Jewish-American actor, comedian, director, inventor, philanthropist and one of the last links to vaudeville Jerry Lewis has died at the age of 91. The world just got a little less funny.
Lewis, born Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jersey, grew up in a show business family. His father, Daniel Levitch, was a vaudeville entertainer and his mother, Rae, was a pianist who worked for the (still existent) WOR Radio. At the age of five, so the legend goes, he made his stage debut singing “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and accidentally kicked out one of the footlights. His surprised reaction got the audience to laugh, and this set him on his path toward comedy.
By age 15 he had dropped out of high school and was honing his stage act. His best known routine was a bit in which he’d put a phonograph on and give an exaggerated lip synch. Sounds simple, but if you’ve seen the way Jerry Lewis could contort his face, you can understand why this would become popular. He worked the Jewish “Borscht Belt” in the Catskills Mountains (Brown’s Hotel in Lake Sheldrake was a big break) and, in 1945, at the age of 19, he hooked up with Dean Martin.
The handsome Italian-American singer (born Dino Crocetti) was the perfect straight man to Lewis’ zany, anarchic man-child persona. Their stage show was built on improvisation in which Lewis would bring mayhem to an otherwise smooth Martin vocal performance. Martin and Lewis quickly became successful as a nightclub act, on radio, the early days of television and eventually in Hollywood in feature films. Their first movie appearances were as part of an ensemble (1949’s “My Friend Irma”) but very quickly they were the stars.
They made 15 films during the 1950s and were one of the most profitable acts in Hollywood. They even had a DC comic book based on them. But Lewis’ antics were so upstaging Dean Martin that it became inevitable that the pair would split. (Whatever the “true” reason for the separation was, neither party ever divulged it.) But before the partnership ended in June 1956, they made “Artists and Models,” and “Hollywood or Bust,” and that’s where Jerry Lewis met his second great collaborator, Frank Tashlin.
Tashlin was a former Looney Toons animator and fellow New Jersey transplant to Hollywood. When Dean Martin split to continue his singing career and star in films like “Some Came Running” and “Rio Bravo” and immerse himself more in the “Rat Pack” culture with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., Lewis and Tashlin were devising the elaborate, highly choreographed Technicolor movies that were far more stylized than the usual studio comedies of the time.
The cliché some have is that Jerry Lewis would just run around a scream and French critics would call him a genius. But once he began working with Tashlin he really did start creating extraordinary pieces of cinema, not just nightclub shtick. Take a look at the dance from “Cinderfella” (1960) or the typewriter gag from “Who’s Minding The Store?” (1963).
After a number of films with Tashlin, though still working with him from time to time, Lewis began directing his own movies. His first was “The Bellboy,” which he shot at the Fontainblue Hotel in Miami as, essentially, a side project. (He was booked there at the nightclub.) During the days he shot this essentially plot-free collection of skits in which his character (a goofy bellboy) had virtually no dialogue.
A few important things happened here. When the studio he had been working with for years, Paramount, was leery of financing a black-and-white essentially silent film, Lewis put up the money himself. (He reaped tremendous profits.) Also, since he was performing and directing, he created a video playback system in which he could watch what was just filmed, right there on the set. Back then, directors had to wait until film was developed and see the “dailies” of what was shot. But for Lewis’ rambunctious shtick (basically dance routines) this wouldn’t work. No one had thought to do this before and it soon became an essential component of filmmaking that lasted until the rise of digital.
After “The Bellboy” came Lewis’ first masterpiece: “The Ladies Man.” Shot in big, bright colors, Lewis’ infantile persona is set against a rooming house filled with young women. (It isn’t too prurient; Lewis maintains an “eww, gross, girls!” attitude, by and large.)
Many of Lewis’ current influences are obvious, like the similarly screechy, chaotic comedy of Adam Sandler. But “The Ladies Man” and its enormous open dollhouse was a direct inspiration for Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic.” Lewis’ performances, granted, are not for everyone (so loud!), but his cinematic technique was quite extraordinary.
In 1963 came Lewis’ biggest hit of all, “The Nutty Professor.” This Jekyll-and-Hyde tale (later remade by Eddie Murphy) was notable because, in addition to playing the spaced-out, klutzy scientist, he transforms into the debonair Buddy Love, proving that Lewis could actually act like an adult and even be a little… handsome?
Lewis taught film classes in the late 1960s, and his pupils at the University of Southern California included George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. His 1971 book, “The Total Film-Maker,” may have a bit of a pompous title, but it was quite useful to young directors at a time when there weren’t quite so many texts available.
Throughout the 1960s Lewis constantly appeared on television chat shows and hosted the Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon. This became a Labor Day weekend tradition from 1966 all the way through 2010. In a time before cable television, these shows, which ran through the night mixing a national broadcast from Las Vegas with local breakaways, were quite popular. The term “Jerry’s Kids” was used to describe children aided by the program (though by the 1980s was a common schoolyard slur.)
Despite his philanthropy, Lewis grew to have a public persona of being more than a perfectionist: he was a grouch. One never knew how much of this was faked for comedy’s sake, but he leaned into it in 1983 with an amazing performance in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.” In it, he played a weary and unfriendly host of a late night talk show host that is kidnapped by two demented fans (Robert DeNiro and Sandra Bernhard.)
Lewis the curmudgeon achieved its ultimate form in a cringeworthy interview with The Hollywood Reporter in December 2016. Whether he was kidding or was actually that cranky is still up for debate. (Can’t it be both?)
Lewis completed thirteen films as a director, though one has never been seen by the public, an ill-conceived comedy about the Holocaust. “The Day The Clown Cried” is one of the most notorious projects in cinema history, and since Lewis worked independently he had the ability to ashcan his own movie when he realized it just wasn’t working. Although not that dissimilar in premise from the 1998 film “Life Is Beautiful” (which won its star and director Roberto Begnini two Academy Awards) “The Day The Clown Cried” is about a circus performer that tries to cheer up children at Auschwitz. For decades reporters have asked Lewis if he’ll ever release the movie, and the answer always was “no.”
Lewis first visited Israel in 1981, though claimed he had bought a plane ticket in 1967 but the Six Day War had broken out. His work was rarely explicitly Jewish but, like the Marx Brothers, is easily read that way. His awards include an Honorary Oscar, France’s Legion of Honor medal and an induction into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. He is survived by his wife SanDee and their daughter Danielle and five sons (including Gary Lewis of Gary Lewis and the Playboys) from a previous marriage. Tonight we should all shriek and bump into things in his honor.