Comedian, director Jerry Lewis dead at 91
Jerry Lewis, the comedian and filmmaker who was adored by many, disdained by others, but unquestionably a defining figure of American entertainment in the 20th century, died Sunday morning at his home in Las Vegas. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by his publicist, Candi Cazau.
Lewis knew success in movies, on television, in nightclubs, on the Broadway stage and in the university lecture hall. His career had its ups and downs, but when it was at its zenith there were few stars any bigger. And he got there remarkably quickly.
Barely out of his teens, he shot to fame shortly after the Second World War with a nightclub act in which the rakish, imperturbable Dean Martin crooned and the skinny, hyperactive Lewis capered around the stage, a dangerously volatile id to Martin’s supremely relaxed ego.
After his break with Martin in 1956, Lewis went on to a successful solo career, eventually writing, producing and directing many of his own films.
As a spokesman for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Lewis raised vast sums for charity; as a filmmaker of great personal force and technical skill, he made many contributions to the industry, including the invention in 1960 of a device — the video assist, which allowed directors to review their work immediately on the set — still in common use.
A mercurial personality who could flip from naked neediness to towering rage, Lewis seemed to contain multitudes, and he explored all of them. His ultimate object of contemplation was his own contradictory self, and he turned his obsession with fragmentation, discontinuity and the limits of language into a spectacle that enchanted children, disturbed adults and fascinated postmodernist critics.
Jerry Lewis was born on March 16, 1926, in Newark, N.J. Most sources, including his 1982 autobiography, Jerry Lewis: In Person, give his birth name as Joseph Levitch. But Shawn Levy, author of the exhaustive 1996 biography King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis, unearthed a birth record that gave his first name as Jerome.
His parents, Danny and Rae Levitch, were entertainers — his father a song-and-dance man, his mother a pianist — who used the name Lewis when they appeared in small-time vaudeville and at Catskills resort hotels.
In 1944 — a 4F classification kept him out of the war — he was performing at the Downtown Theater in Detroit when he met Patti Palmer, a 23-year-old singer. Three months later they were married, and on July 31, 1945, while Patti was living with Jerry’s parents in Newark and he was performing at a Baltimore nightclub, she gave birth to the first of the couple’s six sons. The couple divorced in 1980.
Between his first date with Palmer and the birth of his first son, Lewis had met Dean Martin, a promising young crooner from Steubenville, Ohio. Appearing on the same bill at the Glass Hat nightclub in Manhattan, the skinny kid from New Jersey was dazzled by the sleepy-eyed singer, who seemed to be everything he was not: handsome, self-assured and deeply, unshakably cool.
When they found themselves on the same bill again at another Manhattan nightclub, the Havana-Madrid, in March 1946, they started fooling around in impromptu sessions after the evening’s last show. Their antics earned the notice of Billboard magazine, whose reviewer wrote, “Martin and Lewis do an afterpiece that has all the makings of a sock act,” using showbiz slang for a successful show.
By the summer of 1948, they had reached the pinnacle, headlining at the Copacabana on the upper East Side of Manhattan while playing one show a night at the 6,000-seat Roxy Theater in Times Square.
The phenomenal rise of Martin and Lewis was like nothing show business had seen before. Partly this was because of the rise of mass media after the war, when newspapers, radio and the emerging medium of television came together to create a new kind of instant celebrity. And partly it was because four years of war and its difficult aftermath were finally lifting, allowing America to indulge a long-suppressed taste for silliness. But primarily it was the unusual chemical reaction that occurred when Martin and Lewis were side by side.
Lewis’s shorthand definition for their relationship was “sex and slapstick.” But much more was going on: a dialectic between adult and infant, assurance and anxiety, bitter experience and wide-eyed innocence that generated a powerful image of postwar America, a gangly young country suddenly dominant on the world stage.
Among the audience members at the Copacabana was producer Hal Wallis, who had a distribution deal through Paramount Pictures. Wallis signed them to a five-year contract.
He started them off slowly, slipping them into a low-budget project already in the pipeline. Based on a popular radio show, My Friend Irma (1949) starred Marie Wilson as a ditsy blonde and Diana Lynn as her levelheaded roommate, with Martin and Lewis providing comic support. It was not until At War With the Army (1951), an independent production filmed outside Wallis’s control, that the team took centre stage.
At War With the Army codified the relationship that ran through all 13 subsequent Martin and Lewis films, positing the pair as unlikely pals whose friendship might be tested by trouble with money or women (usually generated by Martin’s character), but who were there for each other in the end.
The films were phenomenally successful, and their budgets quickly grew.
That’s My Boy (1951), The Stooge (1953) and The Caddy (1953) approached psychological drama with their forbidding father figures and suggestions of sibling rivalry; Lewis had a hand in the writing of each. Artists and Models (1955) and Hollywood or Bust (1956) were broadly satirical looks at American popular culture under the authorial hand of director Frank Tashlin, who brought a bold graphic style and a flair for wild sight gags to his work.
Tashlin also functioned as a mentor to Lewis, who was fascinated with the technical side of filmmaking.
As his artistic aspirations grew and his control over the films in which he appeared increased, Lewis’s relationship with Martin became strained. As wildly popular as the team remained, Martin had come to resent Lewis’s dominant role in shaping their work and spoke of reviving his solo career as a singer. Lewis felt betrayed by the man he still worshipped as a role model, and by the time filming began on Hollywood or Bust they were barely speaking.
After a farewell performance at the Copacabana on July 25, 1956, Martin and Lewis went their separate ways.
Lewis saved his creative energies for the films he produced himself. The first three of those films — Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958), The Geisha Boy (1958) and Cinderfella (1960) — were directed by Tashlin. After that, finally ready to assume complete control, Lewis persuaded Paramount to take a chance on The Bellboy (1960), a virtually plotless homage to silent-film comedy that he wrote, directed and starred in, playing a hapless employee of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach.
It was the beginning of Lewis’s most creative period. During the next five years, he directed five more films of remarkable stylistic assurance, including The Ladies Man (1961), with its huge multistory set of a women’s boardinghouse, and, most notably, The Nutty Professor (1963), a variation on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which Lewis appeared as a painfully shy chemistry professor and his dark alter ego, a swaggering nightclub singer.
With their themes of fragmented identity and their experimental approach to sound, colour and narrative structure, Lewis’s films began to attract the serious consideration of iconoclastic young critics in France. At a time when American film was still largely dismissed by American critics as purely commercial and devoid of artistic interest, Lewis’s work was held up as a prime example of a personal filmmaker functioning happily within the studio system.
The Nutty Professor is probably the most honoured and analyzed of Lewis’s films. (It was also his personal favourite.) For some critics, the opposition between the helpless, infantile Professor Julius Kelp and the coldly manipulative lounge singer Buddy Love represented a spiteful revision of the old Martin-and-Lewis dynamic. But Buddy seems more pertinently a projection of Lewis’s darkest fears about himself: a version of the distant, unloving father whom Lewis had never managed to please as a child, and whom he both despised and desperately wanted to be.
His blend of physical comedy and pathos was quickly going out of style in a Hollywood defined by the countercultural irony of The Graduate and M*A*S*H. After “The Day the Clown Cried,” his audacious attempt to direct a comedy-drama set in a Nazi concentration amp, collapsed in litigation in 1972, Lewis was absent from films for eight years. In that dark period, he struggled with an addiction to the pain killer Percodan.
He enjoyed a revival as an actor, thanks largely to his powerful performance in a dramatic role in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982) as a talk-show host kidnapped by an aspiring comedian (Robert De Niro) desperate to become a celebrity. He appeared in the television series Wiseguy in 1988 and 1989 as a garment manufacturer threatened by the Mob, and was memorable in character roles in Emir Kusturica’s Arizona Dream (1993) and Peter Chelsom’s Funny Bones (1995). Lewis played Mr. Applegate (aka the Devil) in a Broadway revival of the musical Damn Yankees in 1995 and later took the show on an international tour.
In 1983, Lewis married SanDee Pitnick, and in 1992 their daughter, Danielle Sara, was born. Besides his wife and daughter, survivors include his sons Christopher, Scott, Gary and Anthony, and several grandchildren.
Although he retained a preternaturally youthful appearance for many years, Lewis had a series of serious illnesses in his later life, including prostate cancer, pulmonary fibrosis and two heart attacks.
Through it all, Lewis continued his charity work, serving as national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association and, beginning in 1966, hosting the association’s annual Labor Day weekend telethon. The telethon raised about $2 billion during the more than 40 years he was host.
During the 1976 telethon, Frank Sinatra staged an on-air reunion between Lewis and Martin, to the visible discomfort of both men. A more lasting reconciliation came in 1987, when Lewis attended the funeral of Martin’s oldest son, Dean Paul Martin Jr., a pilot in the California Air National Guard who had been killed in a crash. They continued to speak occasionally until Martin died in 1995.