Tributes to 'undeniable genius” Jerry Lewis

The star has died aged 91


Jerry Lewis, the comedian, singer, actor and director, has died at the age of 91.

He passed away at his home in Las Vegas on Sunday after a brief illness. Hollywood figures paid tribute with Robert De Niro saying he would be much missed and Jim Carrey describing him as an “undeniable genius”.

Born in Newark, 1926, as Joseph (or Jerome) Levitch, he was the son of two Russian-Jewish entertainers, and performed on stage from an early age as part of the Borscht Belt comedy circuit in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York.

Rejected from World War Two service because of a heart murmur, in 1946 he teamed up with singer Dean Martin, forming the comedy duo of Martin & Lewis. The pair had their own radio programme, and would go on to star in 15 Paramount films together over the next decade. The partnership ended in 1956, with both going on to enjoy successful solo careers.

At his height, Lewis became the best-paid actor in Hollywood, with a profit-sharing contract with Paramount studios. His successful films in the 1960s included The Bellboy, The Patsy, and The Nutty Professor.

As a director and producer, he pioneered the video-assist technique, the use of videotape and close-circuit monitors allowing a director to see the same view as the camera operator and ensure the film is being shot in the desired fashion. For a few years in the 1960s he taught a film directing class at the University of Southern California, where both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were his students.

After taking an 11-year break from cinema, Lewis returned in the 1980s. He starred alongside Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s 1983 cult hit, The King of Comedy, where he played a late-night TV host stalked by two obsessive fans.

Of all the films Lewis starred in or directed, only one was never released. He directed and starred in The Day the Clown Cried, a 1971 drama film about a children’s entertainer in a Nazi concentration camp. He was rumoured to have the only copy of the film in existence, and generally refused to talk about it when asked.

For over 50 years, the star hosted an annual telethon to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. By the time he stepped down from the role in 2011, he had helped raise over $2.6 billion for the charity. However, he was a somewhat controversial figure for some people with muscular dystrophy, who felt he presented them as pitiful. In 2001 he apologised after responding to those critical of the MDA by saying: “You don't want to be pitied because you're a cripple in a wheelchair? Stay in your house!"  

Mr Lewis suffered a number of heart attacks during his life, his first when he was 34. An accident at the age of 39 while performing in a show at the Las Vegas Sands almost paralysed him, and he suffered from back pains for a long time afterwards, as well as a 13-year painkiller addiction which he managed to beat in 1979.

Despite some other controversial comments – he infamously said he viewed female comedians as “a producing machine that brings babies in the world" - a host of Hollywood actors and comedians paid tribute to him on social media.

Actress Whoopi Goldberg tweeted: “Jerry Lewis passed today. Millions around the world loved him, millions of kids he helped w/his telethons. R.I.P. & condolences 2 his family”

Comedian Jon Lovitz tweeted: “Jerry Lewis! Oy! Another comic legend gone. What an amazing talent and philanthropist. A long, well lived life! #RIPJerryLewis.”

Actor and Comedian Jim Carrey said: “That fool was no dummy. Jerry Lewis was an undeniable genius an unfathomable blessing, comedy's absolute! I am because he was!”

Mr Lewis is survived by his second wife and seven children. 


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