Jerry Lewis, Comic Icon And Titan Of Telethons, Dies At 91

Aug 20, 2017
Originally published on August 21, 2017 10:53 am

Jerry Lewis, a comedic fixture on big screens and charity telethons for decades, has died at the age of 91.

His death was first reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal and confirmed by NPR with his publicist and spokeswoman Candi Cazau.

Cazau provided the following statement:

"Famed comedian, actor, and legendary entertainer Jerry Lewis passed away peacefully today of natural causes at 91 at his home in Las Vegas with his family by his side."

The son of small-time entertainers who were always on the road, Lewis spent a lot of time with a rotating cast of relatives. As he told TV interviewer David Susskind in 1965: "I was a rent-a kid-a-day club, you know? Who wants Jerry this week?"

When he got a bit older, he stepped on stage himself and gradually developed his own act — but it was not until 1945, when he met the suave singer Dean Martin, that he found broad stardom. Lewis was just 19; Martin was 28. Together as an odd-couple team over the next decade, Martin and Lewis went on to become the highest-paid comedy act in the U.S., earn their own radio and TV shows, and delight audiences with 16 films.

"They were paying for two men to let an audience see how much fun they were having, and the love that went on between the older guy and the younger guy," Lewis told Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 2005. "When we were able to project that to an audience, we had them in our pockets from Day 1."

The partnership fell apart in 1956, and Martin and Lewis hardly spoke to each other for decades after — but, Lewis said, "we never, ever fell out of love."

Going solo freed Lewis to write, direct and star in his own movies. An early adopter of new film and video technology, he pioneered the now-standard practice of placing a video monitor on the film camera to provide immediate feedback to the director on how a scene looks. He used the technique for all of the films he directed — including his biggest hit, The Nutty Professor.

In that comedic spin on The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, Lewis plays both the eponymous academic and chemically liberated id, the smug hipster Buddy Love. Co-star Stella Stevens says that when it came time for Lewis to revert from irresistible bully to shy professor Julius Kelp, he could hardly bear to do it.

"Jerry Lewis was as much a chick magnet as Dean Martin was at all times. He did have all those qualities. He didn't add something in that was not him," she recalls of Love, Lewis' twist on Hyde. "Those are probably his fondest wishes of how he could be bad ... and that was the baddest he could think of."

Biographer Shawn Levy said Lewis' struggle was not surprising, given the almost confessional air about the film.

"There's something very, very personal about that film, very revelatory," he says.

"Jerry as a solo director and performer made a lot of films about multiple personalities," Levy continues, "there's two Jerry Lewises in The Bellboy, there's five or six in The Family Jewels, there's three in Three On A Couch ... but in The Nutty Professor, I think it's the only one where you have a contrast between the nebbish Professor Kelp, who invents something, and then this guy who kind of destroys it, who much more resembled the off-camera Jerry Lewis than any other character he ever played."

Levy says that Lewis could be brusque and self-confident. Martin Scorsese, who directed Lewis in The King of Comedy, says Lewis could be intimidating, too.

"Could be gracious, could be difficult, and is the kind of person who walks into his office or an area and people just move aside," Scorsese says, adding that Lewis was also a great filmmaker — "very precise, very brilliant," right up there with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.

A notoriously prickly personality, Lewis also had a nagging habit of stirring controversy — especially "with insensitive remarks about women, gays and people with disabilities," as NPR's Pam Fessler reported in 2011.

By the time Scorsese directed him in 1983, Lewis' own filmmaking career had largely stalled — but Lewis had found another spotlight in 1966, leading live telethons on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. In nearly half a century of hosting the telethon, he helped raise more than $2 billion to combat the disease and aid its youngest victims, dubbed "Jerry's Kids."

And Lewis was such an entertainment powerhouse early in his career that he'd acquired the rights to his films, which allowed him to cash in on Eddie Murphy's 1996 Nutty Professor remake and its 2000 sequel. In 2012 Lewis turned The Nutty Professor into a stage musical, which he directed himself, at the age of 86.

For all his success, innovation and popularity — notably in France, where the government gave him the Legion of Honor, the country's highest civilian award — Lewis was never much of a hit with the critics. He received few honors for his acting or directing before his lifetime achievement awards, such as the Oscars' Jean Hersholt humanitarian award, began rolling in.

Still, he never retired, starring as recently as 2016 in the film Max Rose. When asked by the Hollywood Reporter — in a remarkable case study of Lewis' often abrasive manner — why he and other older comedians kept actively working, Lewis answered simply: "Because we do it well."

And "I would do it again in a heartbeat," Lewis told Gross in 2005.

"To hear an audience laugh — you go to any extreme, because that's your lot in life."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DWANE BROWN, HOST:

Jerry Lewis was truly a star of stage, screen and television. He created a hit nightclub act with singer Dean Martin. He starred in more than 60 movies and directed some 15 of those, including the original "The Nutty Professor." And Lewis spent four decades raising hundreds of millions of dollars for charity in his annual Labor Day Telethon. Jerry Lewis died today at the age of 91. Pat Dowell has this remembrance. She was a big fan, and this was the last piece she finished before she passed away.

PAT DOWELL, BYLINE: Jerry Lewis was the son of small-time entertainers who were always on the road. As Lewis told TV interviewer David Susskind in 1965, he spent a lot of time with relatives.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

JERRY LEWIS: I was a rent-a-kid-a-day club, you know? Who wants Jerry this week (laughter)?

DOWELL: Lewis did get to travel with his folks, mostly as a teenager. That's when he developed his own act. But he didn't hit it big until he teamed with Dean Martin, who played the suave, handsome grownup to Lewis's juvenile.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEAN MARTIN: (As character) What are you doing in my fountain anyhow?

LEWIS: (As character) Oh, I came over here, sir, from the employment agency. And they said that you needed a very fine, upstanding, sanitary soda jerker, sir. Well, look know further, buddy. I'm your jerk.

(LAUGHTER)

DOWELL: Such crazy crackups made Martin and Lewis the highest-paid comedy act in the country. They got their own radio and TV shows and made 16 hit movies, including the 1956 Western parody, "Pardners." Dean rejects Jerry through the whole movie. When the words the end appear on screen, they shoot them off.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PARDNERS")

LEWIS: We have something to say to you. Right, Dean?

MARTIN: We sure do, Jer. We want you folks to know we sure enjoyed working for you, and we hope you enjoyed the picture.

LEWIS: Yeah, and we hope you'll keep coming to see us because we like seeing you.

DOWELL: Shortly after "Pardners," Martin and Lewis broke up without public explanation. But with headlines in all the papers, they made one more movie - again, a hit - but they were hardly speaking to each other by that time and for decades after. Yet Lewis always used the word love to describe his relationship with Dean Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LEWIS: We never, ever fell out of love.

DOWELL: Fifty years after the breakup, Lewis told WHYY's Fresh Air that their success with club owners and audiences wasn't about the jokes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LEWIS: They were paying for two men to let an audience see how much fun they were having and the love that went on between the older guy and the younger guy. When we were able to project that to an audience, we had them in our pockets from day one.

DOWELL: Going solo let Lewis realize his ambition to write, direct and star in his own movies. He was an early adopter of new film and video technology. He pioneered the now-standard practice of placing a video monitor on the film camera to provide immediate feedback to the director on how a scene looks. He used it on all of the films he directed, including his biggest hit, "The Nutty Professor."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NUTTY PROFESSOR")

LEWIS: (As Prof. Julius Kelp) The various aspect, of course, is relativity to hydrogen. There is hydrogen - duly explosive and more devastating than the atomic.

DOWELL: Lewis plays both Professor Julius Kelp in the 1963 comic take on Jekyll and Hyde, and Kelp's chemically liberated id, the smug hipster, Buddy Love.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NUTTY PROFESSOR")

LEWIS: (As Buddy Love) Here you are, baby. Take this. Wipe the lipstick off. Slide over here next to me, and let's get started.

DOWELL: Lewis wrote in his autobiography, "In Person," that he hated Buddy Love. But co-star Stella Stevens recalls that when it came time to shoot the scene in which the irresistible bully publicly reverts to the shy academic, Lewis balked.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STELLA STEVENS: And he locked himself in his dressing room and was crying. To come out - to have to make the transition between being Buddy Love back to the nutty professor himself.

DOWELL: Lewis's struggle was not surprising in a film that has an almost confessional air about it, says Lewis biographer Shawn Levy.

SHAWN LEVY: There's something very, very personal about that film - very revelatory, you know. Jerry as a solo director and performer made a lot of films about multiple personalities. There's two Jerry Lewises is in "The Bellboy." There's five or six in "The Family Jewels." There's three in "Three On A Couch." But in "The Nutty Professor," I think it's the only one where you have a contrast between the nebbish, you know, Professor Kelp, who invents something, and then this guy who kind of destroys it, who much more resembled the off-camera Jerry Lewis than any other character he ever played.

DOWELL: Levy says that Lewis could be brusque and self-confident. He also could be intimidating, says Martin Scorsese, who directed Lewis in "The King Of Comedy."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN SCORSESE: Could be gracious, could be difficult, and is the kind of person who, you know, walks into his office or an area, and people just move aside.

DOWELL: Lewis was also a great film maker, Scorsese says, right up there with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCORSESE: The concepts, I think, really, the absurdity of the imagery and the execution of those ideas visually - very precise, very brilliant.

DOWELL: By the time Scorsese directed him in 1983, Lewis's filmmaking career was over. But he'd become such an entertainment powerhouse that he'd acquired the rights to his films, which allowed him to control and cash in on remakes. And, in 2012, he turned "The Nutty Professor" into a stage musical, which he directed himself at the age of 86. And Lewis remained popular around the world, most notably in France, where the government gave him its highest civilian honor.

But Jerry Lewis never got an Oscar for his filmmaking. And many critics here refused to take him seriously. The Academy did give him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2009 for his decades of fundraising for the Muscular Dystrophy Association on his annual telethon. But he was criticized for that, too, by activists who complained he patronized people with disabilities. Lewis brushed off all of his critics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LEWIS: I would do it again in a heartbeat. To hear an audience laugh, you go to any extreme because that's your lot in life. Now, if you're not dedicated to the love of your work, that's a whole different performer. Those are people that don't get nervous before they go on. Those are people who are there for the paycheck, and that's all they know about. So what they're giving is a mechanical performance.

You would never know it. He looks like he's singing great, or he looks like he's dancing great. But, in truth, he's waiting to get the check. That's all that means to him. He would respond no differently if he was a shoemaker. And that's not the true sense of the word performer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME RAIN OR COME SHINE")

LEWIS: (Singing) You're going to love me like nobody loved me. Come rain or come shine.

DOWELL: And Jerry Lewis was a performer in the truest sense. For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME RAIN OR COME SHINE")

LEWIS: (Singing) Days may be cloudy or sunny. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.