Jerry Lewis, Comedy Legend, Dies at 91

Jerry Lewis
Erik Pendzich/REX/Shutterstock

Jerry Lewis, the brash slapstick comic who became a pop culture sensation in his partnership with Dean Martin and then transformed himself into an auteur filmmaker of such comedic classics as “The Nutty Professor” and “The Bellboy,” has died in Las Vegas. He was 91.

Lewis died at his home in Las Vegas at about 9:15 a.m. Sunday morning, his agent confirmed.

For most of his career, Lewis was a complicated and sometimes polarizing figure. An undeniable comedic genius, he pursued a singular vision and commanded a rare amount of creative control over his work with Paramount Pictures and other studios. His legacy also includes more than $2.5 billion raised for the Muscular Dystrophy Association through the annual Labor Day telethon that he made an end-of-summer ritual for decades until he was relieved of the hosting job in 2011.

But Lewis’ brand of humor did not always wear well as times and attitudes changed. Over the last 10 years of his life, his reputation soured slightly as he was forced to apologize for making a gay slur on camera during the 2007 telethon, continued to make racist and misogynistic jokes, and didn’t hesitate to share his right-wing political views.

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In addition to his most famous films, Lewis also appeared in a number of notable works, such as Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” but was largely offscreen from the late ’60s on and was more active with his telethon and philanthropic efforts. As late as 2016, Lewis continued to perform in Las Vegas, where he first debuted his comedy routine back in 1949.

The high regard in which his comic abilities were held in France — he received the Legion of Honor award in 1983 — became a running joke in the U.S. long after Lewis’ style of broad physical comedy fell out of fashion. His final film, “Max Rose,” screened at France’s Cannes Film Festival in 2013.

The telethon, like other aspects of Lewis’ life, was beset by controversy. The comic’s offstage persona was anything but humorous. He was, by his own admission, an impatient man, and over the years battled numerous illnesses and a prescription drug dependency. His parting with Martin in 1956 after 10 years as a duo was acrimonious. And the telethons were awash in claims that there was a disparity between the money pledged and the money collected.

Lewis’ pairing with Martin, featuring their improvisatory backbiting and physical chicanery, was an instant hit in 1946. When producer Hal Wallis saw them performing at the Copacabana and at Slapsie Maxie’s in Hollywood, he saw the potential for a new Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and signed them to a Paramount Pictures contract.

For the next 10 years, Martin and Lewis turned out one silly film after the next starting with “My Friend Irma” in 1949 and including “The Caddy,” “The Stooge,” “Artists and Models” and “Pardners.” None of their films grossed less than $5 million, a handy sum in those days.

The premises of the films grew tired, and the more Martin and Lewis worked together, the more disparate they appeared. In 1956, after their film “Hollywood or Bust,” they made their last dual appearance at the Copacabana.

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By the time of their breakup, Martin had a prosperous career as a recording artist and actor. And soon Lewis, too, was a hot solo ticket.

Shortly after they broke up, Lewis filled in for an ailing Judy Garland in Las Vegas. Over the next five years Lewis developed a slicker, more sophisticated stage persona and would continue to play Vegas until 2016.

Onscreen he made a go of it in such films as “The Delicate Delinquent” and “Rock-a-Bye Baby.” Lewis even had a million-selling single in the “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby” title track, which led to several albums on Decca Records.

He then extended his efforts into writing, producing and directing films, signing what was then a mammoth $10 million deal with Paramount. The first two, 1961’s “The Ladies Man” and 1962’s “The Errand Boy,” showed him at his best. His talents also dovetailed with director Frank Tashlin’s style in films such as “Cinderfella” and “The Disorderly Orderly.”

“The Nutty Professor” (1963) was his biggest success ever, grossing $19 million. But by then his mugging and exaggerated body gyrations had become out of control, as had the syrupy moments in his films.

Lewis signed a nonexclusive deal with Columbia that resulted in several uninspired films such as “Three on a Couch,” “The Big Mouth” and “Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River.” Even Lewis had to admit, “Jerry Lewis is never just OK or adequate; he’s either very funny or he’s awful.”

