Obituary: Jerry Lewis, slapstick comedian and acclaimed straight actor

Jerry Lewis, actor and filmmaker. Born: 16 March, 1926 in Newark, New Jersey. Died: 20 August 2017, Las Vegas, Nevada, aged 91

Jerry Lewis has died at the age of 91. Picture: AP
Jerry Lewis has died at the age of 91. Picture: AP
Jerry Lewis has died at the age of 91. Picture: AP

Jerry Lewis, the manic, rubber-faced showman who leapt to fame in a lucrative partnership with Dean Martin, settled down to become a self-conscious screen auteur and found an even greater following as the tireless, teary host of US TV’s annual muscular dystrophy telethons, has died.

Lewis died on Sunday of natural causes in Las Vegas with his family by his side.

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Lewis’ career spanned the history of showbusiness 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 favorites as The Bellboy and The Nutty Professor, was featured in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and appeared as himself in Billy Crystal’s Mr Saturday Night.

“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,” Lewis’ King of Comedy co-star Robert De Niro said in a statement.

In the 1990s he scored a stage comeback as the Devil in the Broadway revival of Damn Yankees. And after a 20-year break from making films, Lewis returned as the star of independent drama Max Rose, released in 2016.

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

A major influence on Jim Carrey and other slapstick performers, Lewis also was known as the ringmaster of the Labour Day Muscular Dystrophy Association, 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 onward, the telethons raised some $1.5 billion, including more than $60 million in 2009. He announced in 2011 that he would step down as host, but remain chairman of the association he joined 60 years ago.

In his early movies, Lewis played 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 – but the French did. The French government awarded Lewis the Chevalier of Legion D’Honneur in 1983 and Commander of Arts and Letters the following year.

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 flop. Warned by owner “Skinny” D’Amato that they might be fired, Martin and Lewis tossed away 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.”

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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, while Martin had tired of playing straight man and of Lewis’ 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 24 July 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’ telethon in 1976 (a reunion brokered by mutual pal Frank Sinatra) and director Peter Bogdonavich nearly persuaded them to appear in a film together as former colleagues who no longer speak to each other. 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.

After the break, Lewis revealed a serious side as unexpected as Martin’s suddenly blossoming 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?

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.

Lewis was born Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jersey. His father, billed as Danny Lewis, was a singer on the burlesque circuit. His mother played piano for Danny’s act. Their only child was often left alone in hotel rooms, or lived in Brooklyn with his paternal grandparents – Russian Jewish immigrants – or his aunts in New Jersey.

Joey Levitch made his professional debut at five, singing the Depression tearjerker Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? to great applause. He recalled that he eventually lost all interest in school and “began to clown around to attract people’s attention”.

By 16, Jerry Lewis (as his billing read) had dropped out of school and was earning as much as $150 a week as a solo performer. He appeared in a “record act,” mouthing crazily to the records of Danny Kaye, Spike Jones and other artists. Rejected by the Army because of a heart murmur and punctured eardrum, Lewis entertained troops in the Second World War and continued touring with his lip-sync act. In 1944 he married Patti Palmer, a band vocalist.

The next year he met Martin in Manhattan. Lewis was on his way to see an agent, walking with a friend, when his friend spotted an “incredibly handsome” man wearing a camel hair coat.

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Lewis and Martin were introduced and Lewis knew right off that this new acquaintance, nine years older than him, was “the real deal”. Lewis couldn’t escape from small-time bookings. The same was true of Martin, who sang romantic songs in nightclubs. In 1946, Lewis was playing the 500 Club, and the seats were empty. Lewis suggested hiring Martin to bolster the bill, promising he could do comedy as well as sing.

Fame brought him women and Lewis wrote openly of his many partners. After 36 years of marriage and six sons, Patti Lewis sued her husband for divorce in 1982. She later wrote a book claiming that he was an adulterer and drug addict who abused their children.

Son Gary became a pop singer whose group, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, had a string of hits in 1965-66.

In his late fifties, Lewis married Sandra Pitnick, 32, a former airline stewardess. They had a daughter, Dani, named for Jerry’s father.

LINDSEY BAHR