Jerry Lewis biography – hey, lady!

Jerry Lewis (March 16, 1926 – August 20, 2017)

Jerry Lewis, world-famous clown of stage, screen, television, and radio, is now best known for the annual Jerry Lewis Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) Telethon.
his annual charity telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA).
Jerry Lewis was born Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey to a Jewish American family, the son of a vaudeville performer with the stage name of Danny Lewis. Jerry Lewis claims that he was thrown out of high school after he punched out the principal for making an anti-Semitic comment.   He then went directly into vaudeville, where he was not an overnight success.

Jerry Lewis gets married

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis photo

On October 3, 1944, Jerry Lewis married Pattie Palmer, a marriage that lasted nearly forty years.   A different, professional “marriage” to Dean Martin was nearly two years away at this point, however.   In the meantime, Jerry and Pattie had their first son, Gary, born in 1945.   Gary had notable success as a young adult with his music group “The Playboys,” including “This Diamond Ring.”

In 1945, however, Jerry Lewis was still a struggling comedian, striving to provide for his wife and infant son.   The next year changed, however. with Jerry Lewis’ new partnership with Dean Martin.

Career of Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis‘ partnership with Dean Martin was unlike any that people had seen before. Unlike the traditional straight man and comic teams, such as Abbott and Costello, both were comics, both were frenetic, both were high-energy performers that played off each other, more improvised than scripted. They were manic, they were unpredictable, they were zany, and they were a huge hit. Success in nightclubs was followed by success on radio, on television via the Colgate Comedy Hour, and in movies as well, starting as supporting characters in My Friend Irma who proceeded to steal the show — similar to Abbott and Costello’s film debut in One Night in the Tropics.

The partnership of Martin and Lewis

The Stooge, starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Polly Bergen

The team of Martin & Lewis became box office dynamite, becoming the world’s top box-office earners from 1950 through 1956. They made some of their most lasting movies during this time, including At War with the Army, Sailor Beware, That’s My Boy, Jumping Jacks, The Stooge, Scared Stiff, The Caddy, Money from Home, Living It Up, Three Ring Circus, You’re Never Too Young, Artists and Models, Pardners and their last film together, Hollywood or Bust. In addition to their film careers, they both kept busy with a national radio program, Martin & Lewis, Dean Martin’s recording career, and live appearances. For instance, Jerry Lewis came upon his long-time theme song, “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby (With a Dixie Melody),” in 1956, when he had to cover for Judy Garland at a performance in Las Vegas, which included singing several of her songs. His performance of “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby,” using Garland’s arrangement, went over so well with the audience that Jerry Lewis has used it as his theme song ever since.

The breakup of Martin and Lewis

The Delicate Delinquent, starring Jerry Lewis and Darren McGavin

The sudden rush of fame, as well as their grueling work schedules, led to increasing friction, and eventually to the break up of the comedy team. Jerry Lewis, although nervous, struck out on his own. He recorded a music album, “Jerry Lewis Just Sings” (American Decca: 1956), was a best-seller upon its release, securing a place in the top-20 on the Billboard Album Charts. He continued making personal appearances, and with The Delicate Delinquent he continued making movies. This was an especially difficult film for Jerry to make, since it had been written before the dissolving of his partnership with Dean Martin, and was a painful reminder of that relationship.

Following their split, the two became involved in a well-publicized and long-running feud; the next time they were seen together in public by a national audience would be a surprise appearance by Martin on Lewis’s telethon in 1976, arranged by Frank Sinatra. Lewis wrote of his kinship with Martin in the 2005 book Dean and Me (A Love Story).

Jerry Lewis’ solo film career

Jerry Lewis biography

With the filming of The Delicate Delinquent in 1957, Jerry Lewis worked with director Frank Tashlin, whose background as a cartoonist suited Lewis’s brand of humor. By himself, Jerry Lewis became a major box office draw, over the next several years. Jerry Lewis made five more films directed by Frank Tashlin (Rock-A-Bye Baby, The Geisha Boy, Cinderfella, It’$ Only Money, Who’s Minding the Store, The Disorderly Orderly) before he produced, directed, co-wrote with Bill Richmond, and starred in his own movie entitled The Bellboy in 1960. Using the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami as his setting, on a small budget, a very tight shooting schedule and writing the script at night, Lewis shot the film by day and performed at the hotel in the evenings. It was during the filming of The Bellboy that Jerry Lewis made a major contribution to the making of movies and television. During production, Lewis developed the technique of using video cameras and multiple closed-circuit monitors to allow him to view scenes at the same time as he was filming them. This allowed him to review his performance instantly. Later, he incorporated videotape, and as more portable and affordable equipment became available, this technique would become an industry standard known as video assist.

Lewis directed several more films which he co-wrote with Richmond including The Ladies Man, The Errand Boy, and his most famous film, The Nutty Professor.

Jerry Lewis and the annual Labor Day MDA Telethon

Jerry Lewis MDA telethon
Jerry Lewis MDA telethon caricature

In 1966, he began hosting an annual Labor Day Telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Jerry Lewis’ association with the MDA dated back to 1950, when Martin and Lewis began helping MDA. Even after the dissolution of their partnership, Jerry continued working with the Muscular Dystrophy Association ever since.

Jerry Lewis’ quiet years

By the mid-1960’s, Jerry Lewis’ appeal was starting to wane at the box office, and his projects became fewer, especially after a disastrous attempt at a television talk show. In 1972, Jerry starred in and directed the unreleased The Day The Clown Cried, a tragic comedy set in a Nazi concentration camp. Lewis has explained why the film hasn’t been released by suggesting litigation over post-production financial difficulties. It has been seen by very few select individuals, but those who see it either praise it for comedic genius or despise it.

Jerry Lewis’ return to the limelight

Jerry Lewis as late night TV host Jerry Langford in The King of Comedy
Jerry Lewis as late night TV host
Jerry Langford in The King of Comedy

After an eight-year absence from movies, Jerry Lewis returned in the early 1980s with Hardly Working. Jerry Lewis both directed and starred in this very funny film about an unemployed circus clown trying to find employment in the “real” world. This was followed by a critically acclaimed performance in Martin Scorsese’s 1983 film The King of Comedy where Lewis plays a late night TV host plagued by an obsessive fan. Ironically, the role had been offered to and turned down by, Jerry’s former partner, Dean Martin.

He also made appearances on Saturday Night Live, a wonderful dramatic turn in several episodes of the television series Wiseguy, and Mad About You. He broke records as the highest-paid performer of all time in 1995 on Broadway in his role as The Devil in Damn Yankees. He also appeared in the movies Funny Bones and Arizona Dreams and is contributed to Eddie Murphy’s remake of The Nutty Professor.   Slowing down in his old age, 2012 was his final appearance as the host of the national MDA fundraiser.

Trivia about Jerry Lewis

  • Jerry Lewis has won many prestigious Lifetime Achievement Awards from The American Comedy Awards, The Golden Camera, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, The Venice Film Festival and he has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; but he has never won an Oscar. Currently, there is a campaign underway to award him an Honorary Lifetime Achievement Academy Award.
  • Lewis has battled prostate cancer, diabetes, and pulmonary fibrosis. Medical treatment for the fibrosis in the early 2000s caused the comedian to experience weight gain and bloating that noticeably changed his appearance.
  • Lewis has suffered years of back pain due to a failed slapstick stunt that almost left him paralyzed. An electronic device developed by Medtronic recently implanted in his back has helped reduce the discomfort. He is now one of Medtronic’s leading spokesmen.
  • Lewis tried his hand at singing in the 1950s, having a chart hit with the song “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody”, a song originated by Al Jolson and popularized by Judy Garland.
  • The Simpsons’ voice actor Hank Azaria based the voice of Professor Frink on Lewis’ Nutty Professor character Julius Kelp. Lewis was eventually invited to guest as Frink’s father.
  • He is a supporter of the Brisbane Lions Football Club in the Australian Football League.
  • In 1983, he was nominated for the Golden Raspberry for Worst Actor for his role in Slapstick of Another Kind.
  • Lewis changes white sweatsocks several times a day, always putting on a brand-new pair, and he gives the used ones to charity.

Filmography of Jerry Lewis

Books about Jerry Lewis

  • The Total Film-Maker. New York: Random House, 1971, ISBN 0394467574
  • Jerry Lewis: In Person with Herb Gluck. New York: Atheneum, 1982, ISBN 0689112904
  • Dean & Me (A Love Story) with James Kaplan. New York: Doubleday, 2005, ISBN 0767
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