Jerry Lewis AM (born March 16, 1926) is an American comedian, actor, singer, film producer, screenwriter and film director. He is known for his slapstick humor in film, television, stage and radio.
He was originally paired up with Dean Martin in 1946, forming the famed comedy team of Martin and Lewis. In addition to the duo’s popular nightclub work, they starred in a successful series of comedy films for Paramount Pictures. Lewis is also known as the host, for more than 40 years, of the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s annual Labor Day Telethon and national chairman of the MDA.
Jerry Lewis has won several awards for lifetime achievements from The American Comedy Awards, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and Venice Film Festival, and he has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2005, he received the Governors Award of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Board of Governors, which is the highest Emmy Award presented. On February 22, 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Lewis the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
He was born Joseph Levitch (some sources say Jerome Levitch) in Newark, New Jersey, to Russian Jewish parents. His father, Daniel Levitch, was a master of ceremonies and vaudeville entertainer who used the professional name Danny Lewis, His mother, Rachel (“Rae”) Levitch (née Brodsky), was a piano player for a radio station. Lewis started performing at age five and would often perform alongside his parents in the Catskill Mountains in New York State. By 15 he had developed his “Record Act”, in which he exaggeratedly mimed the lyrics to songs on a phonograph. He used the professional name Joey Lewis, but soon changed it to Jerry Lewis to avoid confusion with comedian Joe E. Lewis and heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. He dropped out of Irvington High School in the tenth grade. During World War II he was rejected for military service because of a heart murmur.
Jerry Lewis initially gained fame with singer Dean Martin, who served as straight man to Lewis’ zany antics in the Martin and Lewis comedy team. The pair distinguished themselves from the majority of comedy acts of the 1940s by relying on their interaction together instead of planned skits. In the late 1940s, they quickly rose to national prominence, first with their popular nightclub act, next as stars of their own radio program. Within a year of their first act together, they went from earning $150–175 a week each at one club to $30,000.00 a week as a team at the Copacabana.
Martin & Lewis made many appearances on early live television, their first on the June 20, 1948 debut broadcast of Toast of the Town with Ed Sullivan on the CBS TV Network (later The Ed Sullivan Show). This was followed on October 3, 1948 by an appearance on the NBC TV series Welcome Aboard, then a stint as the first of a series of hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1950. The duo began their Paramount film careers in 1949 as ensemble players in My Friend Irma, based on the popular radio series of the same name. This was followed by a sequel in 1950, My Friend Irma Goes West. Starting with At War with the Army (1950), Martin and Lewis were the stars of their own vehicles, in fourteen additional titles at Paramount, ending with Hollywood or Bust (1956). All sixteen were produced by Hal Wallis.
As Martin’s roles in their films became less important over time the partnership became strained. Martin’s diminished participation became an embarrassment in 1954 when Look magazine used a publicity photo of the team for the magazine cover but cropped Martin out of the photo. The partnership ended on July 24, 1956. Attesting the team’s popularity, DC Comics published the best-selling The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comic books from 1952 to 1957, after which DC featured Lewis solo in The Adventures of Jerry Lewis until 1971. In this latter Jerry Lewis was sometimes featured with Superman, Batman, and various other DC heroes and villains. It inspired the Filmation cartoon production company to make a 1970 series called Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please Sit Down, with Jerry as the one reality-based character alongside other fictitious one, including fictionalized Lewis relatives.
While both Martin and Jerry Lewis went on to successful solo careers, for years neither would comment on the split nor consider a reunion. They made occasional public appearances together between their breakup and 1961 but were not seen together until a surprise appearance by Martin on Lewis’s Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon in 1976, arranged by Frank Sinatra.
The pair eventually reconciled in the late 1980s after the death of Martin’s son, Dean Paul Martin, in 1987. In 1989, the two men were seen together on stage for the last time when Dean was making what would be his final live performances at Bally’s Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Lewis pushed out a birthday cake for Dean’s 72nd birthday and sang “Happy Birthday” to him, and joking, “why we broke up, I’ll never know”. In Lewis’s 2005 book Dean and Me (A Love Story), Lewis wrote of his kinship with Martin, who died on December 25, 1995.
After the split from Martin, Jerry Lewis remained at Paramount and became a major comedy star with his first film as a solo comic, The Delicate Delinquent (1957). Teaming with director Frank Tashlin, whose background as a Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoon director suited Lewis’s brand of humor, he starred in five more films, and even appeared uncredited as Itchy McRabbitt in Li’l Abner (1959). Lewis tried his hand at releasing solo music in the 1950s, having a chart hit with the song “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” (a song largely associated with Al Jolson and later re-popularized by Judy Garland) as well as the song, “It All Depends on You” in 1958. He eventually released his own album titled, Jerry Lewis Just Sings. By the end of his contract with producer Hal B. Wallis, Jerry Lewis had several productions of his own under his belt.
His first three efforts, The Delicate Delinquent (1957), Rock-A-Bye Baby (1958) and The Geisha Boy (1958), were all efforts to move away from Wallis, who Lewis felt was hindering his comedy. In 1959, a contract between Paramount Pictures and Jerry Lewis Productions was signed specifying a payment of $10 million plus 60% of the profits for 14 films over a seven-year period.