While Americans largely dismissed him, Lewis had developed a following at French film journals Cahiers du Cinema and Positif.

He was born Joseph Levitch in Newark, N.J. Both his parents were in show business and, at the age of 5, Lewis made his debut at a Borscht Belt hotel singing “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”

Perhaps because his parents spent a great deal of time on the road, Lewis was demanding attention through humor by the time he was attending Irvington High School in New Jersey. By age 15 he was pantomiming operatic and popular songs and was booked into a burlesque house in Buffalo.

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In 1942 he tried out his comic pantomiming at Brown’s Hotel in upstate New York, where he was also working the summer as a bellboy. Comic Irving Kaye was sufficiently impressed to land Lewis some bookings and became his road manager.

Lewis met the young singer Dean Martin at New York nightclub the Glass Hatt and was first paired with him in 1946. Afters years of rupture, Martin made a surprise appearance on the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon in 1976, a reunion orchestrated by their mutual friend Frank Sinatra. The pair also reconciled after the death of Martin’s son in the late 1980s. Martin died in 1995.

In the early ’70s he continued to direct uninspired fare such as “Which Way to the Front?” and then tried a serious film, “The Day the Clown Cried,” though he famously shelved the completed work (some footage of it finally surfaced in 2013). He attempted a live TV variety show that failed, as did an attempt at a Broadway musical, “Feeling No Pain”; it was followed by the acrimonious “Hellzapoppin,” which was ditched out of town in Boston at a loss of $1.25 million.

In 1972 he lent his name to a string of 200 movie theaters for Network Cinema Corp., which led to bankruptcy proceedings in 1974. His heavy schedule also brought him to the verge of a nervous breakdown, serious ulcer problems and painkiller drug dependency. In 1982 he had double-bypass heart surgery and gave up his four pack-a-day smoking habit.

Lewis was offscreen until 1979’s low-budget “Hardly Working,” which he also directed; it did not reverse his fortunes. But in 1982, director Martin Scorsese harnessed the brash, cynical side of Lewis’ persona for the role of a kidnapped latenight talkshow host in “The King of Comedy.” Though he reportedly resented being upstaged by Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard, the film represented some of Lewis’ finest work. Another high point was a similarly caustic appearance as a lethal underworld figure on the TV series “Wiseguy.”

Most of his later film work, however, failed to impress, such as “Slapstick of Another Kind,” “Cookie” and 1992’s “American Dreamer.”

In 1995, he appeared in Peter Chelsom’s film “Funny Bones” and took over the role of the devil in a Broadway revival of “Damn Yankees,” which he took on tour in the U.S.; he then appeared in a London production of the musical.

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In 2003 he provided a guest voice on an episode of “The Simpsons”; in 2006 he did an episode of “Law and Order: SVU” in which he played the insane, morally befuddled but bizarrely benevolent uncle of Det. John Munch (Richard Belzer).

Lewis long sought to create a sequel to “The Nutty Professor”; eventually, Imagine Entertainment produced and Universal released the 1996 remake starring Eddie Murphy on which Lewis was credited for the screenplay to the 1963 version and as an executive producer.

Lewis also hoped to bring a musical adaptation of “The Nutty Professor” to Broadway. By summer 2012 an ailing but still enthusiastic Lewis made his stage helming debut with such a musical, with a score by Marvin Hamlisch and a book and lyrics by Rupert Holmes, in Nashville, where it played for seven weeks.

In 2013 Lewis starred in the long-gestating project “Max Rose,” written and directed by Daniel Noah and also starring Claire Bloom, Kevin Pollak, Kerry Bishe and Mort Sahl. Lewis played a jazz pianist who recently became a widower.

In 2009, Lewis received the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences’ Jean Hersholt Award for his charitable work. In May 2014, he added his footprints to those of other screen luminaries at the Chinese Theatre.

In 1944 Lewis married former band singer Patti Palmer, with whom he had six sons, Gary, Ronnie, Scott, Anthony, Christopher and Joseph, who died in 2009. Gary for a time had a rock career as the lead singer of Gary Lewis & the Playboys. The marriage ended in divorce.

