American comedian Jerry Lewis is fondly remembered by fans for on-screen slapstick humor and charity fundraising telethon. Lewis, now a victim of muscular dystrophy, shared a successful on-screen presence with legendary singer and actor Dean Martin.
Actor, comedian Jerry Lewis is perhaps the only artist in film history to generate quite so many conflicting opinions and emotions. He was worshiped as a genius in France and throughout much of Europe but often reviled in his native United States. Lewis took slapstick comedy to new realms of absurdity and outrageousness like no other artist the world over. Jerry Lewis, the Hollywood actor, director, film producer, and singer has bagged several Lifetime Achievement Awards from associations like ‘The Golden Camera’ and ‘Los Angeles Film Critics’. His on-screen and off-screen charisma has earned him two stars on the ‘Hollywood Walk of Fame’.
Early Life and Career
Joseph Levitch was born in 1926, in Newark, New Jersey. His parents, Daniel Levitch and Rachel Levitch (née Brodsky), were of Russian Jewish ancestry. Joseph took the screen name of Jerry Lewis after his father’s adopted name ‘Danny Lewis’, as a vaudeville entertainer. His mother was a part of the entertainment business too. Rachel Levitch was a piano player and noted musical arrangement performer. Jerry Lewis gave his first stage performance at the age of five. By the time he was fifteen, he had his own Record Act. He was adept at miming operatic and popular song lyrics.
The Jerry Lewis manic earned popularity worldwide when he teamed up with singer Dean Martin, to mellow his zany antics. The Martin and Lewis comedy team was an audience delight, with synchronized interaction that triggered non-stop laughter. The duo enjoyed national prominence all through the 1940s. They were extensively signed up for nightclub acts, radio programs, live television shows and a string of Paramount successes.
The team’s popularity was immortalized in ‘The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’, published by DC Comics between 1952 and 1957. However, the partnership came to a sorry end as Martin’s roles in their releases became negligible. The partnership officially ended on July 25, 1956. Thereafter, ‘The Adventures of Jerry Lewis’ made it to the stands until 1971. The pair did reconcile in the late 1980s. Some of their films together include:
- Living It Up (1954)
- You’re Never Too Young (1955)
- Hollywood or Bust (1956)
- Artists and Models (1955)
- The Caddy (1953)
- Scared Stiff (1953)
- At War With the Army (1950)
- Pardners (1956)
- My Friend Irma (1949)
Lewis continued as Paramount’s comedy star after the split from Martin. Some of his solo films include:
- The Delicate Delinquent (1957)
- Rock-A-Bye Baby (1958)
- The Geisha Boy (1958)
- Itchy McRabbitt in Lil Abner (1959)
- Visit to a Small Planet (1960)
- The Bellboy (1960)
- The Ladies Man (1961)
- The Errand Boy (1961)
- It’s Only Money (1962)
- The Nutty Professor (1963)
- Who’s Minding the Store? (1963)
- The Patsy (1964)
- The Day the Clown Cried (1972)
Lewis’ singing career highlights include:
- Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody
- It All Depends on You
Life beyond the Silver Screen
Jerry Lewis is known in the Hollywood film industry for innovation and style. He is credited with developing the technique of using video cameras and circuit monitors to view scenes being filmed. This technique has now become a film industry standard that is referred to as ‘video assist’. Jerry Lewis taught film direction at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, for many years and played mentor to one such famous student of the University, George Lucas. Throughout his career, Lewis has supported fundraising for research into muscular dystrophy.
From 1966 to 2010 he hosted the annual Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon, which has raised over $2.6 billion. In May, the MDA announced that Lewis would make his final appearance at the annual telethon as emcee in the 2011 edition. Though he made no appearance, live or recorded, on the 2011 MDA Telethon. Lewis has been married twice and has six sons and one adopted daughter, he lives in Las Vegas.
Awards and Recognition
His achievements have earned him the following awards:
- Special Photoplay Award (1952)
- Most Cooperative Actor, Golden Apple Award (1954)
- Golden Laurel, Special Award – Family Comedy King (1965)
- Lifetime Achievement Award, American Comedy Awards (1997)
- Career Achievement Award, Los Angeles Film Critics Association (2004)
- Governors Award, Primetime Emmy Awards (2005)
- Satellite Award for Outstanding Guest Star on TV’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2006)
- Induction into New Jersey’s Hall of Fame (2009)
- Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 81st Academy Awards (2009)
- Received Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Chapman University during the 2010 MDA Telethon (2010)
- Recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor (2011)
Lewis suffered an injury that almost left him paralyzed when he did a comedic pratfall on March 20, 1965 while performing at The Sands Hotel, subsequently he has endured years of back pain. His excessive lifestyle and cardiac problems have taken a toll and today, a victim of muscular dystrophy, Jerry Lewis continues to use his art to contribute to the Muscular Dystrophy Association through the proceeds of the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon. Whatever the opinion, Jerry Lewis as the writer, director, and producer of many of his features, was not only one of the biggest stars of the postwar era but also one of the most powerful. He qualified as a comic auteur firmly in the tradition of Chaplin and Keaton.