Jerry Lewis, one of Hollywood’s most famous comedians, died Sunday at the age of 91. His death was first reported by Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John Katsilometes and confirmed by his publicist, Candi Cazau.
A class clown from an early age, Lewis got his big break as one-half of a legendary comedy duo with Dean Martin, entertaining the crowd with his slapstick antics that often spilled out into the audience while Martin reacted as the straight man of the pair. From 1948 to 1956, Martin and Lewis appeared together in 16 comedy films produced by Paramount, including “My Friend Irma,” “At War With the Army” and “Scared Stiff.” The pair quietly but acrimoniously split after making “Hollywood or Bust” in 1956, and would not be seen together on screen or TV for another 20 years.
Lewis’ death comes just two weeks before Labor Day, when he hosted his annual Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon from 1966 to 2010 and raised over $2 billion for the charity group. It was during that telethon that Lewis famously reunited with Martin in 1976 in a surprise encounter arranged by Frank Sinatra. The two reconciled after the death of Martin’s son and made their final appearance together in 1989 at what would be Martin’s final live show in Las Vegas, where Lewis brought out a giant birthday cake to celebrate Martin’s 72nd birthday.
“MDA would not be the organization it is today if it were not for Jerry’s tireless efforts on behalf of ‘his kids,’” said MDA Chairman of the Board R. Rodney Howell in a statement Sunday. “His enthusiasm for finding cures for neuromuscular disease was matched only by his unyielding commitment to see the fight through to the end. Jerry’s love, passion and brilliance are woven throughout this organization, which he helped build from the ground up.”
In his solo career, Lewis made his directorial debut in 1960 with “The Bellboy,” a plotless film that starred him as a hotel bellboy named Stanley who gets into a series of slapstick-filled mishaps. He went on to direct 12 more films from 1961 to 1983, the most famous being “The Nutty Professor” in 1963, a parody of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” In it, Lewis played a timid academic named Prof. Julius Kelp, who developed a serum that transformed him a handsome but callous womanizer named Buddy Love. The film was the biggest hit of his career, grossing $19 million ($152 million in 2017) and inspiring a 1996 remake starring Eddie Murphy for which Lewis served as executive producer.
While Lewis became a comedy icon on screen, he was surrounded by controversy off screen. During the 2007 MDA Telethon, Lewis was met with backlash after he made a gay slur on-air, forcing him to make an apology afterwards. In his later years, audiences began bristling at his politically incorrect jokes during his stand-up acts, and even his telethon wasn’t exempt from criticism. In 2005, disability rights activist Mike Ervin released a half-hour documentary called “The Kids Are Alright” that criticized Lewis for portraying kids with muscular dystrophy as “pitiable victims who want and need nothing more than a big charity to take care of them.” Ervin himself was one of “Jerry’s Kids” during the telethon’s early years.
In his later years, he became more open about his conservative views, opposing the admission of Syrian refugees into the U.S. and supporting Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, saying that “he’s a showman and we’ve never had a showman in the president’s chair.”
Despite the controversy, Lewis has been honored worldwide for his humanitarian and cultural achievements. In 2005, he received the Primetime Emmys’ Governor’s Award for his work on the MDA Telethon, and has also received honors from the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals. He received the Jean Hersholt Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2009 and had his handprints added to the entrance of the Chinese Theatre in 2014.
In 2006, Lewis was inducted into France’s Legion d’Honneur on his 80th birthday and made the attendees laugh by pretending to fall asleep during the ceremony while Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres gave a 20 minute speech. Lewis’ work has earned a huge cult following in France, with French critics hailing his comedic talents at a time when their American counterparts were more lukewarm towards him. This foreign popularity became so ubiquitous that it was the subject of a 2001 book by Rae Beth Gordon titled “Why the French Love Jerry Lewis.” His final film, “Max Rose,” screened at Cannes in 2013.
Lewis has been plagued by illness, including heart disease, prostate cancer and diabetes. A pratfall off a piano while performing in Las Vegas in 1965 led to back problems that nearly paralyzed him and was the beginning of a 13-year addiction to the painkiller Percodan. He also had a heart condition that resulted in a heart attack during the filming of “Cinderfella” in 1960, another in 1982 and a third minor one in 2006. At that time, two stents were inserted into one of his coronary arteries, which was 90 percent blocked. After being diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, he was prescribed Prednisone, which resulted in a noticeable weight gain and puffiness to his face.
Lewis passed away at 9:15 AM Sunday morning at his home in Las Vegas. He is survived by his second wife, SanDee Pitnick, with whom he adopted a daughter.