Jewish Comic & Hollywood Sur­vivor, Jerry Lewis, Dies at 91

The Jewish Voice - - ARTS AND CULTURE - By: Christy Lemire

Jerry Lewis epit­o­mized what it meant to be a sur­vivor in Hollywood. Through ups and downs in pop­u­lar­ity, health trou­bles and weight fluc­tu­a­tions and the sorts of seis­mic shifts that take place over decades in the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, Lewis al­ways fig­ured out a way to bat­tle back, to rein­vent him­self, to stay rel­e­vant. It's what en­dur­ing stars know how to do in­stinc­tively; per­haps it's that very drive that makes them stars in the first place.

Through it all, Lewis re­mained the con­sum­mate show­man, and his dis­tinc­tive comic legacy surely will con­tinue to sur­vive for decades to come. The manic, rub­ber-faced per­former who jumped and hollered to fame in a stage, ra­dio, TV and film part­ner­ship with Dean Martin, set­tled to be­come a self-con­scious au­teur in movies he wrote, pro­duced and di­rected, and found new fame as the tire­less, teary host of the an­nual mus­cu­lar dys­tro­phy telethons, died Sunday at home in Las Ve­gas sur­rounded by fam­ily. He was 91.

Lewis, who had bat­tled the lung dis­ease pul­monary fi­bro­sis, heart is­sues, a de­bil­i­tat­ing back prob­lem and ad­dic­tion to pain killers, died of nat­u­ral causes, ac­cord­ing to his pub­li­cist.

His ca­reer spanned the history of show busi­ness in the 20th cen­tury, be­gin­ning in his par­ents' vaude­ville act at the age of 5. He was just 20 when his pair­ing with Martin made them in­ter­na­tional stars. Af­ter their cold part­ing in 1956, Lewis made such fa­vorites as "The Bell­boy" and "The Nutty Pro­fes­sor," was fea­tured in Martin Scors­ese's "The King of Com­edy" and ap­peared as him­self in Billy Crys­tal's "Mr. Satur­day Night." In the 1990s, he scored a stage come­back as the devil in the Broad­way re­vival of "Damn Yan­kees."

In his 80s, he was still trav­el­ing the world, plan­ning to re­make some of his ear­lier movies and work­ing on a stage ver­sion of "The Nutty Pro­fes­sor." He was so ac­tive he would some­times for­get the ba­sics, like eat­ing, his as­so­ci­ates would re­call. In 2012, Lewis missed an awards cer­e­mony thrown by his beloved Fri­ars Club be­cause his blood su­gar dropped from lack of food and he had to spend the night in the hospi­tal.

In an in­ter­view with The As­so­ci­ated Press from 2016, Lewis, at 90 and pro­mot­ing the film "Max Rose," said he still woke up ev­ery day at 4:30 or 5 in the morn­ing to write, and he had a hand­ful of standup shows on the sched­ule.

Al­though a clear in­flu­ence on Jim Car­rey and other slap­stick per­form­ers, later gen­er­a­tions knew Lewis pri­mar­ily as the ring­mas­ter of the La­bor Day Mus­cu­lar Dys­tro­phy As­so­ci­a­tion, jok­ing and rem­i­nisc­ing and in­tro­duc­ing guests, shar­ing sto­ries about ail­ing kids and con­clud­ing with his per­sonal an­them, the bal­lad "You'll Never Walk Alone." From the 1960s on­ward, the telethons raised about $1.5 bil­lion. He an­nounced in 2011 that he would step down as host, but he would re­main chair­man of the as­so­ci­a­tion he joined some 60 years ago.

His fundrais­ing ef­forts won him the Jean Her­sholt Hu­man­i­tar­ian Award at the 2009 Os­car tele­cast, an honor he said "touches my heart and the very depth of my soul." But the telethon was also crit­i­cized for be­ing mawk­ish and ex­ploita­tive of chil­dren, known as "Jerry's Kids." A 1960s mus­cu­lar dys­tro­phy poster boy, Mike Ervin, later made a doc­u­men­tary called "The Kids Are All Al­right," in which he al­leged that Lewis and the Mus­cu­lar Dys­tro­phy As­so­ci­a­tion had treated him and oth­ers as ob­jects of pity rather than real peo­ple.

Re­sponded Lewis: "You don't want to be pitied be­cause you're a crip­ple in a wheel­chair, stay in your house!"

He was the clas­sic fun­ny­man who longed to play "Ham­let." He cried as hard as he laughed. He sassed and snarled at crit­ics and in­ter­view­ers who dis­pleased him. He pon­tif­i­cated on talk shows, lec­tured to col­lege stu­dents and com­piled his thoughts in the 1971 book "The To­tal Film-Maker."

"I be­lieve, in my own way, that I say some­thing on film. I'm get­ting to those who prob­a­bly don't have the men­tal­ity to un­der­stand what ... 'A Man for All Sea­sons' is all about, plus many who did un­der­stand it," he wrote. "I am not ashamed or em­bar­rassed at how seem­ingly trite or sac­cha­rine some­thing in my films will sound. I re­ally do make films for my great-great-grand­chil­dren and not for my fel­lows at the Screen Direc­tors Guild or for the crit­ics."

In his early movies, he played the kind of fel­lows who would have had no idea what the elder Lewis was talk­ing about: loose-limbed, buck-toothed, over­grown ado­les­cents, trou­ble-and in­clined to wail when be­set by en­e­mies. Amer­i­can crit­ics rec­og­nized the co­me­dian's pop­u­lar ap­peal but not his pre­ten­sions of higher art. Not the French. Writ­ing in Paris' Le Monde news­pa­per, Jac­ques Si­clier praised Lewis' "apish al­lure, his con­duct of a child, his gri­maces, his con­tor­tions, his mal­ad­just­ment to the world, his mor­bid fear of women, his way of dis­turb­ing or­der ev­ery­where he ap­peared."

The French gov­ern­ment awarded Lewis the Che­va­lier of the Le­gion of Honor in 1983 and Com­man­der of Arts and Let­ters the fol­low­ing year. Film critic An­drew Sar­ris ob­served: "The fact that Lewis lacks ver­bal wit on the screen doesn't par­tic­u­larly bother the French."

Lewis had teamed up with Martin af­ter World War II, and their ra­dio and stage an­tics de­lighted au­di­ences, al­though not im­me­di­ately. Their de­but, in 1946 at At­lantic City's 500 Club, was a bust. Warned by owner "Skinny" D'Amato that they might be fired, Martin and Lewis tossed the script and im­pro­vised their way into history. New York columnists Wal­ter Winchell and Ed Sul­li­van raved over the sexy singer and the berserk clown.

Hollywood pro­ducer Hal Wal­lis saw them at New York's Copaca­bana and signed them to a film con­tract. Martin and Lewis first ap­peared in sup­port­ing roles in, then they be­gan a hit se­ries of star­ring ve­hi­cles: "At War With the Army," ''That's My Boy," ''Sailor Be­ware," ''Jump­ing Jacks," ''The Stooge," ''The Caddy," ''Money From Home," ''Liv­ing It Up," ''Three Ring Cir­cus," ''You're Never Too Young," '' Artists and Mod­els," ''Pard­ners," ''Hollywood or Bust."

Jerry Lewis and his part­ner Dean Martin. The pair split in 1956 to go their own ways

Jerry Lewis as a young man. He was born and raised in New Jer­sey

Jerry Lewis in his later years

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.