Goodbye to Comedy Legend Jerry Lewis

August 21, 2017

The comedic genius and philanthropist Jerry Lewis died after a brief illness at the age of 91 on Sunday morning at his Las Vegas home. Celebrated as the master of slapstick, the New Jersey native entertained audiences over the course of decades while playing the zany and lovable fool.

Early on, while developing his comedic tool kit, Lewis would pantomime operatic and popular songs in a burlesque act in upstate New York where he also worked as a bellboy. But his gift really blossomed when he paired up with the handsome Italian crooner Dean Martin. The two aspiring talents met while performing as soloists at the same club in 1945. Within a year, they debuted their music-and-comedy act and it became an instant sensation. “Dean was the virile macho and I was the monkey. And I knew we had lightening in a barrel,” Lewis once reflected.

The duo performed in nightclubs like the Copacabana and became the hottest comedy team of the decade. It wasn’t long before they were signed with Paramount Pictures and starring in one box-office hit after another. Among their 17 films were My Friend IrmaThe Caddy, and The Stooge. But ten years of performing together took its toll on Lewis and Martin’s relationship. As a result, they ended their partnership in 1956.

Soon after their breakup, Lewis was overcome with self-doubt, wondering if he could succeed as a solo performer. But the multitalented star soon emerged as an innovative moviemaker of comedy classics including the hit film The Bellboy which he wrote, directed, and starred in. On top of it, Lewis pioneered the use of a video assist system to enable him to view the action even though he was performing in the scene. The system is widely regarded as the precursor to today’s video assist technology. Another popular movie from this time period is The Nutty Professor which is largely considered to be Lewis’ finest and most memorable film.

Over the next several years, Lewis acted in or directed many shows but waned in popularity with American audiences. However, the comedian was renowned in France, receiving the Legion of Honor award in 1984–the country’s highest tribute. Additionally, Martin Scorsese cast Lewis as a kidnapped talk show host in the 1983 film The King of Comedy. Although the film was a box-office flop, many critics praised the film.

Lewis is respected as a rare talent who managed to maintain creative control over his work even when signed with Paramount Pictures and other studios. Moreover, he is celebrated for his devotion to raising awareness for the devastating disease Muscular Dystrophy. Indeed, he reportedly helped raise over $2.4 billion for the Muscular Dystrophy Association via annual Labor Day telethons over four decades. The children he sought to help came to be known as “Jerry’s Kids.”

Jerry himself long endured significant physical afflictions including prostate cancer, type-one diabetes, pulmonary fibrosis, heart disease, ulcers, and a 13-year dependency on painkillers after a spinal injury in 1965. “You better laugh at it because the alternative is not funny,” the comic once shared.

Lewis is the father of six sons and one daughter, and was married twice– first to Patti Palmer and then SanDee Pitnick.

His advice to performers: “Be a hit. Score. Get the audience laughing and happy. That’s the secret of success in this business.”

Robert De Niro, Samuel L. Jackson, William Shatner, Margaret Cho, and Whoopi Goldberg are among the long list of celebrities who expressed their affection and sadness after hearing of Lewis’ passing. It’s clear to see that audiences, fellow performers, and the Muscular Dystrophy Association alike were profoundly touched by Jerry Lewis.

Rest in peace, Jerry.