To a younger generation of filmgoers Jerry Lewis means very little and was probably better known for his telethons which raised enormous sums of money but his cheerful charity fundraising was often at odds with his private self but in his day he was a huge comedy film star
Born on 16th March 1926 his parents both worked in showbusiness and the family name of Levitch was changed to Lewis and his stage debut was at the age of 5 singing in a hotel as his parents were frequently on the road as they travelled round the US doing shows. He went to High School in New Jersey where he was a bit of a class joker frequently using humour to get attention and by 15 he was singing mock opera and popular songs for laughs and was booked to perform in a burlesque house in Buffalo. But by 1942 he was trying out a routine he had developed in a hotel where he also had a job as a bellboy and at the time another comic saw him do some of the routine and got Lewis some bookings and went on to become his manager.
But it was in 1946 that his career was to really start to take off when he met a New York singer Dean Martin and they were paired up. By 1949 they had come to the attention of the studios they started appearing in films together until 1956 making a dozen unsophisticated comic films with Martin as the smooth talking ladies man and Lewis as the hapless half wit friend. The films did good box office and Paramount, the studio who made the films, had invested good money on decent production values. Several of the films were loose remakes of the studios films with Lewis usually playing what had been the female role but this time for laughs. Ultimately though unsurprisingly the pair grew irritated with each other and the films gradually were less impressive than the last with ‘Hollywood or Bust’ being their last together appearing at the Copacabana club in Vegas before finally going their separate ways. Lewis continued to work in Vegas filling in for an ill Judy Garland and here he developed a far more sophisticated persona than had been seen in his films with Martin. He would continue to play Vegas in various formats right up until 2016.
He returned to films where he would write, produce and direct having signed a huge deal with Paramount again with his films which included Cinderfella & The Nutty Professor which were huge box office hits. It was to be his biggest but last real notable success for quite some years and the story of a nerdy professor turning into a smooth lounge lizard was perceived by many as a dig at Martin something which Lewis was at pains to deny for years afterwards. He signed to Columbia where he made several quickly forgotten films and Lewis acknowledged that his frantic style was polarizing audiences who were now either finding him funny or just dreadful.
But whilst America started to tire of him and family audiences started to dissipate the French embraced him with several of their respected film journals keen to sing his praises. Lewis was aware that he couldn’t play a daft, nerdy adolescent forever and started to distance himself from those roles towards romantic comedies but by 1972 Lewis made a film that was to become notorious for the rest of his life. ‘The Day the Clown Cried’ was always going to be controversial following Lewis as a clown who would tried to entertain and distract the children in a Nazi concentration camp as they filed in to the gas chambers. Even in the most sensitive of hands this was an awkward subject to film. The film was completed and Lewis, who had total directorial control over the film, immediately shelved it and for the next 45 years it was never seen by anyone and it’s thought that only one copy of the completed film exists which is in the US Library of Congress. Quite whether the film will ever be screened remains to be seen.
The 70s saw both Lewis health and career deteriorate but he started working in TV fronting a telethon raising funds for muscular dystrophy. It was a job that he would refuse to accept payment to present right up until 2010 when he was relieved of the job after making a homophobic comment in the 2007 show and followed it in subsequent years with some racist and misogynist jokes and his increasingly right wing views put him further out of touch with audiences who had moved on.
Throughout the 70s he’d had a number of setbacks. Having lent his name to 200 movie theatres he found the company go bankrupt two years later. A self imposed heavy work schedule led to a nervous breakdown and painkiller addiction and by 1982 his heavy smoking led to major heart surgery. He had been offscreen until 1979 when the ironically titled ‘Hardly Working’ which he also directed came out……and disappeared again having been a flop. But by now he had caught the eye of a major director who was really hitting his stride. Martin Scorsese, made the most of Lewis bluff public persona which had come to the attention of his fans and cast him as a talk show host kidnapped by Robert De Niro’s deluded stand up comic. It was a superb though under rated film and gave Lewis possibly one of his best ever roles though it was rumoured that he resented DeNiro getting so much attention rather than himself. But that was probably the last career high for him as he went on to make a number of other films in far less impressive roles even providing a voice in The Simpsons TV series.
In 1983 he married for a second time with whom he had a daughter. He had five sons from his first marriage one of which had tragically died before he did.
He understandably longed to repeat his earlier successes and to that end he worked on a sequel to The Nutty Professor until Universal remade the film with Eddie Murphy but crediting Lewis as an executive producer. His 1963 version did briefly make it to theatre but only for 7 weeks in Nashville and never made it to Broadway. His long cherished script for the film ‘Max Rose’ came out in 2014 where he played a widowed jazz pianist but again no one was falling over themselves to see it which, though it fared well at Cannes, sat on the shelf until finally released to a limited number of theatres.
He lived in Vegas where he continued to play the occasional night clubs but on 27th August he passed away whilst in bed at home.