, through tears, that he was afraid of dying, as it would leave his wife and daughter alone.[110] In June 2017, Lewis was hospitalized at a Las Vegas hospital for a urinary tract infection.[111]


Lewis died at his home in Las Vegas, Nevada, at 9:15 a.m. (PDT) on August 20, 2017, at the age of 91.[28] The cause was end-stage cardiac disease and peripheral artery disease.[112] In his will, Lewis left his estate to his second wife of 34 years, SanDee Pitnick, and their daughter, and intentionally excluded all six of his children from his first marriage as well as their descendants.[113]

Tributes and legacy

Widely acknowledged as a comic genius, Lewis influenced successive generations of comedians, performers and filmmakers.[114] After Lewis’ death, Carl Reiner wrote, “All comedians watch other comedians, and every generation of comedians going back to those who watched Jerry on the Colgate Comedy Hour were influenced by Jerry. They say that mankind goes back to the first guy...which everyone tries to copy. In comedy that guy was Jerry Lewis”.[115] In 1996, Lewis biographer Shawn Levy wrote, “Jerry Lewis was the most profoundly creative comedian of his generation and arguably one of the two or three most influential comedians born anywhere in this century”. Lewis "single-handedly created a style of humor that was half anarchy, half excruciation. Even comics who never took a pratfall in their careers owe something to the self-deprecation Jerry introduced into American show business." [116] His self-deprecating humor can be found in Larry David or David Letterman.

Lewis’ comedy style was physically kinetic, expressive, and volatile. Will Sloan, of Flavorwire wrote, “In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, nobody had ever seen a comedian as wild as Jerry Lewis.”[117] Placed in the context of the conservative era, his antics were radical and liberating, paving the way for future comedians Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman, Paul Reubens, and Jim Carrey. Carrey wrote: “Through his comedy, Jerry would stretch the boundaries of reality so far that it was an act of anarchy...I learned from Jerry”,[118] and “I am because he was”.[119]

Lewis’ work, specifically his self-directed films, have warranted steady reappraisal. Richard Brody in The New Yorker said, Lewis was “one of the most original, inventive, ...profound directors of the time.[120] and “one of the most skilled and orginal comic performers, verbal and physical, ever to appear on screen”. Film critic and film curator for the Museum of Modern Art, Dave Kehr wrote in the New York Times of Lewis’ “fierce creativity”, “the extreme formal sophistication of his direction” and, Lewis is “ of the great American filmmakers”. Writing for the Los Angeles Times in 2005, screenwriter David Weddle lauded Lewis’ audacity in 1959 “daring to declare his independence from the studio system”,[121] placing Lewis forefront in the transition to independent filmmaking.

As a director, Lewis advanced the film comedy genre with innovations in the areas of fragmented narrative, experimental use of music and sound technology, and near surrealist use of color and art direction.[122][123][124] This prompted his peer, filmmaker Jean Luc Godard to proclaim, “Jerry the only one in Hollywood doing something different, the only one who isn’t falling in with the established categories, the norms, the principles. ...Lewis is the only one today who’s making courageous films. He’s been able to do it because of his personal genius”.[125]

Intensely personal and original, Lewis’ films were groundbreaking in their use of dark humor for psychological exploration.[126] Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times said, “The idea of comedians getting under the skin and tapping into their deepest, darkest selves is no longer especially novel, but it was far from a universally accepted notion when Lewis first took the spotlight. Few comedians before him had so brazenly turned arrested development into art, or held up such a warped fun house mirror to American identity in its loudest, ugliest, vulgarest excesses. Fewer still had advanced the still-radical notion that comedy doesn’t always have to be funny, just fearless, in order to strike a nerve“.[127]

Also of note, Lewis’ “sharp eyed” satire. Twenty years before The King of Comedy, Lewis used his films to comment on the cult of celebrity, the machinery of ‘fame’, and the alienation of the misfit. Stephen Dalton in The Hollywood Reporter wrote, Lewis had “an agreeably bitter streak, offering self-lacerating insights into celebrity culture which now look strikingly modern. Even post-modern in places.” “More contemporary satirists like Garry Shandling, Steve Coogan and Ricky Gervais owe at least some of their self-deconstructing chops to Lewis' generously unappetizing turn in Scorsese's cult classic.”[128] Daniel Fairfax writes in Deconstructing Jerry: Lewis as a Director, “Lewis deconstructs the very functioning of the joke itself”....quoting Chris Fujiwara, “The Patsy is a film so radical that it makes comedy out of the situation of a comedian who isn’t funny.”[129]

