Beloved by the French, who call him “Le Roi du Crazy,” Jerry Lewis is best known these days for his Labor Day charity fundraising telethons as national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. But Lewis came to fame as a comedian, actor, film producer, writer, director and even singer.
Lewis was born into a showbiz family. His father, whose professional name was Danny Lewis, was a vaudeville entertainer; his mother Rachel was a piano player at a radio station.
He started performing at the age of 5 and had honed his “record act," in which he would extravagantly mime the lyrics to songs at the age of 15.
Lewis hit the gravy train, though, when he was teamed in 1946 with an Italian singer named Dean Martin, who would provide the songs and be straight man to Lewis manic comic, performing in a high-pitched voice: ”Hey, lady.” They were hits on radio, on TV, especially as hosts of the NBC’s “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” in live appearances and in a series of comedy features for Paramount Pictures including “The Caddy” and “The Stooge.”
The duo’s relationship, though, began to frazzle during the 1950s as Lewis took on a bigger role in the films and in their act. The two broke up in 1956.
His first comedy as a solo star was 1957’s “The Delicate Delinquent.” Teaming up with former Looney Tune director Frank Tashlin, he made five more wacky comedies for Paramount.
His directorial debut came in 1960, with the nearly silent film “The Bellboy,” in which he played the starring role. Lewis came up with the idea for the project while performing at the Fountainbleu Hotel in Miami. He shot the film during the day while performing at the club at night. During the shoot, he devised a video assist camera that allowed him to play back and view what he had just shot. The video assist camera is widely used today.
The French fell in love with Lewis in “The Bellboy” because his silent slapstick antics reminded them of their own clown prince, Jacques Tati. Three years later, he wrote, directed produced and starred in arguably his best film, “The Nutty Professor.” Though he continued to make films, critics and audiences were less than enthusiastic. Moving to Columbia Pictures in 1966, the quality of his films including “Three on a Couch” and 1967’s “Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River” didn’t help his reputation.
He ventured into TV in the fall of 1963 with the two-hour weekly, “The Jerry Lewis Show” on ABC, but it was history by year’s end. Lewis had a bit more success in 1967 with “The Jerry Lewis Show” on NBC, which lasted two seasons.
During this time, he began teaching film at USC and even mentored George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
In 1972, he went to France to make “The Day the Clown Died” about a circus clown who had to lead children into the concentration camp death chambers. The film was never completed.
But he made a major film comeback in 1983 in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” in which he plays a cold-hearted, popular late-night talk show host and comedian who is kidnapped by an inept comic (Robert De Niro).
He continued on the dramatic bent, earning good reviews for the 1986 TV movie, “Fight For Life” and in a four-episode arc in 1988 of the CBS series “Wiseguy.”
Lewis scored a huge hit on Broadway playing the devil in 1994 in the Broadway musical “Damn Yankees” and appeared in such films as 1992’s “Mr. Saturday Night” and 1994’s “Funny Bones.
Over the years, he earned countless awards for his film and humanitarian work, including the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2009 at the 81st annual Academy Awards.
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