Sunday, August 20, 2017

Jerry Lewis R.I.P.

Legendary comedian, actor, and director Jerry Lewis died today at the age of 91.

Jerry Lewis was born Jerry Levitch on March 16 1926 in Newark, New Jersey. His father, Daniel Levitch, was a vaudeville entertainer who used the stage name of Daniel Lewis. His mother, Rachael Levitch, played the piano for a local radio station. Jerry Lewis began performing while very young, starting at age five alongside his parents at various Catskills resorts. By the time he was 15 he had already developed a routine called "the Record Act", whereby he would mime to various records.

Jerry Lewis dropped out of high school in tenth grade. He tried enlisting in the United States Army during World War II, but was classified 4-F due to a heart murmur. It was in 1945 that Jerry Lewis teamed up with singer Dean Martin. The two of them were performing at the Glass Hat Club in New York City. The two hit it off and decided to form a comedy team. Martin and Lewis made their debut as a team on July 25 1946 at the 500 Club in Atlantic City. Their debut did not go over particularly well, and as a result they totally redid their act. Martin and Lewis threw out most of their scripted gags and relied more upon improvisation. It was not long before were performing at clubs all along the East Coast.  It was on June 20 1948 that they made their television debut. It would be historic not simply as the first time that Martin and Lewis were on national television, but also because it was the very first edition of the variety show Toast of the Town, later renamed The Ed Sullivan Show.

Martin and Lewis would be very busy from the late Forties into the Fifties. In 1949 they not only received their own radio show on NBC, but they also made their feature film debut in My Friend Irma. In 1950 they began a stint as two of the hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour. Martin and Lewis would make several guest appearances on various television shows, including, The Saturday Night Revue with Jack Carter, The Jack Benny Program, and Texaco Star Theatre. Martin and Lewis had a highly successful run of movies made at Paramount, including My Friend Irma Goes West (1950), At War with the Army (1950), That's My Boy (1951), Sailor Beware (1952), Jumping Jacks (1952), The Stooge (1953), Scared Stiff (1953), The Caddy (1953), Money from Home (1953), Living It Up (1954), 3 Ring Circus (1954), You're Never Too Young (1955), Artists and Models (1955), Pardners (1956), and Hollywood or Bust (1956). They also had a cameo in the Hope and Crosby movie Road to Bali (1952).

While Martin and Lewis were enormously successful, the team would eventually come to an end. Tensions between Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis reached the point where they were constantly arguing. On July 25 1956, ten years exactly after their debut as a comedy team, Dean Martin split with Jerry Lewis. Each of them would go onto highly successful solo careers.

Indeed, Jerry Lewis saw a good deal of success on his own in films in the late Fifties. He starred in The Delicate Delinquent (1957), The Sad Sack (1957), Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958), The Geisha Boy (1958), Don't Give Up the Ship (1959), Visit to a Small Planet (1960), The Bellboy (1960), and Cinderfella (1960). The Bellboy marked his directorial debut and he also wrote the screenplay.  He guest starred on the anthology series Startime in an adaptation of The Jazz Singer. He also appeared on the TV shows The Steve Allen Plymouth Show and The Eddie Fisher Show. In 1958 he appeared in his own television special on NBC.

Jerry Lewis's success on film continued through a large part of the Sixties. He starred in the films The Ladies Man (1961), The Errand Boy (1961), It's Only Money (1962), The Nutty Professor (1963), Who's Minding the Store? (1963), The Patsy (1964), The Disorderly Orderly (1964), Family Jewels (1965), and Boeing, Boeing (1965). Of these he directed The Ladies Man, The Errand Boy, The Nutty Professor, The Patsy, and Family Jewels. While The Nutty Professor would prove to be an enormous success, unfortunately some of his other films in the mid-Sixties were not. Paramount then elected not to renew his contract. Jerry Lewis's last several films in the Sixties would be for different studios. They included Three on a Couch (1966), Way... Way Out (1966), Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968), Hook, Line and Sinker (1969), and Which Way to the Front? (1970). He directed Three on a Couch (1966), The Big Mouth (1967), and One More Time (1970).

