Jerry Lewis, the brilliant, sometimes divisive giant of comedy, died at his Las Vegas home Sunday morning at age 91. The news was first reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal and then confirmed by Lewis’s agent.
Tributes came in from all corners of the showbiz world, including those who worked alongside Lewis and who were inspired by him.
In a career that spanned nearly his entire life, Lewis played funnyman to Dean Martin; starred in, wrote, and directed the original Nutty Professor; and served as longtime host of TV’s most famous telethon.
Once Hollywood’s most bankable star, Lewis fronted more than 50 movies, from the light Martin-and-Lewis fare of Artists and Models to Martin Scorsese’s darkly funny The King of Comedy.
Born Joseph Levitch (or, per biographer Shawn Levy, Jerome Levitch) on March 16, 1926, in Newark, N.J., the future star was, like his idol, Charlie Chaplin, born into a show-business family. Lewis’s father was a Catskills entertainer; his mother, a pianist.
Lewis rated his first applause at 5. By the time he was a teenager, he had a full-fledged act, pantomiming his way through the popular songs of the day.
In 1946, Lewis, then 20, was playing an Atlantic City club when another act on the bill canceled. For a replacement, Lewis suggested a singer. His name: Dean Martin.
Onstage, Martin exuded slickness; Lewis acted like a monkey boy. Together they were were a hit. For a time, Martin and Lewis, as they were billed, were everywhere — TV, records, radio, and the movies. The duo cranked out 16 films in seven years.
After a red-hot decade together, the relationship cooled. Lewis became bent on becoming an auteur like Chaplin; Martin balked at being bossed around by the budding multihyphenate.
“I like the co-star but not the director, writer, and producer,” Martin sniped at the time.
After their 1956 split, the pair would reunite onstage just once, in 1976 at Lewis’s Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon. Mutual pal Frank Sinatra brokered the summit. Martin died in 1995.
“We loved one another more than any two men ever loved one another in their lives — period,” Lewis told the Toronto Sun.
Per conventional wisdom of the day, Lewis was the star of Martin and Lewis. And just as the pundits expected, Lewis was an immediate smash on his own, starring in and producing the 1957 hit The Delicate Delinquent.
The movie’s opening sequence was classic Lewis, depicting a 30-year-old grown man mugging and jutting around like a kid on a sugar high.
“He’s 9 years old. He’s forever,” Lewis once said of his movie persona.
As silly as it all looked, Lewis was dead serious about the work. He wrote, he produced, he directed — film after film after film, from The Bellboy to The Ladies Man to The Errand Boy. Behind the scenes, he was credited with improvising a video-playback machine to monitor his performances — a now-standard procedure on the movie set.