Jerry Lewis dies at 91: Who was the King of Comedy?

The veteran US entertainer was once Dean Martin's comic partner

Jerry Lewis on his 90th birthday
(Image credit: 2016 Getty Images)

US entertainer Jerry Lewis has died at the age of 91. His publicist, Candi Cazau, said the veteran performer died of natural causes with his family at his bedside in Las Vegas on Sunday morning.

At one time a huge box-office draw, in later life he was best known for his charity work.

How did Jerry Lewis's career start?

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Lewis was born in New Jersey in 1926 as Joseph Levitch. He took his mother's surname for stage work – and used 'Jerry' to avoid confusion with boxer Joe Lewis. With a vaudevillian father and pianist mother, Lewis first appeared as part of the family act at the age of five.

By the time he was 15, Lewis had his own act, miming to records. At 20 he was a star, working in a double act with future Rat Pack singer Dean Martin as his straight man. From nightclubs, the graduated to radio – and in 1948 to live TV.

Why did he split from Dean Martin?

The partnership lasted for ten years, during which they made 16 films together and became the biggest box office draw in the US. They never explained what caused their acrimonious split – and were properly reconciled to each other only in 1976.

After ending his film partnership with Martin, Lewis became an even bigger star as a solo act. He directed and acted in a series of zany comedy films including the Nutty Professor, which remains his biggest success.

Did he really make a film about a concentration camp?

Yes – but it was never released. The Day the Clown Cried was about a children's entertainer in a Nazi camp. "Horrified studio bosses" buried the production, says The Guardian, and Lewis always refused to talk about it.

When did he work with Martin Scorsese?

Lewis's comedy star waned in the late 60s and early 70s – and he took a job teaching film at the University of Southern California, with students including George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. In 1982, Martin Scorsese cast him as a misanthropic thinly-fictionalised version of himself, opposite Robert de Niro, in the King of Comedy, seen by many as his finest role.

What was his last role?

Lewis announced his retirement from filmmaking in 1995, when he was 69. A few minor TV roles followed – including voice work for The Simpsons – and he returned to movies in 2013 with a starring role in Max Rose.

While Lewis's last major movie was not a critical success, the Washington Post said it gained "resonance from its look at what may be the final years of a movie legend".

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