In 1960, Jerry Lewis finished his contract with Wallis with Visit to a Small Planet (1960), and wrapped up work on his own production, Cinderfella. Cinderfella was postponed for a Christmas 1960 release, and Paramount, needing a quickie feature film for its summer 1960 schedule, held Lewis to his contract to produce one. Jerry Lewis came up with The Bellboy. Using the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami as his setting—and on a small budget, with a very tight shooting schedule, and no script—Lewis shot the film by day and performed at the hotel in the evenings. Bill Richmond collaborated with him on the many sight gags.
Jerry Lewis later revealed that Paramount was not happy financing a ‘silent movie’ and withdrew backing. Lewis used his own funds to cover the $950,000 budget. During production Lewis developed the technique of using video cameras and multiple closed circuit monitors, which allowed him to review his performance instantly. His techniques and methods, documented in his book and his USC class, enabled him to complete most of his films on time and under budget. Later, he incorporated videotape, and as more portable and affordable equipment became available, this technique would become an industry standard known as video assist.
Jerry Lewis followed The Bellboy by directing several more films which he co-wrote with Richmond, including The Ladies Man (1961), The Errand Boy (1961), The Patsy (1964) and the well-known comedy, The Nutty Professor (1963). Lewis occasionally handed directing reins to Frank Tashlin, who directed several of his productions, including It’s Only Money (1962) and Who’s Minding the Store? (1963). In 1965, Lewis directed and (along with Bill Richmond) wrote the comedy film The Family Jewels about a young heiress who must choose among six uncles, one of whom is up to no good and out to harm the girl’s beloved bodyguard who practically raised her. Lewis played all six uncles and the bodyguard.
On television, Jerry Lewis starred in three different programs called The Jerry Lewis Show. The first was a two-hour Saturday night variety show on ABC in the fall of 1963. The lavish, big-budget production failed to find an audience and was canceled after 13 weeks. His next show was a one-hour variety show on NBC in 1967–69. A test of a syndicated talk show for Metromedia in 1984 was not continued beyond the scheduled five shows.
By 1966,Jerry Lewis , now 40, was no longer an angular juvenile and his routines seemed more labored. His box office appeal waned to the point where Paramount Pictures new executives felt no further need for the Lewis comedies and did not wish to renew his 1959 profit sharing contract. Undaunted, Lewis packed up and went to Columbia Pictures, where he made several more comedies.
Lewis taught a film directing class at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles for a number of years; his students included Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. In 1968, he screened Spielberg’s early film, Amblin’ and told his students, “That’s what filmmaking is all about”. Lewis starred in and directed the unreleased The Day the Clown Cried in 1972. The film was a drama set in a Nazi concentration camp. Lewis rarely discusses the experience, but once explained why the film has not been released, by suggesting litigation over post-production financial difficulties. However, he admitted during his book tour for Dean and Me that a major factor for the film’s burial is that he is not proud of the effort.
Jerry Lewis has also appeared in stage musicals. In 1976, he appeared in a revival of Hellzapoppin’ with Lynn Redgrave, but it closed on the road before reaching Broadway. In 1994, he made his Broadway debut, as a replacement cast member playing the Devil in a revival of the baseball musical, Damn Yankees, choreographed by future film director Rob Marshall (Chicago).
Jerry Lewis returned to the screen in 1981 with Hardly Working, a film he both directed and starred in. Despite being panned by the critics, the film eventually earned $50 million. He followed this up with a critically acclaimed performance in Martin Scorsese’s 1983 film, The King of Comedy, in which Lewis plays a late-night TV host plagued by obsessive fans (played by Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard).
Lewis continued doing work in small films in the 1990s, most notably his supporting roles in 1994’s Arizona Dream and 1995’s Funny Bones. He appeared on television on one episode of Mad About You’s first season in 1992, playing an eccentric billionaire. In 1994, the Columbia Pictures film, North featured footage of Lewis’s classic movies. In 2008, Lewis reprised his role as Prof. Kelp in The Nutty Professor, his first CGI animated film, a sequel to his 1963 film, co-starring Drake Bell as the voice of his nephew, Harold Kelp.
Jerry Lewis has long remained popular in Europe: he was consistently praised by some French critics in the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinéma for his absurd comedy, in part because he had gained respect as an auteur who had total control over all aspects of his films, comparable to Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. In March 2006, the French Minister of Culture awarded Lewis the Légion d’honneur, calling him the “French people’s favorite clown”.
Liking Lewis has long been a common stereotype about the French in the minds of many English-speakers, and is often the object of jokes in Anglosphere pop culture. “That Americans can’t see Jerry Lewis’s genius is bewildering”, says N. T. Binh, a French film magazine critic. And such bewilderment, even as late as 2013, was the basis of the 2001 book, “Why the French Love Jerry Lewis,” by Rae Beth Gordon.
In 2009, Jerry Lewis traveled to the Cannes Film Festival to announce his return to cinema, after a 13-year absence, for the film Max Rose, his first leading role since Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. In early 2011, Lewis signed a deal with Artificial Intelligence Entertainment and Capital Films to remake three of his 1960s films: The Bellboy, Cinderfella and The Family Jewels, with Lewis serving as co-executive producer of the new films. Lewis directed a musical theatre version of The Nutty Professor at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville from July 31 to August 19, 2012. The book is by Rupert Holmes and the score is by Marvin Hamlisch. Lewis has signed for a starring role in the film Max Rose.
Jerry Lewis was portrayed by Emmy Award winner Sean Hayes (Will and Grace) in the 2002 made for television movie Martin and Lewis. The film focuses on Lewis’ partnership with Dean Martin (played by Jeremy Northam) and how they came to be a team. Hayes met Lewis during shooting of the televised film, and went on to receive a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries.