Jerry Lewis (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 for his charity fund-raising telethons and position as national chairman for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA).
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 theAcademy 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 fifteen 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 left high school, Irvington High School, in Irvington, New Jersey, in the tenth grade. During World War IIhe was rejected for military service because of a heart murmur.
Teaming with Dean Martin
Main article: Martin and Lewis
Lewis initially gained fame with singer Dean Martin, who served as straight man to Lewis's 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 Townwith 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 Lewis was sometimes featured with Superman, Batman, and various other DC heroes and villains. It inspired the Filmation cartoons 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 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 byFrank Sinatra.
The pair eventually reconciled in the late 1980s after the death of Martin's son, Dean Paul Martin. The two men were seen together on stage in Las Vegas when Lewis pushed out Dean's birthday cake and sang "Happy Birthday" to him. In Lewis's 2005 book Dean and Me (A Love Story), Lewis wrote of his kinship with Martin, who died in 1995.
Main article: Jerry Lewis filmography and television appearances
1950s to 1970s
After the split from Martin, Lewis remained at Paramount and became a major comedy star with his first film as a solo comic, The Delicate Delinquent (1957). Teaming with directorFrank 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, 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, 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. 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. 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 asvideo assist.
In The Nutty Professor
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, 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. Lewis and his popular movie characters were animated in the Filmation cartoon series,Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please Sit Down. First aired on ABC in 1970, it lasted only one season and eighteen episodes. The show starred David Lander (Laverne & Shirley) as the voice of the animated Lewis character. A test of a syndicated talk show for Metromedia in 1984 was not continued beyond the scheduled five shows.
By 1966, 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.
Stage work and recent decades
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).
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'sFunny 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, Northfeatured 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.
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 2006, Lewis first announced plans for a stage musical adaptation of his 1963 film, The Nutty Professor. In 2008, in an interview on Melbourne radio, Lewis said he had signed composer Marvin Hamlisch and dramatist Rupert Holmes to write the show. In 2009, 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.
On May 16, 2011, the MDA announced that the 2011 edition of its annual telethon would be Lewis' last as emcee. After hosting the annual event since 1954, he was to continue serving as the association's national chairman. Soon afterward, however, Lewis denied that he was leaving the telethon at all, but on August 3, 2011, the MDA announced that Lewis resigned as chairman and telethon host, the circumstances leading to his resignation unknown. Lewis made no appearance on the 2011 MDA Telethon.
The musical version of The Nutty Professor was scheduled for a pre-Broadway tryout to open in Nashville on July 24, 2012 and played for seven weeks. Lewis is directing, with music by Hamlisch and book and lyrics by Holmes. The cast is to be headed by Michael Andrew, Klea Blackhurst and Mark Jacoby.
It was announced in January 2013 that Lewis signed for a starring role in the film Max Rose.
Lewis was portrayed by Emmy Award winner Sean Hayes (Will and Grace) in the 2002 made for television movie Martin and Lewis. The film depicts Lewis' partnership with Dean Martin (played by Jeremy Northam). Hayes met Lewis during shooting of the televised film, and went on to receive a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for best actor.
Lewis has been married twice:
- Patti Palmer (née Esther Calonico), 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. They were married in Key Biscayne, Florida; Lewis was 56.
He has six sons (one adopted) and one adopted daughter:
- Gary Harold Lee Levitch was born on July 31, 1945 to Lewis and Patti Palmer. Gary Levitch's name was subsequently legally changed to Gary Lewis. As a 1960s pop musician, Gary Lewis had a string of hits with his group Gary Lewis & the Playboys.
- Ronald Steven "Ronnie" Lewis; born December 1949 (adopted) with Patti Palmer
- Scott Anthony Lewis; born February 22, 1956 to Patti Palmer
- Christopher Joseph Lewis; born October 1957 to Patti Palmer
- Anthony Joseph Lewis; born October 1959 to Patti Palmer
- Joseph Christopher Lewis; born January 1964 to Patti Palmer, died October 24, 2009 from a narcotics overdose.
