Jerry Lewis, the comedian and filmmaker who was adored by many, disdained by others, but unquestionably a defining figure of American entertainment in the 20th century, died on Sunday morning at his home in Las Vegas. He was 91. His death was confirmed by his publicist, Candi Cazau.
Mr. Lewis knew success in movies, on television, in nightclubs, on the Broadway stage and in the university lecture hall. His career had its ups and downs, but when it was at its zenith there were few stars any bigger. And he got there remarkably quickly. Barely out of his teens, he shot to fame shortly after World War II with a nightclub act in which the rakish, imperturbable Dean Martin crooned and the skinny, hyperactive Mr. Lewis capered around the stage, a dangerously volatile id to Mr. Martin’s supremely relaxed ego. After his break with Mr. Martin in 1956, Mr. Lewis went on to a successful solo career, eventually writing, producing and directing many of his own films. As a spokesman for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Mr. Lewis raised vast sums for charity; as a filmmaker of great personal force and technical skill, he made many contributions to the industry, including the invention in 1960 of a device — the video assist, which allowed directors to review their work immediately on the set — still in common use.
Jerry Lewis was born on March 16, 1926, in Newark. Most sources, including his 1982 autobiography, “Jerry Lewis: In Person,” give his birth name as Joseph Levitch. But Shawn Levy, author of the exhaustive 1996 biography “King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis,” unearthed a birth record that gave his first name as Jerome. In 1944 — a 4F classification kept him out of the war — he was performing at the Downtown Theater in Detroit when he met Patti Palmer, a 23-year-old singer. Three months later they were married, and on July 31, 1945, while Patti was living with Jerry’s parents in Newark and he was performing at a Baltimore nightclub, she gave birth to the first of the couple’s six sons, Gary, who in the 1960s had a series of hit records with his band Gary Lewis and the Playboys. The couple divorced in 1980.
Between his first date with Ms. Palmer and the birth of his first son, Mr. Lewis had met Dean Martin, a promising young crooner from Steubenville, Ohio. The two men made many appearances on early live television, their first on the June 20, 1948, debut broadcast of Toast of the Town on CBS (later officially renamed The Ed Sullivan Show on September 25, 1955). This was followed on October 3, 1948, by an appearance on the NBC series Welcome Aboard, then a stint as the first of a series of hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1950. Just before appearing on The Colgate Comedy Hour, Lewis hired Norman Lear and Ed Simmons to become regular writers for the Martin and Lewis bits. The duo began their Paramount film careers as ensemble players in My Friend Irma (1949), based on the popular radio series of the same name. This was followed by a sequel My Friend Irma Goes West (1950).
Starting with At War with the Army (1950), Martin and Lewis were the stars of their own vehicles in fourteen additional titles, That’s My Boy (1951), Sailor Beware (1952), Jumping Jacks (1952; also appearing in the Crosby and Hope film, Road to Bali as cameos), The Stooge (1952), Scared Stiff (1953), The Caddy (1953), Money from Home (1953), Living It Up (1954), 3 Ring Circus (1954), You’re Never Too Young (1955), Artists and Models (1955) and Pardners (1956) at Paramount, ending with Hollywood or Bust (1956). All sixteen movies were produced by Hal B. Wallis. Attesting to the comedy team’s popularity, DC Comics published the best-selling The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comics from 1952 to 1957. As Martin’s roles in their films became less important over time, the partnership came under strain. Martin’s participation became an embarrassment in 1954 when Look magazine published a publicity photo of the team for the magazine cover but cropped Martin out. The partnership ended on July 24, 1956.
Lewis remained at Paramount and became a comedy star in his own right with his first film as a solo comic, The Delicate Delinquent (1957). Meanwhile, DC Comics published a new comic book series titled The Adventures of Jerry Lewis, running from 1957 to 1971. 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, The Sad Sack (1957), Rock-A-Bye Baby (1958), The Geisha Boy (1958), Don’t Give Up The Ship (1959) and even appeared uncredited as Itchy McRabbitt in Li’l Abner (1959). By the end of his contract with producer Hal B. Wallis, Lewis had several productions of his own under his belt. 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, Lewis finished his contract with Wallis with Visit to a Small Planet (1960) and wrapped up work on his own production Cinderfella, which 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.
Lewis came up with The Bellboy (1960). Lewis followed The Bellboy by directing several more films that he co-wrote with Richmond while some were directed by Tashlin, including The Ladies Man(1961), The Errand Boy (1961), It’s Only Money (1962) and The Nutty Professor (1963). Lewis did a cameo appearance in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). Further on, more Lewis films were Who’s Minding the Store? (1963), The Patsy (1964) and The Disorderly Orderly (1964). Also in 1961, Lewis guest starred in an episode of The Garry Moore Show. Lewis hosted two different versions of The Jerry Lewis Show (a 1963 lavish, big-budget 13-week show for ABC and a 1967 one-hour variety show for NBC). Lewis directed and co-wrote The Family Jewels (1965) 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. Lewis would next appear in Boeing Boeing (1965).
Also in 1965, Lewis made television appearances on Ben Casey, The Andy Williams Show and Hullabaloo. Lewis packed up and went to Columbia Pictures, where he made Three On A Couch (1966), then appeared in Way…Way Out (1966) for 20th Century Fox. During 1966, Lewis guest starred in Batman, Password and in a pilot for Sheriff Who. Lewis continued with more movies, such as The Big Mouth (1967) and Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968). He continued to act in the 70s but didn’t appear in a film for 11 years returned to film in Hardly Working (1981), a movie in which he both directed and starred. Despite being panned by critics, it eventually earned $50 million. Lewis next appeared in Martin Scorsese’s film The King of Comedy (1983). Lewis guest hosted SNL and also appeared in Cracking Up a.k.a. Smorgasbord (1983) and Slapstick (Of Another Kind) (1984). In France, Lewis starred in both To Catch a Cop a.k.a. The Defective Detective (1984) and How Did You Get In? We Didn’t See You Leave (1984).
In 2012, Lewis directed a musical theatre version of The Nutty Professor at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville from July 31 to August 19 over the summer. In Brazil, Lewis appeared in Till Luck Do Us Part 2 (2013). He then next starred in a small role in the crime drama The Trust (2016). Lewis made a comeback in a lead role in Max Rose (2016). Lewis was married twice: Patti Palmer, a former singer with Ted Fio Rito; married October 3, 1944, divorced September 1980; SanDee Pitnick; married February 13, 1983; a 32-year-old Las Vegas dancer; married in Key Biscayne, Florida. He had six sons (one adopted) and one daughter (adopted).