The stage went dark in Las Vegas on Sunday, and the world briefly lost its smile.
Jerry Lewis, known around the world for his slapstick comedy, his wisecracking Yiddish, and his kind heart for children, died Sunday morning at his home in Las Vegas. He was age 91.
Born Jerome, or Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926 in Newark, New Jersey to Daniel and Rae Levitch, his parents both worked in vaudeville; his mother as a pianist, and his father as an entertainer. Called “Joey” by his parents, he was on the stage by the age of six, singing “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” with his mother playing piano. But he was left at home with relatives when his parents went on the road.
By age 16 he dropped out of school and took on the stage name of Jerry Lewis to avoid a conflict with another performer whose name was Joey Lewis. Within a couple of years had met and hooked up with Dean Martin while the two of them were working the Borscht Belt. He never made it into the military for World War II, due to a perforated eardrum and a heart murmur.
But he was busy with Dean Martin anyway; the two were magic together, appearing in 15 films in the 1950s and raking in the kind of money that some performers only dream of. But the zany antics Lewis performed eventually got on Martin’s nerves and also upstaged him once too often; the pair eventually split. Despite that, in the end they were lifelong friends until Martin’s death in 1995.
Lewis was not only a performer, but also became a film director in order to shoot his own material when Paramount wouldn’t finance The Bellboy, being apprehensive about taking on a black-and-white film with no plot and basically no dialogue. Lewis financed it himself, and directed it himself as well. When he needed to be able to see the results immediately on the set in order to correct or continue his routines, he invented a video playback system that rapidly became a part of film making until digital technology took over.
Lewis also taught film classes at the University of Southern California in the late 1960s, and wrote the handy textbook, “The Total Film-Maker.” Among his students were such luminaries as Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas.
He was perhaps best known in philanthropy for his appearances as a host on the annual Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon, — 44 years’ worth, from the 1960s until 2010, raising nearly $2 billion for the association — often staying with with the 24-hour show the entire time. Children helped by MDA were known for decades as “Jerry’s Kids.”
Although he was quiet about it, Jerry Lewis supported six different charities and foundations, in addition to seven different causes. He also founded the Legionnaires of Laughter, and was co-founder of Jerry’s House, a global initiative that carries out activities to teach sick children the connection between laughter and healing.
Jerry Lewis once said he had bought a ticket to visit Israel in 1967, but the Six Day War broke out. To this day, no one knows if that was true. But he did finally make it to the Jewish State in 1981.
Although he never won an Academy Award, a Tony or a Golden Globe, Jerry Lewis won an Honorary Oscar, the French Legion of Honor medal and was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
He is survived by his wife SanDee and their daughter Danielle, as well as five sons from a prior marriage, including Gary Lewis, lead singer of Gary Lewis and the Playboys.
Baruch HaDayan HaEmet.