Comedy legend Jerry Lewis dies at 91

Aug 20, 2017 by Ian Evans

Jerry Lewis, known as much for being the longtime host of the MDA Telethon as he was for his comic talents, died this morning in his Las Vegas home. He was 91.

Lewis rocketed to fame in the Forties, a goofy foil to the debonair crooner Dean Martin. The two were one of the biggest acts in both nightclubs and on film and TV, where they starred in 16 films and made several TV appearances until their split in 1956.

Lewis solo career skyrocketed in 1959 when he signed a contract with Paramount that gave him a lot of control and a lot more money. It was the most lucrative contract for a film star at that moment. His first solo film, 1957’s The Delicate Delinquent, was a huge hit. He made his directorial debut with 1960’s The Bellboy and had a string of hits including 1961’s The Ladies Man and 1963’s The Nutty Professor.

His brand of comedy grew out of favour with U.S. audiences in the 1970s but he was still loved in Europe, with the French’s love of his work becoming a running joke with others. He did have a well received performance in 1982 opposite Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. A few years later he finally got to tread on the Great White Way, starring in a Broadway revival of Damn Yamkees.

On the philanthropic side, Lewis became the chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association and starting in 1966 hosted their annual Labor Day Telethon for the next four decades, helping to raise over $2 billion. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 and at the Oscars® in 2009 was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

He was not without pain and controversy. He had a long addiction to the painkiller Percodan. His involvement in the MDA Telethon came under fire from a group calling themselves “Jerry’s Orphans”, a play on the “Jerry’s Kids” moniker given to the children with MD who appeared on the show. The group claimed Lewis’ attitude was condescending, referring to people with muscular dystrophy as “cripples” or pointing to a child and saying “God goofed, and it’s up to us to correct His mistakes.” He caused a stir in 2000 when he was asked in a Q&A at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival if he liked Lucille Ball. His answer, “A woman doing comedy doesn’t offend me but sets me back a bit. I, as a viewer, have trouble with it. I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies in the world,” was attacked by a range of performers, including Judd Apatow and Tina Fey. The firestorm didn’t diminish his attitude and in at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013 once again opined that, “I cannot sit and watch a lady diminish her qualities to the lowest common denominator. I just can’t do that.”

Still he was much loved by many in the comedy world. Some took to Twitter to pay tribute. Richard Lewis said, “From 3 on I cherish how this genius brought comfort to me with laughter and then support and friendship. Rip Jerry.” Penn Jillette tweeted, “Goodbye to the real, no irony, king of comedy.” Finally, Jim Carrey summed up his thoughts by saying “That fool was no dummy. Jerry Lewis was an undeniable genius an unfathomable blessing, comedy’s absolute! I am because he was! ;^D”