Jerry Lewis

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Jerry Lewis, born Joseph Levitch in Newark, N.J, the legendary slapstick comic of 1963’s classic “The Nutty Professor” and 1960’s “The Bellboy,” died in Las Vegas on Sunday at the age of 91. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that he died at his home at 9:15 a.m, which his agent later confirmed.
You don’t have to be French to appreciate Jerry Lewis. The comedian, filmmaker, telethon king, and Hollywood superstar could be qualified as a living cartoon who inspired many of today’s and yesteryear’s physical comedians.
Lewis’ brand of brash, physical, slapstick comedy has been abundantly influential to comedy and comedians alike. Most notably, his legendary style has been said to influence the likes of Jim Carrey, especially his work in the ’90s (“Ace Ventura,” “The Mask,” “Dumb and Dumber,” “Liar Liar”), all the way to Adam Sandler. In fact, Sandler and Lewis have more than just comedic style in common: they have both been much more highly regarded in France for their talents than in the U.S — so much so that both have had their movies appearing at the usually high-brow, artsy-driven Cannes Film Festival over the years. Lewis’ final film, “Max Rose,” screened out of competition at the festival in 2013. His films, much like Sandler’s, have been championed by high-brow French film journals such as the legendary Cahiers du Cinema.
Although his movies ranging from the aforementioned “The Nutty Professor” to 1960’s classic “The Bellboy” have been audience favorites for decades on end, Lewis’ partnering with Dean Martin in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a comedic duo might have been the peak of his career. The silliness and compulsively entertaining riff-raff between the two had a contagious allure that could only be described as sheer lunacy. From “My Friend Irma” to other films,  including “The Caddy” and “The Stooge,” the improvisational nature of this physical brand of comedy was nothing short of influential to the next 50+ years of Hollywood comedy.
Outside of his work in movies, Lewis’ legacy might be forever cemented for his role in creating the annual Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. Hosted by Lewis himself until 2011, it has raised more than $2.45 billion since its inception in 1966 and has been touted for its hurricane importance in combatting the tremendously debilitating disease. Although celebrated by many groups as an incredible achievement of fundraising, the Telethon was beset by controversy over the years, most notably due to the claim that not all of the money collected was going to the actual cause, something that Lewis had always denied himself.
“The Nutty Professor” was by far his biggest box-office hit, grossing $19 million in 1963 and inspiring a highly successful remake in 1996 starring Eddie Murphy. Around that time, Lewis started writing and directing as well, with his best results coming from 1961’s “The Ladies Man” and 1962’s “The Errand Boy.”
Over the years, a cult following developed for his unreleased 1972 movie “The Day the Clown Cried,” his first stab at serious drama, which ended up making the film one of the most popular unreleased films in Hollywood history. The film dealt with a circus clown being imprisoned in a ghetto by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Although the film, which has been completed and edited over the years by Lewis, was shelved, there had always been hope that one day it would get a proper release. Lewis even donated a copy of the film to the Library of Congress, which has planned a screening of the film for August of 2025. People have been crossing their fingers for a possible leak of the film, but Lewis’ own feelings about it have made many skeptical. He was quoted as saying that he was “ashamed of the film,” and that it was “bad, bad, bad.”
It cannot be denied that Lewis poured his heart and soul into making that landmark film and that it practically meant everything to him, as its star Harry Shearer put it so eloquently when speaking to the New Yorker, the film was “a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz.”
Over the ensuing years, Lewis continued to work, but his fame dwindled and stardom burned away, barely seen post the 1960s. However, he’d have the odd success here and there, such as his appearance in Martin Scorsese’s masterful 1982 dissection of fame and celebrity “The King of Comedy,” a spiritual sequel to “Taxi Driver,” in which Lewis brilliantly dissected his own persona. There was also Peter Chelsom’s critically acclaimed 1995 film “Funny Bones,” which featured Lewis in a serious role as a rundown stand-up comedian.
Lewis continued to perform stand-up in Las Vegas until late last year when his health started to deteriorate. Buddy Love has gone to that great cocktail lounge in the sky and the world will never be the same without him.
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