He was much more than just an actor and comedian
“I’ve had great success being a total idiot” – Jerry Lewis
“I don’t want to be remembered. I want the nice words when I can hear them” – Jerry Lewis
Sorry Jerry, but we cannot not remember you now that you’ve left this world. Your star shone far too brightly while you were here to not be remembered. You have left an indelible footprint on this planet that will never be forgotten.
Born in 1926 in Newark, NJ to parents who performed in the Catskills, he was soon working in those resorts himself as a pre-teen. He originally performed professionally as Joey Lewis, but wound up changing it to Jerry Lewis to avoid confusion with comedian Joe E. Lewis.
It was his partnership with the late Dean Martin that skyrocketed them both to fame. First in nightclubs, then on radio and eventually they would make 16 major motion pictures together between 1949’s My Friend Irma through 1956’s Hollywood or Bust.
Then, in July 1956, their partnership ended without either commenting on what had transpired. Ten years to the day it began, although there is speculation the last straw for Dean Martin was a magazine cover of Martin and Lewis where Martin was cropped out of the photo. After the split they would not speak to each other in private for 20 years.
Both men went on to major success as solo acts. Jerry Lewis recorded an album titled “Jerry Lewis Just Sings” that sold over 1.5 million copies. He went on to sign a big contract to appear several weeks each year at the famed Sands Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas. He made movies and did well enough to sign a multi-picture deal with Paramount worth $10 million in 1959.
He wrote, directed, starred, sang, told jokes and more. A television variety show for ABC was one of his few failures. His response after the show’s cancellation was to take out trade publication ads that simply read “Oops!!! jerry lewis.” While he did not create the technique of video assist, he was one of its earliest proponents and innovators.
He made no movies for over a decade but reignited his career starring in The King of Comedy, a Martin Scorsese film in 1983. He would go on to do a number of TV guest shots and the occasional film after that. In 2006 he appeared as the uncle of “Detective John Munch on TV’s “Law & Order: SVU” and won a Satellite Award for Best Guest performance that year. His last feature to his theaters, Max Rose, came out last September. He is very good in a film that has little else to recommend it.
Many people will remember Jerry Lewis best for the 44 year run he had as the host of the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. From 1966 through 2010, 28 of those years hosting live from Las Vegas, Jerry Lewis would work himself into a state of exhaustion for what he referred to as “his kids.” He raised over $2.6 billion doing that work.
After hurting his back in a pratfall he became addicted to Percodan, an addiction that he battled for more than a decade. He was married twice and fathered seven children. His first son, Gary went on to musical success as the leader of Gary Lewis and the Playboys. Jerry Lewis was beloved in France. I was fortunate enough to meet him at a show he did in Las Vegas in the late 1980s with his good friend, Sammy Davis, Jr. He knew the friend who took me to the show and we met him afterward. I’d heard he was mercurial and not necessarily pleasant in person, but that was not my experience.
RIP, Jerry Lewis.