Bruce Haring reports: Jerry Lewis, one of Hollywood’s greatest slapstick comedians, a filmmaker of exceptional popularity and novelty, and a humanitarian who transformed the celebrity telethon into a massive fundraising tool, has died. He was 91 and died at 9:15 this morning at his home, surrounded by family, according to a family statement and his publicist, Candi Cazau.
“He had been slightly ill and spent some time in local hospitals,” according to Cazau, “but came home and was planning on making stage appearances in New York and Las Vegas.”
Lewis, whose partnership with crooner Dean Martin in the 1940s and 1950s was one of comedy’s most beloved teams, also conquered the casino entertainment culture of Las Vegas and built an international audience that, as so many punchlines would have it, made him a critical favorite in France long before he earned the respect of American cineastes.
Lewis had been in ill health in recent years and suffered a heart attack in 2006. He also had a long bout with pulmonary fibrosis, which caused his face and body to swell. But he continued to make public appearances, performing in Las Vegas as late as last year. His final film, Max Rose, was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013.
Lewis was one of the dominant figures in show business during the 1960s and 1970s. His comedy act with Martin made them one of the most successful teams of all time, and Lewis’ films following that break-up made him one of the top movie draws of the era. Such comedy classics as The Bellboy (1960) and The Nutty Professor (1963) were huge successes.
Lewis also is remembered for his Herculean efforts as the national chairman – and face of – the Muscular Dystrophy Association. For years, his Labor Day telethon marked the end of summer for many, and it helped raise close to $2.5 billion for research into the disease. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for those efforts. Lewis left the telethon in 2011, but his annual closing song, You’ll Never Walk Alone, became one of the indelible moments of those efforts.
“Labor Day is not the same,” said publicist Cazau on CNN. “Without Jerry Lewis, Labor Day Weekend just comes and goes.”
His international success, particularly in France, where he was revered as a comedy genius, was no less impressive. Lewis won eight “best director” awards in Europe, and was presented with the French Legion of Honor award in 1984.
With Martin, Lewis appeared in such films as The Caddy, The Stooge, Artists and Models and Pardners, all of them earning decently at the box office. Their last film together, Hollywood or Bust, came in 1956. Shortly thereafter, following an appearance at the Copacabana nightclub, the team split.
Lewis went on to develop a slick solo nightclub act, and made a million-selling single, Rock-a-Bye Your Baby. He later released several record albums.
His biggest film success was on the horizon. In 1961, The Ladies Man and The Errand Boy were hits, preceded by Cinderfella and followed by The Disorderly Orderly. A string of hits directed by Frank Tashlin marked Lewis’ most popular and prolific Hollywood period from the late 1950s through the mid-’60s, including Rock-A-Bye Baby, The Geisha Boy, Cinderfella, It’s Only Money, Who’s Minding the Store? and The Disorderly Orderly.
Certainly his biggest and most memorable film was 1963’s The Nutty Professor, in which Lewis transformed from nerd to the ultra-suave Buddy Love thanks to a lab-created chemical, a performance thought by many to be a parody of Lewis’ old partner, Martin. It grossed $19 million, a huge number in that era, and was later … (read more)