- Danielle Sara Lewis (daughter); adopted March 1992 with SanDee Pitnick.
Lewis has suffered from a variety of illnesses and addictions related both to aging and a back injury sustained in a comedic pratfall from a piano while performing at the Sands Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip on March 20, 1965.
The accident almost left him paralyzed. In its aftermath Lewis became addicted to the pain killer Percodan for some thirteen years.He says he has been off the drug since 1978 and has not taken one since. In April 2002, Lewis had a Medtronic "Synergy"neurostimulator implanted in his back, which has helped reduce the discomfort. He is now one of the company's leading spokespeople.
It is claimed Lewis suffered his first heart attack while filming Cinderfella in 1960. In December 1982, Lewis was felled by a serious heart attack. En route home to San Diego from New York City on a cross-country commercial airline flight he endured a minor heart attack on June 11, 2006. It was then discovered that he had pneumonia as well as a severely damaged heart. He underwent a cardiac catheterization and two stents were inserted into one of his coronary arteries, which had become 90% blocked. The surgery resulted in a return of blood flow to his heart and has allowed him to continue his rebound from earlier lung problems. Having the cardiac catheterization also meant canceling several major events from his schedule, but Lewis fully recuperated in a matter of weeks.
In 1999, his Australian tour was cut short when he had to be hospitalized in Darwin with viral meningitis. He was ill for more than five months. It was reported in the Australian press that he had failed to pay his medical bills; however, Lewis maintained that the payment confusion was the fault of his health insurer. The resulting negative publicity caused him to sue his insurer for US$100 million.
Lewis has had prostate cancer, type 1 diabetes, pulmonary fibrosis, and a decades long history of heart disease.Prednisone treatment in the early 2000s for pulmonary fibrosis resulted in weight gain and a noticeable change in his appearance.
In September 2001, Lewis was unable to perform at a planned London charity event. Some months thereafter, Lewis began an arduous, months-long therapy which weaned him off prednisone and enabled him to return to work.
On June 12, 2012, he was treated and released from a hospital after collapsing from hypoglycemia at a New York Friars' Club event. This latest health news forced him to cancel a show in Sydney.
Throughout his career, Lewis has supported fundraising for research into muscular dystrophy. From the early 1950s until 2011, he served as national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). Lewis began hosting telethons to benefit MDA in 1952. From 1966 to 2010 he hosted the annual Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon, since renamed theMDA Show of Strength. It has raised over $2.6 billion. On August 3, 2011, it was announced that Lewis would no longer host any further telethons.
Jerry Lewis Cinemas
From 1969 to 1980, the National Cinema Corp. franchised "Jerry Lewis Cinemas" as a business opportunity for those interested in theatrical movie exhibition. A harbinger of the cookie-cutter "cineplex" type movie theaters that would become popular in the 1970s, a Jerry Lewis Cinema was billed in franchising ads as a "mini-theatre" with a seating capacity of between 200 and 350. Though billed as "luxurious and plush", the actual theaters were not luxurious, but not bare-bones, either. Jerry Lewis Cinemas stated that the theater could be operated by as little as a staff of two due to automation and the fact that the franchisor would provide support in booking films and help in other areas of film exhibition.
National Franchise Corp. successfully wooed Lewis to provide his name and star-power to the franchising operation. As well as bearing his name, each Jerry Lewis Cinema bore a sign with a cartoon logo of Lewis in profile. The theaters were pitched to investors that were not movie exhibition veterans, pitching owning a movie theater as a "mom and pop" operation.
There initially were 158 territories that were franchised, with a buy-in fee of $10,000 or $15,000, depending on the territory, for what was called an "individual exhibitor". For $50,000, the Jerry Lewis Cinemas offered an opportunity known as an "area director" in which the investor not only was given their own cinema, but controlled franchising opportunities in a territory.
The success of the chain was hampered by the chain's policy of only booking second-run, family friendly films. Eventually, the policy was changed, and the Jerry Lewis Cinemas were allowed to run other, more competitive fare, but after a decade, the chain failed. Both Lewis and National Cinema Corp. declared bankruptcy in 1980.