Jerry Lewis, comic titan behind 'Nutty Professor,' MDA telethon, dead at 91

Jerry Lewis, the brilliant, sometimes divisive giant of comedy, died at his Las Vegas home Sunday morning at age 91. The news was first reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal and then confirmed by Lewis’s agent.

Tributes came in from all corners of the showbiz world, including those who worked alongside Lewis and who were inspired by him.

In a career that spanned nearly his entire life, Lewis played funnyman to Dean Martin; starred in, wrote, and directed the original Nutty Professor; and served as longtime host of TV’s most famous telethon.

Once Hollywood’s most bankable star, Lewis fronted more than 50 movies, from the light Martin-and-Lewis fare of Artists and Models to Martin Scorsese’s darkly funny The King of Comedy.

Born Joseph Levitch (or, per biographer Shawn Levy, Jerome Levitch) on March 16, 1926, in Newark, N.J., the future star was, like his idol, Charlie Chaplin, born into a show-business family. Lewis’s father was a Catskills entertainer; his mother, a pianist.

Lewis rated his first applause at 5. By the time he was a teenager, he had a full-fledged act, pantomiming his way through the popular songs of the day.

In 1946, Lewis, then 20, was playing an Atlantic City club when another act on the bill canceled. For a replacement, Lewis suggested a singer. His name: Dean Martin.

Onstage, Martin exuded slickness; Lewis acted like a monkey boy. Together they were were a hit. For a time, Martin and Lewis, as they were billed, were everywhere — TV, records, radio, and the movies. The duo cranked out 16 films in seven years.

After a red-hot decade together, the relationship cooled. Lewis became bent on becoming an auteur like Chaplin; Martin balked at being bossed around by the budding multihyphenate.

“I like the co-star but not the director, writer, and producer,” Martin sniped at the time.

After their 1956 split, the pair would reunite onstage just once, in 1976 at Lewis’s Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon. Mutual pal Frank Sinatra brokered the summit. Martin died in 1995.

“We loved one another more than any two men ever loved one another in their lives — period,” Lewis told the Toronto Sun.

Per conventional wisdom of the day, Lewis was the star of Martin and Lewis. And just as the pundits expected, Lewis was an immediate smash on his own, starring in and producing the 1957 hit The Delicate Delinquent.

The movie’s opening sequence was classic Lewis, depicting a 30-year-old grown man mugging and jutting around like a kid on a sugar high.

“He’s 9 years old. He’s forever,” Lewis once said of his movie persona.

As silly as it all looked, Lewis was dead serious about the work. He wrote, he produced, he directed — film after film after film, from The Bellboy to The Ladies Man to The Errand Boy. Behind the scenes, he was credited with improvising a video-playback machine to monitor his performances — a now-standard procedure on the movie set.

Then, in 1963, his signature movie.

“Every director in the history of cinema prays for the one work,” Lewis recalled for the Kansas City Star. “And I’ve had mine — The Nutty Professor. That’s the one.”

The tale of a hapless academic (read: a Jerry Lewis type), who upon gulping a magic potion turns into suave ladies’ man (read: a Dean Martin type), The Nutty Professor was embraced by audiences and critics alike. The New York Times called it “less of a showcase for a clown than the revelation (and not for the first time) of a superb actor.”

After Lewis’s peak, a long, long valley followed.

A much-hyped 1963 primetime variety series was canceled after only 13 episodes. He was dropped by his longtime movie studio, and by 1968, was without any deal at all. A back injury fueled a long addiction to prescription painkillers.

Martin, meanwhile, began to look like the tortoise to Lewis’s hare. After a slow, post-split start, things perked up. He spent the 1960s hanging with the Rat Pack, selling records and starring in movies. Martin was cool; Lewis was not.

By the late 1960s, Lewis was so uncool that fan Woody Allen couldn’t convince his backers to let the older comic direct him in his first starring vehicle. (In Lewis fashion, Allen wound up directing himself in Take the Money and Run.)

For a time, Lewis wasn’t even the most famous member of his own family: Eldest son Gary Lewis briefly eclipsed his father with the 1960s pop band Gary Lewis and the Playboys (“This Diamond Ring”).

None of this escaped the notice of Martin, who gloated in 1965: “You know, when Jerry Lewis and I broke up, he said I wouldn’t last two years in show business.”

By the 1970s, Lewis was known almost exclusively for his annual MDA telethon. He made just two films during the decade; only one was released.

The one that wasn’t released — or finished — was The Day the Clown Cried. It was supposed to be for Lewis what Life Is Beautiful was for Roberto Benigni in the 1990s — a comic’s chance to prove he had the depth to take on the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp.

Benigni won Oscars for his movie. Lewis, who played a German clown leading Jewish children into a crematorium, got nothing but notoriety. After the film’s financing fell through, a legal dispute kept what Lewis had shot — and paid for with his own money — on the shelf.

Bootleg copies of the script have circulated for years. Lewis even screened a rough cut for a chosen few. In both cases, reviews were not kind.

“This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is,” eyewitness Harry Shearer (The Simpsons, This Is Spinal Tap) once remarked.

Lewis confessed to Entertainment Weekly that only one copy exists, and he had no intention to disclose its secret whereabouts. In 2016, 30 minutes of footage were leaked online.

In 1982, Lewis revived his career for a time with a profane, but all-business performance as a Johnny Carson-like talk-show host in Scorsese’s stalker comedy The King of Comedy.

The work generated Academy Awards buzz, but, in the end, not a nomination. Awards-crazy Hollywood was not, and never had been, crazy for Lewis. He never earned an Oscar nomination. He never won a competitive Emmy.

While comics are routinely seated at the kids’ table during awards season, the snubbing of Lewis continued even into his elder-statesman years. There were no lifetime-achievement tributes from the American Film Institute, the Kennedy Center Honors, or the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The French, meanwhile, were mocked for routinely heaping honors upon him.

Only after Lewis entered his 80s did some Hollywood love finally, if somewhat-reluctantly come his way.

In a 2005 Los Angeles Times piece that stumped for an Academy tribute for Lewis, writer David Weddle suggested that Lewis’s reputation as a “tantrum-throwing egomaniac” might have hurt his stock with the Hollywood community.

Certainly, Lewis won no admirers for his history of comments against women who work in comedy (“I don’t like any female comedians”), women who work in any professional field (“I think of [a woman] as a producing machine that brings babies in the world.”), and the very people his telethon was designed to help (“You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair? Stay in your house.”).

In 2009, Lewis was the recipient of the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his decades of raising money on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. That work also earned him a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

But in 2011, Lewis even wore out his welcome with the MDA. The group nixed Lewis’s planned swan-song telethon appearance, and ousted the comic as its national chairman.

“No comedian since Charles Chaplin has been so loved and so reviled,” Weddle wrote in his defense of Lewis.

Jerry Lewis in 2016. (Photo: Rich Fury/Invision/AP)
Jerry Lewis in 2016. (Photo: Rich Fury/Invision/AP)

In 2016, the Hollywood Reporter called its interview with the then-90-year-old Lewis a “train wreck.”

“Jerry Lewis [was] vital and completely engaged,” the trade paper said. “He’s just engaged — almost happily so — in being difficult.”

In recent years, Lewis battled a variety of health problems. A bout with pulmonary fibrosis even pushed him to contemplate suicide, he eventually revealed. Earlier this year, Lewis required hospitalization and rehab for a urinary-tract infection.

In the end, Lewis probably had the best answer to the question, “Who was Jerry Lewis?”

Lewis sad: “I’m an American icon.”

Watch: Jerry Lewis makes reporter squirm in one of his final interviews:

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