The entertainer, movie star and director Jerry Lewis, who has died in his 92nd year, was the master of the so-called “visual gag”. But, while to many — admirers and detractors alike — he was little more than a goofy slapstick clown, to others he established himself as a subtle, perceptive interpreter of both comedy and tragedy and of the thinnest of divisions that separated the two. The word “genius” has often been applied to him and, while this may be an exaggeration, it would nonetheless be true to say that his immense popularity reflected the professional and personal esteem in which he was held by audiences all over the world — a reputation enhanced by his very considerable talents and success as a charity fundraiser.
Joseph “Jerry” Levitch (Lewis) was born in the Beth Israel Hospital, Newark, New Jersey, to Daniel, a vaudeville entertainer, and his wife Rachel (née Brodsky), a pianist. His parents were Russo-Jewish immigrants, and he embarked on his career at the age of about five, assisting them in performances before largely Jewish audiences in the Catskill Mountains, New York State.
He was a high-school drop-out, and was rejected on health grounds for military service during the Second World War, having been diagnosed with a heart murmur. In 1946, he went into partnership with the Italian-American crooner and comedian Dean Martin (1917-95). Martin played the straight man to Lewis’s fool. At first, the duo performed in night-clubs, later on television and later still on film. Over the course of ten years Martin and Lewis starred together in some 17 highly successful cinema productions.
The partnership ended acrimoniously in 1956, and it was to take another two decades before the two stars became reconciled. Lewis, meanwhile, branched out on his own. Vacationing in Las Vegas, he was asked to substitute for Judy Garland, who was unable to make a theatre appearance owing to a sore throat. Lewis’s vocal renditions — performed with virtually no rehearsal — were an instant success, and launched him on a new career, in live theatre and then on television and in films through Paramount Pictures as a solo performer and, later, as a director.
As a film star, Lewis was considered to be punctiliously professional, working to budget and adhering to tight schedules. In the process he became a multi-millionaire; he was, in his day, the best paid star on the Hollywood circuit.
Lewis combined all this achievement with equally professional efforts as a charity fundraiser. For over half a century he worked tirelessly on behalf of the American Muscular Dystrophy Association, of which he became national chairman. During this period, he raised for the Association more than $2.6 billion (£2bn).
Lewis was a complex, shy character who, in spite of his public face, was actually a very private and in some respects eccentric person — he would give away his suits rather than go to the effort of having them cleaned. But behind his slapstick, screwball exterior there lay a serious and seriously minded entertainer. For a time, he taught at the University of Southern California, where his students included Steven Spielberg.
In 1944, Lewis married the singer Patti Palmer. The couple divorced in 1980. In 1983 he married the dancer Sandra Pitnick. He died at his home in Las Vegas and is survived by his second wife, six sons (one adopted) and an adopted daughter; a seventh son — his youngest — died in 2009.
Jerry Lewis: born March 16, 1926. Died August 20, 2017