He is survived by his second wife, SanDee Pitnick, with whom he adopted a daughter.

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  1. Kevin D. says:

    It’s been over a week since we lost an undeniable Olympic demigod of comedy, a genuinely soulful and
    committed humanitarian and also a movie and television production innovator. Yet in the overwhelming- ly vast landscape of current news/entertainment media there has been very little actual recognition of this wonderful man’s impressive contributions in any of these areas.
    Where’s the quick rescheduling of programs on AMC to marathon just a few of Jerry Lewis’ best movies, such as “The Bellboy”, “The Nutty Professor” and “The Geisha Boy”? Not to mention a past interview or two with one of their regular hosts, such as this rare, really good sit-down chat that they aired only four
    years ago to mark the 50th anniversary of the release of “The Nutty Professor”.
    At least CBS showed enough class to air an hour-long tribute to Mary Tyler Moore soon after she died.
    Obviously, Disney that owns nearly any huge entertainment media franchise that you can think of-in-
    cluding about half of our solar system-didn’t give enough of a squat to preempt one of their nauseating-
    ly vapid ABC shows like “Sluts and Man Hos in Paradise” to at the very least honor a man who became
    a selfless one-man institution, tirelessly promoting their mainstream TV network for several decades by
    hosting the Muscular Dystrophy Association telethons. Disney’s motto should be “If we can’t make a buck with it, then we don’t f*ck with it!”
    To all of us who the phenomenal Mr. Lewis tickled, touched and/or healed, we are extremely privileged
    and grateful to have had you in our lives. Your legacy has and will continue to make the world a better
    place. My deepest sympathy to his family, friends and countless others who loved and admired him.

    • Kevin D. says:

      My above comments from Mon., 8/28 contained an inadvertent reference to AMC (American Movie
      Classics) when I meant to type in TCM (Turner Classic Movies).
      By the way, the folks at TCM pulled a fitting fast one on fans of the inimitable Jerry Lewis by holding
      off until Labor Day to air a movie marathon and probably some really cool personal reflections from
      some of his colleagues and close friends, and hopefully some rare interview segments with the “King
      of Hilarity” himself. The 5 movies run this PM from 5PM to 2:30AM. And the lineup begins and ends
      with “The Nutty Professor”, “The King of Comedy”, “The Stooge”, The Bellboy” and “The Disorderly
      Orderly”.
      Everybody laugh ’til ya cry!

  2. Hollywood Mark says:

    You forgot to mention he once kicked his dog. Jeesh.

    “The Nutty Professor” (1963) was his biggest success ever, grossing $19 million.” For the record, that is the equivalent of $140 million by today’s dollar. Thanks for pointing it out.

  3. My the hypocrisy is great in you two is it not? Jerry Lewis is a much better person than y’all will ever be in morals, values, humor, and most importantly HONESTY.

  4. chris says:

    To the writers of this insulting obituary_You say Lewis thought nothing if publicly airing his right wing political views You two hypocrites sure arent thinking twice about airing your political viewpoints either condemning Lewis like this. Last time I checked the USA was a country in which people could air political viewpoints ect without persecution. Well, it used to be that way, Back in jerry Lewis day, As for blaming him over monetary conflicts over the telethon. lots of people ran that telethon.He ultimately was not responsible for where the money went, He was a spokesman. Or are you two adult enough to realize this? And your remark that the public largely forgot about him is crap, It is you two as writers who need to be forgotten about, An insulting horrible article disrespectful of a larger than life comedienne who has passed on who modern comediennes like Jim Carey are praising in his death..

  5. Todd says:

    I certainly know who Jerry Lewis is and am familiar with most of his movies and his telethon. I have never heard of Richard Natale nor Carmel Dagan. Sad this great man who accomplished so much in his life is subject to an obituary written by a pair of bitter shrews.

  6. Henry Hill says:

    All the good Jerry did and these two wanna be clowns (Natale and Dagan) bring up some B.S. about him being racist or whatever from some truthful and FUNNY comments, cause it hurt their obviously gay feelings. We all have family members who are gay, so GET over jokes about them… time to grow up, ARE funny !

    • Steve says:

      “Obviously gay feelings?” The writers of this obit don’t make any declaration that one or both of them are LGBTQ. And again, I have to say that I prefer this warts-and-all remembrance of a comic genius to the hagiography that some people apparently wanted. To my mind, this is the best Lewis obituary I’ve read.

  7. David Wallis says:

    When I was very young, all I had to do was look at Jerry Lewis and fall down laughing. He was, perhaps, the greatest comedian in my childhood. As I grew older, Jerry Lewis, unfortunately, became less funny to me, but I never forgot the enjoyment he brought to me.

    I probably won’t understand why he changed from being a “clown” and taking on more serious roles, which were disappointing to me because of the relationship he built between his characters on the silver screen and a little boy who wanted to grow up to be, in my own way, a “clown”, too.

    I believe that Jerry Lewis did a lot of good in this world. He will long be remembered, mostly because of his charity and comedy. He was, perhaps, part and parcel of the second generation of comedians (after the silent film stars and especially Laurel and Hardy proclaimed as the “fathers” of American comedy) who kept America laughing. It is upon his work, certainly, that comedians today build their routines and push the envelope of keeping America laughing.

    We need more laughter, most especially in these troubled times.

    Good-bye, Jerry Lewis. We loved and still love ya!

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  9. Sally Shears says:

    What a horrible author, writer, disgusting piece of filth. Surprise, bias from a journalist. Surprise, glorious media quality reporting once again. Rot.

  10. P D MacGuire says:

    What a disgusting piece of backstabbing. The authors ought to be ashamed of themselves, like that would ever happen…

  11. Mark Corby says:

    Really in bad taste and obviously political. Natale and Dagan must have known of the following quote and gave their 2 cents, but too late! Lewis got the first jab he was right! “I’ve had the greatest respect for my work in this country by Americans. Critics have no brains.” – Jerry Lewis

  12. Richard Dorn says:

    What a terrible piece.. This is in the ‘obit’ section? Truly shameful.. I hope neither Richard Natale or
    Carmel Dagan survive as ‘writers’.. who was asleep at the wheel and let this get published? It’s crap like this that makes me wish for a better alternative to Variety and it’s continued politicization.

  13. I thought Max Rose was a very poignant film.

  14. Blair Tanner says:

    This was a shameful obituary.

  15. Dean Powers says:

    Even as flawed as he may have been, Jerry Lewis towers above todays sorry excuse for “leftist” comedians.

  16. Gene Campbell says:

    I read that after Jerry adopted his daughter, he disinherited his sons. I’m curious about that and whether or not he added them to his will later.

  17. SalULloyd says:

    RIP Great Hollywood icon. Got the chance to meet in the early 90’s in downtown San Diego. He had a condo in Coronado at the time.

  18. Richard Natale and Carmel Dagan; you are not good enough to be a pimple on a real critics ass! You two really screwed up Jerry Lewis’s eulogy.

  19. Bob says:

    You’re just pissed he wasn’t s red

  20. ZJ says:

    His body wasnt even cold before you frigid virtue signaling PCs jumped on him.

  21. Hirum Eagle says:

    Jerry Lewis was loved and respected. Watching his comedy never failed to made me laugh until I had tears in my eyes. His long time dedication to raising money to cure MD showed what a great man he was and I feel it was highly inappropriate of Variety to use his death as a platform to slam him. This obit was a disgusting hit piece on a man who’s life was dedicated to making people laugh and helping sick children. In 20 years no one will remember Richard Natale, Carmel Dagan, or Variety Magazine, but the world will always remember Jerry Lewis as the wonderful person he was.

  22. leonard pollack says:

    So sad he was never able to get his pride and joy released.It was a film about a clown sent to a Concentration Camp by the Nazi’s. He developed a bond with the Jewish children which developed into a great love amounts them. He joined then into the gas chamber to ease their fear. Needs to be finished and released.

    • frederick@dreamerchant.com says:

      “The Clown That Cried” is a signature moment in a long career.

    • Jimmy Green says:

      Mr. Lewis said on several occasions that it was NOT good enough to release. Poor artistic value. His statements during interviews regarding this film are on YouTube.

      • Tim says:

        Jerry can’t judge if it’s good….not enough distance.

        But it doesn’t matter if it’s good or not.

        It needs to be released! It’s an important piece of film history, because the concept influenced Roberto Benigni’s film & it was way ahead of its time….

        Release “The Day The Clown Cried” !!!

  23. David says:

    E I am not in show business but I am a show biz ebuff. I never met Jerry Lewis, but I have seen all of his movies. I started to watch the MDA telethon from The first telethon to the last, if not for Jerry and his Love for MDA kids the MDA would have lost billions in support.

    I will miss Jerry,
    He was crazy but lovable in his own way RIP.

  24. alice ranburger says:

    another one gone how sd it i we grew up with jerry lewis on tv he was a funny guy miss him

  25. Deb Stern says:

    I would like to amend my previous comment: first, I want to express my condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Lewis; may he rest in peace. Second, to all of the hagiologists (great word, Steve!) out there in ignorance land, you should take a gander at the interview of Mr. Lewis by The Hollywood Reporter done in 2016 – the ‘7 painful minutes’ one. Then watch the other nonagenarians interviewed in the series. Yes, Mr. Lewis was a talented performer; yes, Mr. Lewis was a philanthropist in his work for the MDA. But, as a person, well, we should ALL be respectful towards others, withhold all arrogance and mean spirit NO MATTER who we are or what we have achieved. Sorry if some of your bubbles are burst, but we all have to have a reality check sometimes. Stop criticizing the writers of the obit and Variety for publishing the whole reality of Mr. Lewis’ life. How petty!

    • Mark Corby says:

      There’s a time and a place. This was neither of those. As a filmmaker and as a person, Lewis had every right to speak his mind. Of course you’d say the same thing for people on the opposite end of the political spectrum such as yourself, right? Sounds like your bubble was burst and don’t forget, the people making their minds known here are the ‘fans’, the ‘ticket buyers’, the ones who line the pockets of Hollywood’s elite with millions of dollars. There’s your reality check and have a nice day.

  26. Personally speaking, I find him as the best comedian! He will be always in my memory as my childhood years are covered by laughs while I was watching his movies. My deepest condolences. Someone is dead when is forgotten by everyone. Jerry will be alive for ever!

  27. Mickey Mack says:

    “Hey Laaaady”!
    Thanks for being there in my lifelong childhood Mr. Lewis. You were a major part of my sense of humor to this day!
    Your comedy was…and still is….priceless!
    Thank you…😂 R.I.P.

  28. Kyle says:

    I learned to laugh at about life’s silly moments. You gave me that still to this day respect for those who care for children. You were one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity.

  29. Lee Marin says:

    There many people that really made me laugh uncontrollably, Jerry Lewis was one of them. You made life better.
    Thank you:)

  30. Susan says:

    Rest in peace to this legend i grew up to know

  31. Totally irresponsible to add that Jerry Lewis was racist and homophobic. In basically his eulogy? You are pond scum.

  32. John says:

    R.I.P., Jerry….thanks for everything.

    And now, please, release “The Day The Clown Cried” in a restored version !

  33. I used to watch. Jerry Lewis when I was a child.him and. Dean. Martin always made you laugh.those were the good old days.never will forget them.love you always!!!!!!

  34. KAG505 says:

    To Richard and Natale, your pathetic article on the passing of Jerry Lewis was more of a hit piece than an obituary to a man who had devoted the majority of his life and effort to helping others. You should be ashamed but since you posted the article you came up with, that would be out of the question.

    • John Abrahms says:

      Agreed, this is a pathetic attempt at virtue signaling the author’s political and social views. Only in journalism can you consider yourself a hero for pi**ing on the corpse of a man who isn’t even buried so that you can hustle a few bucks out of his death. The man raised almost $2.5 billion for muscular dystrophy, but let’s mention the times people freaked out about his jokes…

    • Margot Green says:

      Richard and Natale,
      I absolutely agree with KAG505. It was a hit piece. What was your objective for this negative commentary? It sounded like there must’ve been some personal issue to evoke such animus. If this was truly intended as an obit…. personal opinion of Jerry’s life has no place. Jerry was, no matter what, a man of accomplishment who had an enormous career, had an impact on an industry and was a dynamic advocate for MDA.

  35. Fred Mecklenburg says:

    Ah, Jerry, Jerry. When I heard the news I shed some tears, but didn’t frown. You didn’t lend yourself to frowns, and I know that wherever you are now you’re already working the house. Making the angels glow a little brighter. “Hey, we haven’t seen a burst of energy like this guy in 13 billion years!” Well, those celestials don’t know the half of it…you’ll soon be directing them in glorious pratfalls. Peace & love to you, Jerry, and tell Dean I said hey.

  36. Steven Danvers says:

    What a nasty,mean spirited obituary.

  37. jaynepickard says:

    Rest in peace you living legend and a huge part of my growing up.

  38. AnonJohn says:

    Has done more for people than a Variety writer will ever do.

  39. Dianne says:

    Rest In Peace jerry Lewis. You were a wonderful advocate for muscular dystrophy. You devoted many years to this cause. You are truly an angel in gods heaven❤️

    • kandi says:

      Rest in peace in the arms of our loving father an hour with the angels an have seen what we here can only wait on. You gave us lots of smiles through the years but also a few years. You helped so many and I am sure you heard the words we all hope to hear good job my faithful son. Loved you in life an will love you as you get your well deserved rest God bless you an give your family a peace during this time

  40. Deb Stern says:

    I am, have been, and always will be an admirer of Jerry Lewis. I have read about his life. Some of my fondest memories are of watching the telethon till I couldn’t keep my eyes open any more then waking up to continue watching till Jerry sang ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ Yet I am mature enough to understand that people develop reputations by the things they do and say. I love Jerry Lewis, but I also know that it’s necessary, from the standpoint of writing for the public, to portray a human being in an accurate light rather than to tiptoe around the truth. All of these ‘offended’ people really should get a life and get over themselves!

    • Steve says:

      Thank you! I have no idea why some here seemingly would have preferred a hagiography. He was a flawed (as we all are) and brilliant human being, and that’s far more interesting than a plaster saint.

  41. Mico & Angela Gutierrez says:

    Such a great man. Loved watching him for so many years. He will be missed. Condolences and prayers to his family. Thanks for the memories. Rest In Peace Jerry. 🙏😢

  42. Mike says:

    Simply a great man, i have watch and loved him since 1961. I will miss him. Rip.

  43. linelle Moran says:

    Disgraceful article. Jerry Lewis was a philanthropist and one of the funniest comedians of all time. Who let this idiot write his obituary?

  44. Lorie Finch says:

    Today, we lost a comic legend, and I also lost part of my childhood. We love you Jerry Lewis…you will be missed!

  45. Rhonda Campbell says:

    Isn’t that why is called Comedy?
    One of my best childhood memories was my mom letting me stay up all night watching the telethon..

    We will see you soon Friend….You’ll never walk alone

  46. Julie Celona says:

    Jerry was such a wonderful human being and a truly gifted comedian! That even a young audience could appreciate. I myself am 34 years young and Jerry was without a doubt one of my favorite comedians. God bless him, he truly embraced, enjoyed and absolutely loved making the whole world laugh and now he has been given the opportunity to make everyone in heaven laugh just as hard and just as much as he always did in life. My deepest condolences and sympathy to those related to Mr Lewis as well as to all of those who knew him and loved him.
    Rest in peace and thank you for always being able to make me laugh. You have no idea just how much being able to laugh means to those who suffer from depression. It was your humor and zest for life that helped save my life and I shall continue to hold onto the memories of your ability to make me laugh when I’m sad and feeling emotionally broken in the future.
    Rest in peace!!

  47. JD30 says:

    Third paragraph. Swine.

  48. The Nutty Professor says:

    Note to self: Never let people who hate you write your obituary. Sorry that the billions Jerry Lewis raised for ‘his kids’ with Muscular Dystrophy infuriated you enough to rip Jerry Lewis to shreds in his obituary. Says more about you than him actually.

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