Robert DeNiro and Sandra Bernhard (both of whom starred with Lewis in The King of Comedy) reflected on his death, Bernhard said, "It was one of the great experiences of my career, he was tough but one of a kind”. De Niro said, "Jerry was a pioneer in comedy and film. And he was a friend. I was fortunate to have seen him a few times over the past couple of years. Even at 91, he didn’t miss a beat… or a punchline. You’ll be missed."[130] There was also a New York Friars Club roast in honor of Lewis with Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer.[131][132][133][134] Martin Scorsese recalls working with him on The King of Comedy, “It was like watching a virtuoso pianist at the keyboard”.[135][136][137][138][139][140][141][142][143] Lewis was the subject of a documentary Jerry Lewis: Method to the Madness.[144][145][146][147][148][149][150]

Lewis is one of the few performers to have touched every aspect of 20th Century American entertainment, appearing in vaudeville, burlesque, the ‘borsht belt’, nightclubs, radio, Classical Hollywood Cinema (The ‘Golden Age’), television: variety, drama, sit-coms and talk shows, Broadway and independent films.

In popular culture

In The Simpsons, the character of Professor Frink is based on Lewis’ Julius Kelp from The Nutty Professor.[151] In Family Guy, Peter recreates Lewis’ ‘Chairman of the Board’ scene from The Errand Boy.[152] In the final scene of the film, Breakfast at Tiffany's a movie poster for Lewis’ film Visit to a Small Planet is visible in the background. In the drive-in scene in the film Grease, the Martin and Lewis film Hollywood or Bust is playing. Grease director Randal Kleiser was a film student of Lewis at USC.[153]

Comedian, actor and friend of Lewis Martin Short satirized him on the series SCTV in the sketches "Martin Scorsese presents Jerry Lewis Live on the Champs Elysees!", "The Tender Fella", and "Scenes From an Idiots Marriage",[154][155][156] as well as on Saturday Night Live's "Celebrity Jeopardy!".[157] Also on SNL, the Martin and Lewis reunion on the 1976 MDA Telethon is reported by Chevy Chase on Weekend Update.[158] Comedian and actor Jim Carrey satirized Lewis on In Living Color in the sketch "Jheri’s Kids Telethon".[159] Carrey had an uncredited cameo playing Lewis in the series Buffalo Bill on the episode "Jerry Lewis Week".[160] He also played Lewis, with impersonator Rich Little as Dean Martin, on stage.

Actor Sean Hayes portrayed Lewis in the made-for-TV movie Martin and Lewis, with Jeremy Northam as Dean Martin.[161] The hip hop music band Beastie Boys have an unreleased single “The Jerry Lewis”, which they mention, and dance to, on stage in Asheville, North Carolina in 2009.[162] In 1986 the comedy radio show Dr. Demento aired a parody recording “Rock Me Jerry Lewis”.[163] John Saleeby, writer for National Lampoon has a humor piece “Ten Things You Should Know About Jerry Lewis”.[164] In the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the Philippe Halsman 1951 Life Magazine cover of Martin and Lewis is shown. Actor Kevin Bacon plays the Lewis character in the 2005 film Where The Truth Lies, based on a fictionalized version of Martin and Lewis.[165]

In the animated cartoon Popeye's 20th Anniversary, Martin and Lewis are portrayed on the dais.[166] In 1998, The MTV animated show Celebrity Deathmatch had a clay-animated fight to the death between Dean Martin and Lewis. In a 1975 re-issue of MAD Magazine the contents of Lewis’ wallet is satirized in their on-going feature "Celebrities’ Wallets". Lewis’ signature catchphrase "Hey, Lady!" is ubiquitously used by comedians and laypersons alike.[167]

Awards and other honors




  • Gregory Monro (Director) (2016). Jerry Lewis: The Man Behind the Clown (Motion picture). 
  • Gregg Barson (Director) (2011). Jerry Lewis: Method to the Maddness
  • Burt Kearns (Director) (1989) Released U.S. 2014. Telethon


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Further reading

External links

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