Jerry Lewis is an acquired taste for many. His unique comic persona isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, especially among the highbrow set (except in France, where for decades he’s been hailed as a genius). He was zany, manic, childlike, and the last of the great slapstick comedians, his career spanning over eighty years. He was a comic, writer, director, actor, singer, businessman, innovator, and philanthropist. Jerry Lewis is a true American icon, and the embodiment of the American dream.
Joseph Levitch was one of those “born in a trunk” kids referenced in many a classic movie. His father was a vaudevillean, his mom a piano player, and by the time he was five Lewis was appearing with his parents onstage at Catskill Mountain resorts. A high school dropout, Lewis did what was known as a “record act” as a teen, where he’d lipsynch popular tunes of the day with comic results. During this time he met a young crooner named Dean Martin , and the two developed an act where Lewis would interrupt Dino’s singing with his wacky antics, much of it improvised. The 28-year-old Martin and 19-year- old Lewis were a smash on the nightclub circuit, within three years had their own radio variety show.
Television was in its infancy when Martin & Lewis appeared on Ed Sullivan’s TOAST OF THE TOWN in 1948. Jerry’s mirthful mayhem, combined with Dean’s good looks, were made for the medium, and they took TV by storm, becoming rotating hosts of THE COLGATE COMEDY HOUR, along with established acts like Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope, and Abbott & Costello. Millions of Americans got their first exposure to Martin & Lewis and their fresh new brand of buffoonery, and soon the duo supplanted Abbott & Costello as the #1 comedy team in the country.
The team went to Hollywood that year as well, supporting “dumb blonde” Marie Wilson and her MY FRIEND IRMA radio gang in two films. Paramount signed them to a long-term contract and they made 13 movies together beginning with the 1950 service comedy AT WAR WITH THE ARMY (Dean and Jerry also did a cameo in the Hope and Crosby entry ROAD TO BALI). All the Martin & Lewis films are worthwhile, but my favorite is 1955’s ARTISTS AND MODELS, directed by Frank Tashlin. The former Looney Tunes animator’s vivid imagination lets Jerry run as wild as Bugs Bunny, playing Eugene Fullstack, a comic-book crazed geek obsessed with a character called “The Bat-Lady”. Dean is his roommate Rick Todd, a struggling fine artist who uses Eugene’s feverish comic-book dreams to crash the industry. The lunacy satirizes everything from the Cold War to the Kefauver Congressional hearings on how comics were warping American youth’s minds, and features one of Dino’s best movie tunes “Innamorata”, and sexy ladies Dorothy Malone, Shirley MacLaine, Anita Ekberg, and Eva Gabor.
All good things must end, and the team broke up in 1956. Martin, tired of being the straight man to Jerry’s increasingly expanding popularity, wanted to go it alone, and the breakup was one of the most acrimonious in show business history. Jerry’s first solo film was 1957’s THE DELICATE DELINQUENT, with Darren McGavin taking the Martin role. In 1960, Lewis became a quadruple threat as he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in THE BELLBOY. Jerry plays inept bellboy Stanley, who gets into a series of unrelated misadventures at Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel, where Lewis was doing his nightclub act while filming. Lewis does the character of Stanley in pantomime, and the name itself is an homage to comedy legend Stan Laurel, who consulted Lewis on the gags (and there’s a Laurel lookalike popping up throughout the film). For this movie Lewis invented a device called the Video Tap, which allowed the director to see what the camera operator sees in terms of framing. This later became de rigueur in filmmaking, and the industry has Jerry Lewis to thank for it.
Jerry’s best known and loved film is undoubtedly 1963’s THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, a Jekyll & Hyde take-off with the star in the dual roles of nebbish college professor Julius Kelp and smug, smarmy hipster Buddy Love. Here Lewis found the perfect balance of slapstick and pathos, playing two highly exaggerated extensions of his own personality. Contrary to popular belief, ‘Buddy Love’ was not a slam against former partner Martin; Lewis has denied this several times over the years. THE NUTTY PROFESSOR remains Lewis’ greatest film achievement, later remade in 1996 by Eddie Murphy.
Jerry’s other solo efforts were hit-and-miss; of them, two stand out in my mind. 1964’s THE PATSY finds bellboy Stanley turned into a top banana by a group of greedy Hollywood hangers-on looking to replace their former “meal ticket”. Again, Lewis marvelously walks the tightrope between comedy and pathos, aided by his best supporting cast: Everett Sloane, Phil Harris, Keenan Wynn, John Carradine, and Peter Lorre in his last movie. 1965’s THE FAMILY JEWELS has Jerry in seven different roles as a recently orphaned little girl inherits 30 million dollars and must choose a new guardian among her six uncles (all essayed by Lewis), assisted by faithful family chauffeur Willard (also Lewis). THE FAMILY JEWELS doesn’t get as much attention as the other two films, but it’s a delight, with Jerry in top form impersonating all the screwball relatives. Jerry’s son Gary appears in this one with his band The Playboys, singing their #1 hit “This Diamond Ring”.
In 1966, Lewis began hosting the annual Muscular Dystrophy Labor Day Telethon, and used his show biz clout to attract the top stars in Hollywood, Vegas, Nashville, New York, indeed around the world, to donate their time to this worthy cause. Lewis’ “Love Network” of TV stations across the country (local Channel 6 right here in New Bedford, MA was among the first) joined in to broadcast the event nationwide during the holiday weekend. This wasn’t Jerry’s only humanitarian effort; he was charitable behind the scenes for many worthy causes. Ex-partner Dean Martin finally reunited with Jerry in a surprise 1976 segment orchestrated by mutual friend Frank Sinatra, one of TV’s most memorable moments. Jerry’s co-host every year was TONIGHT SHOW sidekick Ed McMahon, and every year the star would perform his heart-wrenching signature tune, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”:
Jerry Lewis never really slowed down. Martin Scorsese’s 1983 THE KING OF COMEDY had him cast as talk-show host Jerry Langford, kidnapped by unhinged stand-up wanna-be Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro). The 1986 TV Movie FIGHT FOR LIFE has Lewis and Patty Duke as a couple who must leave the country to obtain medication for their daughter’s epilepsy. He appeared in a five-episode arc of the 80’s crime drama WISEGUY as a clothing manufacturer threatened by gangsters, along with Ron Silver and Stanley Tucci. A 2006 episode of LAW & ORDER: SVU cast him as the uncle of Richard Belzer’s Detective Munch. And a little less than a year ago Lewis had the title role in the indie film MAX ROSE, as an aging jazz pianist who finds out his late wife (Claire Bloom) had an ongoing affair, and questions his entire life.
There’s so much more I could tell you about Jerry Lewis: his health battles, his humanitarian efforts, his success in Vegas, his failures as a solo TV performer. I’d probably be up all night just writing about his films with Dean. When he died today at age 91, it truly was the end of an era. Lewis once was quoted as saying, “I don’t want to be remembered. I want the nice words when I can hear them”. Sorry Jerry, but you will definitely be remembered, not only for your show biz career, but your kindness in helping the less fortunate. I know you can’t hear all the nice words today though. All the clowns in the world are crying, and their tears are drowning them out.