Jerry Lewis, comedian and telethon fund-raiser, dies at 91

Jerry Lewis made his opening remarks at the 25th Anniversary of the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon fundraiser, in this 1990 photo.
Jerry Lewis made his opening remarks at the 25th Anniversary of the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon fundraiser, in this 1990 photo. (Associated Press/File)

Jerry Lewis, whose manic comedy made him a show business legend, and whose equally driven humanitarianism made the annual Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon a television institution, died Sunday at his home in Las Vegas. He was 91.

His publicist said he died of natural causes.

Many scorned Mr. Lewis’s humor, dismissing it as sophomoric, even juvenile. Not that Mr. Lewis regarded this as a reproach. “I’ve never been more than 9 years old,” he declared in a 1996 Washington Post interview.

That same 9-year-old directed a dozen films, and some consider his work to be comic filmmaking of the highest order. The director Jean-Luc Godard once called Mr. Lewis “the only American director who has made progressive films,” adding that Mr. Lewis “was much better than Chaplin and Keaton.”


In both art and life, Mr. Lewis strenuously combined the ebullient and the egregious. A sense of shame did not rank high on his list of priorities.

“Going unnoticed has never been my strong suit,” he once said.

His comic persona was that of a hyperkinetic halfwit, alternately mugging for the camera, suffering a pratfall, or letting loose with his trademark line (half yell, half whine), “Hey, lay-dee!” In his 2005 book, “Dean & Me (A Love Story),” Mr. Lewis described his stock character as “the busboy, the waiter, the parking attendant, the usher, the American Everyman.”

The “Dean” referred to in Mr. Lewis’s book title was Dean Martin. The two men formed one of the most successful comedy teams in show-biz history. “I have been in the business 55 years,” the comedian Alan King said in a 2000 New Yorker magazine interview, “and I have never to this day seen an act get more laughs than Martin and Lewis.”

The duo was voted Hollywood’s top box-office attraction six years running during the 1950s — then Mr. Lewis won the title on his own for another six years. Barney Balaban, the head of Paramount Pictures, once said, “If Jerry wants to set fire to the studio, I’ll give him the match.”


The partnership lasted from 1945-56, and its breakup created a legendary chill. It’s widely assumed that the obnoxious lounge singer Buddy Love in Mr. Lewis’s most acclaimed comedy, “The Nutty Professor” (1963), was a lampoon of his former partner. When Martin made an unannounced appearance on Mr. Lewis’s 1976 MDA telethon the gesture of reconciliation made headlines.

The telethon, which began in 1966, showcased Mr. Lewis at his best and worst. No one ever questioned the sincerity and tirelessness of his efforts to raise money for “Jerry’s kids,” as Mr. Lewis called young victims of muscular dystrophy. But as that coinage might suggest, many found cause to question his egotism and lack of taste.

“I just went over the $2 billion mark,” Mr. Lewis said of his MDA fund-raising in a 2005 Boston Globe interview. The pronoun was as eye-opening as the size of the figure.

The 2010 telethon was the last one Mr. Lewis hosted.

Mr. Lewis’s commitment to the telethon was, in many ways, a natural extension of his performing history. Despite the knockabout, imbecile style of his comedy, Mr. Lewis had a vast capacity for sentimentality, even bathos, in his work. The ultimate example of this, and likely the most famous unreleased movie in Hollywood history, is “The Day the Clown Cried.” In this 1972 production written and directed by Mr. Lewis, he plays a clown who leads children to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.


Perhaps no figure in entertainment history has inspired such divergent critical responses. Mr. Lewis’s entry in David Thomson’s “Biographical Dictionary of Film” remarks, “Few things are held against the whole of France more fiercely than French love of Jerry Lewis.” In France, he was popularly known as “le roi de crazy” (the king of nuttiness), and French critics laud Mr. Lewis’s work. He was inducted into the Legion of Honor in 1984 and made a commander of the legion in 2006. The Cannes Film Festival paid him tribute in 2013.

Jerry Lewis at the 66th annual Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, in May 2013.
Jerry Lewis at the 66th annual Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, in May 2013.(Sebastian Nogier/European PressPhoto Agency/File)

Mr. Lewis’s admirers are not limited to France. Jim Carrey has often cited Mr. Lewis as his foremost influence.

‘‘That fool was no dummy. Jerry Lewis was an undeniable genius an unfathomable blessing, comedy’s absolute!’’ Jim Carrey wrote Sunday on Twitter. ‘‘I am because he was!’’

The director Leo McCarey called him “the Pied Piper of the business, the heir to the mantle of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.” Woody Allen wanted Mr. Lewis to direct his film “Take the Money and Run.”

A one-man litmus test for the auteur theory, Mr. Lewis started writing, producing, and directing his own movies in 1960. Such films as “The Bell Boy” (1960) and “The Family Jewels” (1965) fared much better with audiences than critics, though in some quarters “The Nutty Professor” is seen as a comedy classic. The character Professor Frink on “The Simpsons” is an homage to Mr. Lewis’s character in the film, Professor Kelp; and he would provide the voice for Dr. John Frink Sr. on an episode of the series. “The Nutty Professor” would later be remade, with Eddie Murphy in the title role.


“A brilliant control freak,” Shirley MacLaine once called Mr. Lewis, who involved himself in every aspect of his films’ production.

That obsession with control led him to develop the video assist, a device that piggybacked a monitor on top of a movie camera, so he could view what was being filmed while he acted. It quickly became standard equipment on movie sets.

Mr. Lewis, who taught film for several years at the University of Southern California, published a 1971 book called “The Total Filmmaker” — the words were as much self-description as title. It’s a mark of how keen Mr. Lewis’s movie-making instincts were that in it he flagged the talents of a then-unknown 21-year-old named Steven Spielberg.

Although most famous for his screen career, Mr. Lewis worked in every branch of entertainment. He made his stage debut at 5, singing “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.” Eventually, he would work at Borscht Belt resorts, in burlesque, nightclubs, radio, and television. A 1963 variety series on ABC that paid Mr. Lewis an unprecedented $75 million was a spectacular failure, lasting less than one season. In the late ‘80s, he earned excellent reviews for his work in a recurring dramatic role in the TV series “Wiseguy.”


Playing the devil in “Damn Yankees,” in 1995, Mr. Lewis reportedly earned the highest salary in Broadway history up to that time ($40,000 a week plus a percentage of the box office). He even went platinum as a recording artist, in 1956, when his version of “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby” sold 1.5 million copies.

Very much a show-biz baby, Joseph Levitch was born on March 16, 1926, in Newark. His father, Danny Levitch, was a vaudeville performer. His mother, Rae (Brodsky) Levitch, was a pianist. “Mr. Neon,” his father nicknamed his only child, in honor of his high-wattage personality.

“God hadn’t made me handsome,” Mr. Lewis wrote in his 1982 memoir, “Jerry Lewis: In Person,” “but he’d given me something, I always felt: funny bones.” His inveterate clowning earned him the high school nickname “Id,” short for idiot.

His physical appearance further encouraged clowning: At 20, the 6-feet-tall Mr. Lewis weighed only 127 pounds. A 10th-grade dropout, he became a full-time entertainer as a “dumb act,” mugging for the audience as he mouthed the words to recorded songs.

Mr. Lewis was making a living in show biz, barely, when he and Martin joined forces, in 1946. “A sexy guy and a monkey” is how Mr. Lewis described the team. Martin, primarily a singer, was the straight man: Italian, suavely handsome, an avatar of effortless cool. Mr. Lewis, totally a comic, was the funny man: Jewish, grotesque in appearance, and relentless in his high-pressure hilarity. Mr. Lewis was far from ugly, although the way he contorted his face and body for comic effect obscured this.

Hal B. Wallis, who produced all 16 Martin and Lewis pictures, summarized what they did onscreen. “A Martin and Lewis costs a half-million, and it’s guaranteed to make three million with a simple formula: Jerry is an idiot, Dean is a straight leading man who sings a couple of songs and gets the girl. That’s it, don’t [mess] with it.”

The team’s success was enormous. There was even a Martin and Lewis comic book (which became “The Adventures of Jerry Lewis” after the breakup). Yet the very incongruity that drove the duo’s performing success — crazy Jerry vs. unflappable Dean — caused increasing strain in their relations.

The split was traumatic for Mr. Lewis. He was candid about the fact that Martin, 10 years his elder, was the big brother he’d never had. “If it wasn’t for my partner,” he said in that 2005 Globe interview, “I’d probably have worked as a security guard in some factory in Rye, N.Y.”

However trying emotionally, the breakup didn’t harm Mr. Lewis’s career, which flourished for the next decade. The naivete and proud unhipness of his humor began to take its toll on his popularity, though. Mr. Lewis’s oldest son had a successful rock band, Gary and the Playboys, but the excesses that marked the ‘60s were very different from Mr. Lewis’s kind.

Also, he began to battle health problems. Severe back pain led to more than a decade of Percodan addiction. After a massive heart attack in 1982, Mr. Lewis was pronounced clinically dead. He later underwent open-heart surgery and at various times suffered from prostate cancer, pulmonary fibrosis, diabetes, and arthritis.

Still, Mr. Lewis would not be stopped. He won raves for his performance as an imperious TV talk show host in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” (1983).

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

In 1999, the Venice Film Festival gave him its Golden Lion Award for lifetime achievement. “Dean & Me” was a best seller. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave him its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2009.

Somehow the perpetual 9-year-old grew into a grand old man of show business. Not that he ever intended to rest on his laurels.

“I love what I am and I love my accomplishments to date,” he said in 2005, happily emphasizing the two last syllables.

Mr. Lewis leaves his wife, Sandra (Pitnick) Lewis; a daughter, Danielle; and five sons, all from his first marriage, Gary, Ron, Scott, Chris, and Anthony, and several grandchildren and great grandchildren. His youngest son, Joseph, died of a drug overdose.

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis at the telethon in September 1976.
Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis at the telethon in September 1976.(Associated Press/File)

Mark Feeney can be reached at