Jerry Lewis, the rubber-faced, squeaky-voiced comedy legend who starred in films and musicals and also was known for his unflagging work on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, died on Sunday, his publicist confirmed. He was 91 years old.
Lewis’ publicist confirmed the news to The Associated Press. The Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John Katsilometes first reported Lewis’ departure.
Lewis “passed peacefully at home this morning of natural causes at the age of 91 with his loving family by his side,” manager Mark Rozzano said.
Lewis had gone recently through a series of medical issues and scares. In June 2012 he had been hospitalized for 2 nights in New York after collapsing with what was reported for a blood sugar problem.
He had been forced to cancel a show in Australia due to poor health in June 2011.
Lewis was touring Australia to raise money for the nation’s Muscular Dystrophy Foundation, which is separate from the American Muscular Dystrophy Association, where he served as president.
He declared in 2011 he was retiring as sponsor of the association’s Labor Day Telethon, which he began hosting in 1966.
MDA would not be the organization it is today if it were not for Jerrys tireless efforts. His unyielding devotion matched only his enthusiasm for finding cures for neuromuscular disease to see the struggle through to the end. Jerrys efforts on the annual MDA Telethon transformed the broadcast into an American tradition each Labor Day weekend for 45 years,” the organization said in a statement. Though we will miss him beyond measure, we suspect that somewhere in heaven, hes already urging the angels to give just one dollar more for my kids.”
In recent decades, Lewis also suffered from a back condition linked from a piano, in addition to heart issues. He reportedly had at least two heart attacks.
The comic who first gained fame as part of a duo with singer Dean Martin was born Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926 in Newark, New Jersey.
His parents were entertainers and Jerry made his debut at age five on New York’s Catskill Mountains entertainment circuit.
He began using the professional name Joey Lewis, but later changed it to Jerry, reportedly to avoid confusion with comedian Joe E. Lewis.
In the summer of 1946, Lewis teamed up with Martin first with a nightclub act, then television and radio appearances. Martin was the debonair singer while Lewis was the zany sidekick with the huge grin and squeaky voice.
They went on to make a series of movies together before the venture ended in 1956 and both started solo careers.
Lewis became a major comedy star with his first solo film, 1957’s “The Delicate Delinquent,” followed closely by “Rock-A-Bye Baby” and “The Geisha Boy.” His later films included “The Bellboy,” “Cinderfella,” “The Nutty Professor” and “The King of Comedy.”
He also appeared in stage musicals and in 1994 made his Broadway debut as the Devil in a revival of “Damn Yankees.”
Lewis was respected abroad and a favorite of French critics, sometimes to the entertainment of fans in the home. In 2006 the French Minister of Culture awarded him the Legion d’Honneur, saying he had been the ‘French people’s favorite clown.”
Throughout his career, Lewis worked ceaselessly to raise funds for muscular dystrophy and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
He had been married twice, to Patti Palmer from 1944 and to SanDee Pitnick from 1983. He had five surviving sons from his first marriage (a sixth died) and a daughter from his second.
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