(CNN)Jerry Lewis, the slapstick-loving comedian, innovative filmmaker and generous fundraiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, died Sunday after a brief illness, said his publicist, Candi Cazau. He was 91.
Cazau wouldn’t elaborate on the illness from which Lewis was affected.
Lewis first gained fame for his frenzied comedy-and-music act with singer Dean Martin. When that finished in the mid-1950s, Lewis went solo, and by the early ’60s, he had become a top draw in movies such as “The Bellboy,” “The Nutty Professor” and “The Patsy.” Along the way, in moviemaking, he pioneered the use of closed-circuit and videotape monitors, a now-standard technique known as video assist.
He first helped raise money for muscular dystrophy in a telethon in 1956. He was so successful, and so devoted to the cause, that children affected by the disease became known as “Jerry’s kids.” The telethon, long known as “The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon,” began airing on Labor Day weekend in 1966, and Lewis served as host until 2011.
Loved and criticized
Despite his victory, Lewis also was a controversial figure. A number of people claimed Lewis presented victims as worthy and childlike of pity, rather than as equal members of society.
Lewis lost some fans when he criticized women doing humor — “I think of (a female comedian) as a producing machine that brings babies in the world,” he once said — and when he lashed out in MDA critics. “You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair? Stay in your house!” He explained in 2001 on the “CBS Morning Show.” He later apologized.
When Lewis was among America’s leading box office attractions, critics mocked him for the broadness of his humor — and took more shots at him when he became a renowned figure in France. In 1984, the French granted Lewis that the Legion of Honor, the nation’s highest tribute.
He was emotional, big-hearted, bizarre — once successful, he never wore a pair of socks twice — joyful and forever playing into the back row.
He rarely apologized for it.
“Let me tell you that probably 50% of the film community plays a game and does their thing because they’re prominent and they’re making a lot of money. And what they do is they give up a piece of their soul … and for them, they’re comfortable, and they feel that’s fine,” he told CNN’s Larry King in 2000. “It was never fine for me and I wouldn’t go there. I told (legendary Hollywood gossip columnist) Louella Parsons I thought she was a fat pig, because I thought she was. I had an opinion.”
The controversy Lewis awakened over the years did little to dampen his peers’ and successors’ appreciation of his art. Several celebrities took to media to share their despair.
Comedian Jon Lovitz known as Lewis an “amazing talent,” while “Star Trek” actor George Takei thanked him for “the laughs and the feels.”
“I sincerely hope his afterlife is a warm, peaceful… …haven,” actor Patton Oswalt wrote.
Wrote Public Enemy frontman Chuck D: “Earth is less funny today.”
A lonely boy
Joseph Levitch — he changed the name to Lewis as a teen — was born in Newark, New Jersey, on March 16, 1926. Entertainment ran in the family: His father was a performer. Lewis occasionally performed with his parents, and he was a teen. He was a regular in New York’s Catskill Mountain resorts retreats for area Jews.
But Lewis was also a lonely boy, basically raised by his grandmother. Lewis told King that his humor was rooted in hurt.
“I found (the comic) through pain. And the pain was that I couldn’t buy milk like the other kids in school at recess time,” he said.
He met Martin in a club in 1945 at which the two were acting as soloists. The following year they premiered at Atlantic City, New Jersey. According to demonstrate business lore, be fired or their show flatlined and the team was warned by the team manager to enhance. With a no-holds-barred mix of music and humor, the two went for the show. It was a hit.
Within four decades, they were headlining and breaking records at New York’s Copacabana club. Lewis later wrote that they set off Beatlemania-type responses among fans — especially fans — long before the word Beatlemania was coined.
Martin played the romantic, crooning straight guy, and Lewis was the anything-for-a-laugh comedian of chaos. (Some observers called them “the organ grinder and the monkey.”) The act featured a stint of Martin chasing Lewis around the stage. They seemed on the very first “Ed Sullivan Show” (then called “Toast of the Town”) and shrewdly negotiated control of their various appearances, earning them millions.
But over the course of a decade — a span that included 17 movies, beginning with 1949’s “My Friend Irma” — the two grew apart. After all, Martin told Lewis that he was “nothing to me but a dollar sign.” Martin’s last performance with Lewis — also in the Copa — was on July 25, 1956.
Big life post-Martin
Despite the acrimonious breakup, the two eventually reconciled, and Lewis and James Kaplan published a publication in 2005 with a title that clarified how Lewis saw the relationship: “Dean and Me (A Love Story).”
Upon their breakup, Martin was expected to be the greater success. He was a recognized singer and was beginning to make inroads as a respected actor, including performances in two 1958 films: “The Young Lions” (opposite Marlon Brando) and “Some Came Running” (with Frank Sinatra, with whom Martin would become longtime pals as part of the Rat Pack).
Lewis, on the other hand, was considered a lightweight, if crowd-pleasing, clown. His early solo films, such as “The Delicate Deliquent” (1957) and “Rock-a-Bye Baby” (1958), made under a longstanding contract with producer Hal Wallis, were more of the same.
But upon the end of his Wallis contract, in 1959, Lewis set out to take greater control of his work. He signed a massive contract with Paramount, a deal promising 60 percent of their profits for 14 films and him $ 10 million, according to his agency biography. He starred in “Cinderfella,” written and directed by the noted comedy director Frank Tashlin, and — after that film was held for release — came up with “The Bellboy,” a silent-film-style narrative of pratfalls and experiences that Lewis wrote, directed and starred in.
It was for “The Bellboy” that Lewis first used video help, so that he could monitor his performance as he directed. He received a patent.
“The Bellboy” was released in July 1960 and was a hit, helping establish Lewis as an auteur. He exercised similar writing-directing-starring control over several successive films, including “The Errand Boy” (1961), “The Nutty Professor” (1963) and “The Patsy” (1964).
“The Nutty Professor” was perhaps the prototypical Lewis vehicle. A twist on Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the movie starred Lewis both as nebbish professor Julius Kelp as well as smooth-talking boor Buddy Love, the guy he turned into after drinking a strange potion. (More than one commentator has compared Love to Martin, Lewis’ former partner, but the filmmaker regularly denied Martin was the basis for the portrayal.)
Lewis considered it his best film, and the American Film Institute ranked it as the 99th-best American comedy of all time. Eddie Murphy remade the film in 1996, and Lewis brought a musical version to the stage in 2012.
‘Mozart of humor’
In 2015, the Library of Congress announced it had acquired a huge collection of films and documents from Lewis, including copies of his most popular films, home movies and spoof films made by Lewis at home, which sometimes starred neighbors such as Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh.
“For over seven years I’ve been committed to making people laugh. If I get more than three people in a room, I do a number,” Lewis told the library. “Knowing that the Library of Congress was interested in acquiring my life’s work was among the biggest thrills of my life.”
Though Lewis’ humor occasionally left reviewers cold, he had a sizable fan base.
“My generation, we grew up on Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. They were our heroes,” said the late British funnyman Marty Feldman, crediting Lewis as one of the reasons he became a comedian. “Jerry Lewis actually has genius.”
“Lewis is the Mozart of humor,” wrote Agnes Poirier of the UK newspaper The Guardian in 2006. “You can keep sneering. I don’t care.”
Lewis remained a box office attraction during the 1960s, but his popularity waned with changing tastes in humor and some dismal films, such as “Way … Way Out” (1966) (“About as funny and unusual as the daily trip on the subway,” wrote The New York Times) and “Which Way to the Front?” (1970).
One attempt for an early-’70s film comeback, “The Day the Clown Cried” — intended to be Lewis’ first serious film — became Hollywood legend.
In the rarely seen film, Lewis plays a circus clown, Helmut Doork, who ends up entertaining children at a concentration camp — and eventually leads them to the gas chamber. The movie was never released but has been viewed by a select few, including comedian and “Simpsons” star Harry Shearer, who was blunt in his assessment.
“This film is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its humor are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is,” Shearer told Spy magazine in 1992. ” ‘Oh, my God!’ That is all you can say.”
Lewis rarely lacked for activity or money — he performed regularly, including an annual Las Vegas gig that paid him well — but he struggled to remain relevant. His 1980 comeback comedy, “Hardly Working,” was given zero stars by Roger Ebert, who said it was “one of the worst movies ever to achieve commercial release in this country.” (But it was a smash hit in Europe.)
In the 1980s and ’90s, Lewis picked a handful of serious roles that earned him positive reviews. He played a kidnapped talk show host in Martin Scorsese’s 1982 film “The King of Comedy,” earning a BAFTA nomination for best supporting actor. He was a clothing business owner in a plotline on the late-’80s show “Wiseguy,” and he played a wise comedy legend in the 1995 British film, “Funny Bones.”
Lewis stayed active, touring and working periodically in TV and films. In 2013 he starred in the drama “Max Rose,” and in 2016 he had a role in “The Trust,” which starred Nicolas Cage and Elijah Wood. Both films were flops with critics, but RogerEbert.com’s Glenn Kenny, in reviewing “Max Rose,” said Lewis’ performance was “full of virtues: He’s committed, disciplined and entirely credible.”
He helped raise billions
For several years, Lewis was most known for his work as the fundraising face of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
He started his activity with MDA in 1951, according to his agency biography, although why he got involved has remained a mystery over the years. In 1956, he and Martin hosted an MDA telethon that raised $600,000. The Labor Day Telethon, which was held in 1966 and aired only in the New York market, increased more than $1 million.
By 1973, the year that the telethon moved to Las Vegas, it had a network of over 150 stations and was raising more than $10 million.
The annual telethon, which aired live and ran for as long as 21 hours, was filled with traditions. “Tonight Show” co-host Ed McMahon joined Lewis for several years and would cue up the ring when the tote board hit another big number. (McMahon died in 2009.) Lewis welcomed hundreds of guests, including the entertainment flavor of the month John Lennon dropped by in 1972 — or buddies: In 1976, he reunited with Martin, because of the intercession of mutual acquaintance Frank Sinatra.
And he was defiantly Lewis: clowning, raving, doing impromptu soft-shoes with the tie of his tuxedo undone. He traditionally concluded the broadcast with the Broadway standard “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
In 2011, Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Association announced they were parting ways, and in 2015 MDA announced that there are no longer telethons, although Lewis worked with MDA in 2016 on a promotional video.
The “Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon” raised more than $2.4 billion, Lewis told the Las Vegas Sun in 2010. Lewis was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Motion Picture Academy in 2009.
Success as a ‘total idiot’
Lewis wasn’t the picture of health. He underwent surgery and survived prostate cancer. He smoked five packs of cigarettes a day, and once tipped the scales at close to 300 pounds. He developed dependencies on painkillers, which was associated with a 1965 spinal injury.
He also never lost his advantage. Asked by “Inside Edition” in 2010 what he thought of distressed young Hollywood celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan, he let fly.
“I would smack her in the mouth if I saw her,” he said. “And I would be arrested for abusing a woman.” He added that he’d be happy to “put her over my knee and spank her.”
Last year he participated in such a bizarre interview with The Hollywood Reporter that the book headlined its article, “The most painfully awkward interview of 2016.” Video of the exchange, where a sullen Lewis rarely used more than three words to answer a query, went viral.
He could also be a soft touch, devoting time and money to organizations such as the March of Dimes.
Lewis had six children, five sons and a daughter, by two sisters. 1 son, Gary, became the 1960s pop group’s lead singer Gary Lewis and the Playboys.
Through it all, he never lost his prognosis. “I’ve had great success being a total idiot,” he once said, combining both self and self-deprecation.
“You’re still 9, right?” Requested King in 2000.
“Oh, yes,” replied Lewis. “I will cut your tie some night with a scissor.”
Correction: An earlier story misstated the name of the deceased. Comedian Jerry Lewis has died at age 91, according to his publicist.
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