US comedian Jerry Lewis dies aged 91

Jerry Lewis, the comedian and director whose fundraising telethons became as famous as his hit movies, has died aged 91. Picture: Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP Images, File
Jerry Lewis, the comedian and director whose fundraising telethons became as famous as his hit movies, has died aged 91. Picture: Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP Images, File
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Jerry Lewis, the rubber-faced comedian who starred in many hit movies, has died.

Lewis died on Sunday morning of natural causes, aged 91, in Las Vegas, with his family by his side, publicist Candi Cazau said.

Lewis first became a star in a duo with Dean Martin, entertaining audiences in nightclubs, on television and in the movies.

After their split in 1956, he starred in and directed a number of hit films such as The Nutty Professor.

Later generations knew him primarily as the conductor of weekend telethons to raise funds for victims of muscular dystrophy.

Lewis retired from making movies in 1995, but returned as star of the 2016 drama Max Rose.

His career spanned the history of show business in the 20th century, beginning in his parents’ vaudeville act at the age of five.

He was just 20 when his pairing with Martin made them international stars.

He went on to make such favourites as The Bellboy, was featured in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and appeared as himself in Billy Crystal’s Mr Saturday Night.

In the 1990s, he scored a stage comeback as the devil in the Broadway revival of Damn Yankees.

In his 80s, he was still travelling the world, working on a stage version of The Nutty Professor.

He was so active he would sometimes forget the basics, like eating, his associates would recall. In 2012, Lewis missed an awards ceremony thrown by his beloved Friars Club because his blood sugar dropped from lack of food and he had to spend the night in the hospital.

In his 90s, he was still performing stand-up shows.

A major influence on Jim Carrey and other slapstick performers, Lewis also was known as the ringmaster of the Labour Day Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon in the US, joking and reminiscing and introducing guests, sharing stories about ailing children and concluding with his personal anthem, the ballad You’ll Never Walk Alone.

From the 1960s onwards, the telethons raised more than a billion dollars. He announced in 2011 that he would step down as host, but would remain chairman of the association he joined some 60 years ago.

His fundraising efforts won him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2009 Oscar telecast, an honour he said “touches my heart and the very depth of my soul”.

He was the classic funnyman who longed to play Hamlet, crying as hard as he laughed. He snarled at critics and interviewers who displeased him. He also pontificated on talk shows, lectured to college students and compiled his thoughts in the 1971 book The Total Film-Maker.

“I believe, in my own way, that I say something on film. I’m getting to those who probably don’t have the mentality to understand what ... ‘A Man for All Seasons’ is all about, plus many who did understand it,” he wrote.

“I am not ashamed or embarrassed at how seemingly trite or saccharine something in my films will sound. I really do make films for my great-great-grandchildren and not for my fellows at the Screen Directors Guild or for the critics.”

In his early movies, he played the kind of men who would have had no idea what the elder Lewis was talking about: loose-limbed, buck-toothed, overgrown adolescents, trouble-prone and inclined to wail when beset by enemies.

American critics recognised the comedian’s popular appeal but not his aspirations to higher art; the French did. Writing in Paris’ Le Monde newspaper, Jacques Siclier praised Lewis’ “apish allure, his conduct of a child, his grimaces, his contortions, his maladjustment to the world, his morbid fear of women, his way of disturbing order everywhere he appeared”.

The French government awarded Lewis the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1983 and Commander of Arts and Letters the following year. Film critic Andrew Sarris observed: “The fact that Lewis lacks verbal wit on the screen doesn’t particularly bother the French.”

Lewis had teamed up with Martin after the Second World War, and their radio and stage antics delighted audiences, although not immediately.

Their debut, in 1946 at Atlantic City’s 500 Club, was a bust. Warned by owner “Skinny” D’Amato that they might be fired, Martin and Lewis tossed the script and improvised their way into history.

New York columnists Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan came to the club and raved over the sexy singer and the berserk clown.

Lewis described their fledgling act in his 1982 autobiography, Jerry Lewis in Person: “We juggle and drop a few dishes and try a few handstands. I conduct the three-piece band with one of my shoes, burn their music, jump offstage, run around the tables, sit down with the customers and spill things while Dean keeps singing.”

Hollywood producer Hal Wallis saw them at New York’s Copacabana and signed them to a film contract.

Martin and Lewis first appeared in supporting roles in My Friend Irma and “My Friend Irma Goes West. Then they began a hit series of starring vehicles, including At War With the Army, ‘That’s My Boy and Artists and Models.

But in the mid-1950s, their partnership began to wear. Lewis longed for more than laughs. Martin had tired of playing the straight man and of Lewis’s attempts to add Chaplinesque pathos.

He also wearied of the pace of films, television, nightclub and theatre appearances, benefits and publicity junkets on which Lewis thrived. The rift became increasingly public as the two camps sparred verbally.

“I knew we were in trouble the day someone gave Jerry a book about Charlie Chaplin,” Martin cracked.

On July 24 1956, Martin and Lewis closed shop, at the Copa, and remained estranged for years.

Martin, who died in 1995, did make a dramatic, surprise appearance on Lewis’s telethon in 1976 (a reunion brokered by mutual pal Frank Sinatra). After Martin’s death, Lewis said the two had again become friendly during his former partner’s final years and he would repeatedly express his admiration for Martin above all others.

Lewis distinguished himself after the break, revealing a serious side as unexpected as Martin’s gift for comedy.

He brought in comedy director Frank Tashlin for Rock-a-bye Baby, Cinderfella, The Disorderly Orderly, The Geisha Boy and Who’s Minding the Store?, in which he did a pantomime of a typist trying to keep up with Leroy Anderson’s speedy song The Typewriter.

With The Bellboy, though, Lewis assumed the posts of producer, director, writer and star, like his idol Chaplin.

Among his hits under his own direction was the 1963 The Nutty Professor, playing a dual Jekyll and Hyde role, transforming himself from a nerdy college teacher to a sexy (and conceited) lounge singer, Buddy Love, regarded as a spoof of his old partner Martin.