Jerry Lewis, the comedian, actor, director, and telethon star whose legendary film run in the 1960s included classics like The Nutty Professor, died Sunday morning at the age of 91, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The Las Vegas Review-Journal’s John Katsilometes broke the news on Twitter:
Lewis was born Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jersey, in 1926. His parents were both in entertainment, and he followed in their footstpes, dropping out of high school to pursue stand-up. But his act didn’t take off until he partnered with singer Dean Martin in 1946. Martin and Lewis—Martin playing the straight man to Lewis’ madcap antics—were an immediate and extraordinary hit on the nightclub circuit and parlayed that into a contract with Paramount. After playing supporting roles in 1949’s My Friend Irma, the duo headlined 16 films together, including memorable collaborations with former Warner Bros. animator-turned-director Frank Tashlin like 1955’s Artists and Models.
Martin & Lewis had an acrimonious split in 1956, leading Lewis to launch a solo film career at Paramount. He worked with Tashlin on hits like Who’s Minding the Store and Rock-a-Bye Baby in the late 1950s, then made the jump to directing with 1960’s The Bellboy, cooked up in a month to fill a hole in Paramount’s release schedule. In 1963, Lewis directed The Nutty Professor, a riff on Jekyll and Hyde in which Lewis’ character drinks a potion that turns him into a Casanova who bears more than a little resemblance to his former partner.
Lewis’ career hit the downslope in the late 1960s as his manic comedy fell out of fashion. The nadir was probably The Day the Clown Cried, an unreleased drama Lewis directed and starred in in 1972 in which he plays a washed-up circus clown who ends up entertaining Jewish children at Auschwitz. Originally (and still) legally unreleasable due to wrangling over the rights, Lewis eventually became embarrassed by what he called his “bad work” in the film, telling one interviewer, “You’ll never see it and neither will anyone else.” The Library of Congress reportedly has a copy, which was donated under the condition that it not be screened until 2025. Even as his U.S. box office returns declined, his work remained consistently popular in France, which became a bit of a running joke (and led to him being awarded the French Legion of Honor in 1984).
In 1982, he showed new depths as a dramatic actor in Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy. Playing a talk-show host being pursued by a pair of celebrity-obsessed stalkers, Lewis held his own against Robert De Niro in a criticallyn acclaimed performance. His late career was a hodgepodge of guest spots, theater, and occasional television directing, including a recurring role on Wiseguy. But while he inspired a generation of young male comedians, Lewis was less of a role model to women, proclaiming in 1998 that he didn’t like any female comedians, not even Lucille Ball, because he thought of women as “a producing machine that brings babies into the world,” a position he walked back only slightly in later years.
One constant throughout Lewis’ career was his work for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, hosting their annual Labor Day telethon from 1955 before being unceremoniously pushed out in 2011. He raised almost 2.5 billion dollars for the organization over his tenure there. He was married twice and is survived by five sons from his first marriage and a daughter from his second.