Comedy legend Jerry Lewis, whose storied career extended to nearly every facet of Hollywood, has died at the age of 91. The veteran star passed away Sunday morning at his home in Las Vegas, a representative for his family confirmed to The Associated Press.
Born in Newark, New Jersey on March 16, 1926, Lewis grew up in a family of entertainers. His father, Daniel Levitch, was a vaudeville entertainer, who worked under the professional stage name, Danny Lewis, alongside his wife, Rachel “Rae” Levitch, who performed as a piano player at a radio station. By the age of five, Lewis was performing alongside his parents in the Catskill Mountains of New York. Not surprisingly, his act would extend to his off-stage personality, a troublemaker at heart that would eventually drop out of high school by the tenth grade.
After making the rounds across the New York club scene, Lewis would go on to meet Dean Martin in 1945 at Glass Hat Club, where they both were performing. Together, the two would forge an incredibly successful creative partnership, the likes of which would extend to radio, television, and films over the course of a decade. Sadly, their creative collaboration would lead to a particularly acrimonious breakup, despite bringing both parties monumental success as they went solo in their respective careers.
For Lewis, he would go on to become Paramount Pictures’ most lucrative artist, landing them No. 1 movies all throughout the early to mid-’60s. As director, writer, and star, Lewis would deliver such hits as 1960’s The Bellboy, 1961’s The Ladies Man, 1963’s The Nutty Professor, 1964’s The Patsy, and 1965’s The Family Jewels. That’s to say nothing about his successful recording career, notably his 1956 Billboard-charting album Just Sing, or his myriad television appearances, ranging from What’s My Line? to The Jerry Lewis Show to Batman to Playboy After Dark.
Although his career waned in the late ’60s, Lewis remained quite a workhorse, working in a variety of formats, including academia. In fact, in 1968, he taught a film directing course at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, in which he students included Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. He even screened one of Spielberg’s earliest films, Amblin’, and told the rest of the students, “That’s what filmmaking is about.”
Save for a few projects, the likes of which included the controversial 1972 film, The Day the Clown Cried, aka a drama set inside a Nazi concentration camp that was infamously shelved, Lewis remained quiet throughout the’70s. His great return, however, came with 1981’s Hardly Working, which he both starred in and directed. Despite being panned by critics, the film managed to earn $50 million at the box office. Two years later, he followed that appearance up with an essential role in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, starring alongside Robert De Niro.
From there, Lewis would go on to guest host Saturday Night Live and appear in a number of other films and television shows. By 1995, he would make his Broadway debut with a revival of the musical Damn Yankees in which he played the devil for what was reported to be the highest sum in Broadway history at the time. Later, during the aughts, he guest starred as Professor Frink’s father in a 2003 episode of The Simpsons and curiously appeared in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 2006.
More recently, Lewis had adapted a stage version of The Nutty Professor for Nashville’s Tennessee Performing Arts Center, which ran throughout the summer of 2012. Four years later, he appeared alongside Nicolas Cage and Elijah Wood in the crime drama, The Trust, and also headlined Daniel Noah’s drama Max Rose. Ever the workaholic, he had expressed interest in making another film by December of that year.
It should be noted that Lewis was even more popular overseas, particularly in France. Over the years, he won “best director” awards eights in all throughout Europe, specifically three in France and one each in Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain. Much of this is credited to the enthusiasm and appreciation by New Wave critics and filmmakers Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.
In addition to his work in and around Hollywood, Lewis served as the national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, devoting more than half a century to fighting the neuromuscular disease by hosting an annual Labor Day telethon. He sat in that seat for 61 years, raising nearly $2.5 billion dollars for the disease, and was even once nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
During his lifetime, Lewis was married twice, at first to Patti Palmer and later to SanDee Pitnick. With Palmer, the two had five sons and adopted a sixth, and with Pitnick, the two adopted a daughter. His youngest son, Joseph, sadly committed suicide in 2009 at the age 45.
Prior to his eventual passing, Lewis was quite a fighter with regards to his health, having survived heart attacks, viral meningitis, prostate cancer, diabetes, pulmonary fibrosis, a more recent scare with a urinary track infection, and a decades-long history of heart disease.
Watch notable moments from throughout Lewis’ career: