The madcap comic who delighted millions—but not critics
Jerry Lewis 1926–2017
Jerry Lewis was loved and loathed in equal measure. The comedian and filmmaker’s banana-peel slapstick and manic man-child persona were seen by moviegoers as either comic gold—French intellectuals considered him a genius—or excruciatingly unfunny. His comic partnership with louche crooner Dean Martin in the 1940s and ’50s was wildly successful, but when he branched out as a movie auteur, blazing a trail for Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, his films were often branded pretentiously self-indulgent. Lewis’ work as an actor and director was eventually eclipsed by his 44-year run as host of the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s annual telethon, but even his good deeds weren’t without controversy. Throughout, his arrogance was legendary. “I don’t give a s--- if people think I have a fantastic ego,” Lewis said in 2000. “I worked my heart out! And you know what? I’m as good as they get.”
Born in Newark, N.J., Lewis was the only child of vaudeville entertainers Danny and Rae Levitch, said The New York Times. Foisted on relatives while his parents were on the road, young Lewis felt “a desperate need for attention and affection.” He found it in front of an audience: When he was 6, his parents brought him onstage at a Jewish resort hotel to sing “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Lewis quit high school just before his 16th birthday and honed a lip-sync act in which he mugged outrageously to operatic and pop tunes played on a phonograph, said The Washington Post. At a Manhattan club in the mid-’40s Lewis shared the bill with a suave, sleepy-eyed vocalist named Dean Martin. Teaming up, the pair developed a unique comedic template. “I conduct the three-piece band with one of my shoes, burn their music, jump offstage, run around the tables, sit with the customers and spill things while Dean keeps singing,” Lewis explained, noting the act was essentially “a handsome man and a monkey.”
Within two years, “Martin and Lewis were the hottest comedy act in show business,” said the Los Angeles Times. On TV from 1950 to 1955, the pair regularly hosted The Colgate Comedy Hour, and Lewis’ signature lines—“I like it! I like it!” and “La-a-a-dy!”—became national catchphrases. They made 16 films together, from My Friend Irma in 1949 to Hollywood or Bust in 1956. But Martin wearied of playing the stooge; tensions bubbled over and the team dissolved in 1956 after a gig at New York’s Copacabana. Lewis made his starring-directing debut with 1960’s The Bellboy, and enjoyed a string of hits, most notably 1963’s The Nutty Professor—a variation on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in which the scientist’s dark alter ego was a smooth lounge singer reminiscent of Martin. “Dismissed by American critics,” Lewis was revered in France, which awarded him the Order of Arts and Letters, the country’s highest cultural honor.
“By the late 1960s, Lewis seemed to be losing his way,” said The Guardian (U.K.), and in an edgier era, his shrill style fell out of fashion. He found a new form of celebrity with the Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, which he first hosted in 1966 and always concluded with an emotional rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Some disability rights groups claimed he exploited the disabled children who appeared on the show for his own glory; Lewis simply pointed to the nearly $1.5 billion he raised through the telethons. In 1982 he made his big-screen comeback with an acclaimed serious turn as a kidnapped talk show host in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982). Overcoming illness and an addiction to painkillers, Lewis continued acting until last year—and never mellowed. Honored for career achievement by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association in 2005, he said from the podium, “I am delighted to be the recipient of this award. What took so goddamned long?”