Jerry Lewis also continued to frequently appear on television in the Sixties. He was a frequent guest host on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He had his own short-lived variety show, The Jerry Lewis Show, that aired on ABC in 1963. He had another variety show later on NBC. The Jerry Lewis Show on NBC debuted on September 12 1967 and lasted for two seasons. He was a guest or guest host on several variety and talk shows during the decade, including The Andy Williams Show, Hullabaloo, The Sammy Davis Jr. Show, What's My Line?, Rowan & Martin's Laugh In, and The Hollywood Palace. In 1970 a Saturday morning cartoon, Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please Sit Down, aired on ABC. Jerry Lewis contributed some scripts to the cartoon, although the character of Jerry Lewis was voiced by David Lander.  He also guest starred in an episode of Ben Casey and had a cameo on the TV show Batman.

It was in the Sixties that Jerry Lewis began hosting Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon each Labour Day. Mr. Lewis had been active in raising money for research into treating muscular dystrophy as early as the Fifties. He hosted local telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association from 1952 to 1959. It was in 1966 that he hosted the first nationally televised Jerry MDA Telethon. He continued to do so until 2010.

The Seventies would not be particularly kind to Jerry Lewis in some respects. He directed and starred in the unreleased film The Day the Clown Cried (1972). He starred in the film Hardly Working (1980) and directed the films That's Life (1979) and Hardly Working. He continued to appear on television, on such shows as NBC Follies, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, Cher, Tony Orlando and Dawn, Donny and Marie, Dinah, and The Mike Douglas Show.

The Eighties saw Jerry Lewis star in one of his best known roles, that of comedy Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1983). He also starred in the films Slapstick of Another Kind (1982), Cracking Up (1983), To Catch a Cop (1984), How Did You Get In? We Didn't See You Leave (1984), and Cookie (1989). He had a recurring role in a story arc of the TV show Wiseguy. He starred in the TV movie Fight for Life (1987). He directed the movie Cracking Up and episodes of Brothers and Super Force.

In the Nineties Mr. Lewis appeared in the films Mr. Saturday Night (1992), Arizona Dream (1993), and Funny Bones (1995). He guest starred on the TV show Mad About You. He directed an episode of the show Good Grief and a segment of the film How Are the Kids? (1992). In the Naughts he guest starred on The Simpsons and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. He appeared in the TV movie Miss Castaway and the Island Girls (2004).  He provided the voice of the Stationmaster in the animated film
Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey! (2009) . In the Teens he appeared in the films Max Rose (2013), Till Luck Do Us Part 2 (2013), and The Trust (2016).

I have to confess that I have never been a huge Jerry Lewis fan. I liked him best as Dean Martin's partner in the many films they made together. That having been said, I did like some of the films he made on his own. I still think of The Nutty Professor as one of the best comedies to emerge from the Sixties. And I also enjoyed seeing him each year on the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon. Of course, ultimately it doesn't matter if I was a big fan of Jerry Lewis or not. The fact remains that when it came to the late 20th Century Jerry Lewis was a comedy giant.

Indeed, starting with his debut in My Friend Irma in 1949 alongside Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis would appear in a number of highly successful comedies as one half of Martin and Lewis. After the act broke up he continued to have a good deal of success through the mid-Sixties. Movies such as The Bellboy and The Nutty Professor proved very successful. Not only did Jerry Lewis number among the most successful comedic actors of the late 20th Century, I think he did have a good deal of talent as an actor over all. In Boeing Boeing he played a very different character from what he usually did, that of journalist Robert Reed, who plots to take over his friend Bernard's apartment, his girlfriends, and pretty much his entire life. In The King of Comedy he played egotistical comedian and talk show host Jerry Langford, who is about as far as from Stanley the bellboy or Professor Julius Kelp as one can get.

Of course, Jerry Lewis was not simply a highly successful comedian, actor, and director, he was also a humanitarian. He was national chairman of and spokesman for the Muscular Dystrophy Association for literally decades. In almost fifty years of being associated with MDA he raised over $2.6 billion in donations. While best known for his association with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, he also supported such charities as the Friars Foundation, the March of Dimes, and St. Francis Food Pantries and Shelters.

For decades it has been a bit of a running joke that Jerry Lewis was wildly popular in France, but the truth is he was wildly popular across the world. He was responsible for making many people laugh and his films are still very popular to this day. Only a very few comedic actors ever had the kind of success that Jerry Lewis had. I seriously doubt we will see to many reach the heights that he did in the future.

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