He was a man of stage, screen, and television with an eye and ear for comedy, music, and visual entertainment. On Sunday, August 20th we lost a great comedian, director, actor, singer, producer, screenwriter, and humanitarian in Jerry Lewis at the age of 91. An icon if there ever was one, Lewis has long been one of the biggest names in all of entertainment and the reactions to his death prove even more just how impactful he was in his lengthy career. In honor of a legend, lets take a look back at a career few could ever even dream to enjoy and honor the great Jerry Lewis.
Lewis was born on March 16, 1926 in Newark, New Jersey. His parents were Jewish Russians Daniel Lavitch, a vaudeville entertainer and MC better known as Danny Lewis, and Rachel “Rae” Levitch who was a radio station piano player. Born into a family well versed in the concept of entertainment and visual and musical art, Lewis seemed destined for greatness as he started performing at the age of five, even appearing alongside his parents, and by 15 he formed his first major public act, the “Record Act”, where he exaggeratedly mimed lyrics to songs from a phonograph. Back then he used the named Joey Lewis, soon adopting the Jerry moniker we all know and love to avoid being confused to comedian Joe E. Lewis and boxing champion Joe Louis. After dropping out of high school Lewis set off to seek the bright lights of stardom which would lead him to one of the biggest careers in all of entertainment at the time.
Lewis’ career really took off when he joined forces with another iconic act, Dean Martin. The two formed the Martin and Lewis comedy team that worked off of improvisation and interaction more than planned sketches. The duo initially began working together in 1946, eventually being discovered and given their own show on the NBC Red Network, “The Martin and Lewis Show”. It was the first mainstream exposure anyone got of the soon to be icons as they began appearing on other live television programs leading to the duo’s debut in film in “My Friend Irma” in 1949 for Paramount. The film was based on a radio series of the same name and earned a sequel, also starring the duo, called “My Friend Irma Goes West” the following year.
The 50s were huge for both Martin and Lewis as the duo were part of 16 films in one form or another from 1950 to 1956, including the “My Friend Irma” sequel. Among those films were “At War with the Army”, “That’s My Boy”, “Scared Stiff”, “The Caddy”, and “Hollywood or Bust” which was the final film for the duo with Paramount in 1956. During that time the duo also earned their own DC comics series and continued to appear on television, but the partnership wouldn’t last long after the Paramount deal was done. The duo parted ways in 1956 leaving each of the men to chase successful solo careers. The split would allow Lewis’ career to thrive as he began to appear by himself in films starting in 1957.
After the split from Martin, Lewis was documented as being at a crossroads in his life and career. He and his wife took a trip to Las Vegas to allow him to think on where his career would go and, as luck would have it, this put Lewis in the perfect position to cover for his friend Sid Luft, the husband and manager of Judy Garland, after he fell ill and was unable to perform at a local venue. For the first time since he was five years old Lewis sung on stage, performing tunes he heard as a child. This led Capital Records to sign the rising musical talent to a record deal and his first album, “Jerry Lewis Just Sings”, was born. Lewis began to perform on his own regularly throughout 1957 and, as they say, the rest was history.
From 1956 until 1966 Lewis became a regular on “What’s My Line?”. He rekindled a relationship with Paramount and became a comedy film star almost overnight with his first solo film “The Delicate Delinquent” in 1957. Lewis appeared in five more films in the 50s, including “The Sad Sack”, “Rock-A-Bye Baby”, and The Geisha Boy”, and followed that up with roles as an actor, director, or producer on at least one film a year throughout the 1960s. Among those projects were “The Bellboy”, “Cinderfella”, “The Nutty Professor”, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”, “The Patsy”, “The Family Jewels”, “The Big Mouth”, and “Hook, Line & Sinker”. During that time he also took his directorial talents to the University of Southern California where he would go on to educate such future legends as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas in the art of filmmaking.
Lewis slowed down a bit in the 1970s, appearing in two films in 1970 and one in 1972. During that time Lewis was responsible for starring in and making the legendary unreleased project “The Day the Clown Cried”, a film set in a Nazi concentration camp that today is still the stuff of cinematic legend and was talked about very little by Lewis after it was shelved. Lewis continued to appear in many different forms of entertainment and in 1981 finally returned to the big screen in “Hardly Working”, a film he directed and starred in that received a lashing from critics at the time. Lewis would appear in eight films in the 80s, including the Martin Scorsese flick “The King of Comedy” as well as two French films, “To Catch a Cop” and “How Did You Get In? We Didn’t See You Leave”, which he had stated would never see an American release as long as he controlled the distributions of the films. Lewis had begun to gain a massive following in France, which would last well into the later years of his career.
Lewis slowed down again in the 90s, working off of his celebrity rather than seeking out new projects to be a part of. His fame earned him a cameo appearance in “Mr. Saturday Night” in 1992 and in 1993 he appeared in “Arizona Dream” and finally “Funny Bones” in 1995. During the 90s Lewis explored a new interest, theater, making his Broadway debut in “Damn Yankees.” By the 2000’s Lewis had all but retired from film, making cameo appearances in television shows before returning to the big screen for his final film roles in “The Trust” and “Max Rose” in 2016.
While never much of a major film award contender at the Golden Globes or Oscars, Lewis was still a highly decorated entertainer earning many other prestigious awards and honors throughout his career. He did gain a Golden Globe nomination in the 60s and earned a humanitarian award at the Oscars in 2009, his only such award or nomination at the Academy Awards. Lewis earned a reputation as a strong advocate for muscular dystrophy awareness, leading a yearly telethon to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association and serving as the organization’s spokesperson until 2011. He made one final salute to the MDA in 2016 after the yearly telethon was discontinued in 2015. Lewis also founded “Jerry’s House”, a place for traumatized children, after meeting a seven-year old who could benefit from the service in 2010. The cause has sense grown to include the United States and Australia. Lewis was a stern believer that politics and celebrity didn’t mix, using advice he gained from JFK to avoid the political spotlight, but in his final years he broke that rule. While he chose to keep politics out of his career for much of his life, Lewis was a critic of President Barack Obama and a minor supporter of Donald Trump in his final years calling Trump a “showman” who he believed would make a good president.
Jerry Lewis was truly a gift to the world of entertainment. A comedic genius, a dedicated performer, and a multitalented entertainer in all kinds of media Lewis was a God among the most talented in the entertainment industry and was a careful activist, a devoted philanthropist, and, most of all, an icon that many of the most talented in the industry today looked up to as a role model and leader in their craft. Lewis will be missed as a man who truly deserved to be considered among the greats. To Mr. Lewis I say, rest in peace. You’re impact and contributions to the world of cinema and beyond will never be forgotten or overlooked!