Famously paired with
Jerry Lewis also starred in the unreleased film The Day The Clown Cried, believed by many to be a milestone in unintentional bad taste.
Jerry Lewis, son of a vaudeville performer named Danny Lewis, began in burlesque in 1942, which means that if the birth year of 1926 is correct, he was only 16 years old, and he married two years later in 1944 at 18. He gained initial fame with singer Dean Martin, who served as a straight man to Lewis' manic, zany antics as the Martin and Lewis comedy team. They distinguished themselves from the majority of comedy acts of the 1940s by relying on the interaction of the two comics instead of pre-planned skits. In the late forties, they quickly rose to national prominence, first with their popular nightclub act and then as film stars. Critics often found it difficult to describe their chaotic act beyond the austere "Martin sings and Lewis clowns". They continued to perform in film and on television until their partnership ended in 1956. Following their split, the two became involved in a well-publicized and long-running feud that never truly ended; the next time they were seen together in public would be a surprise appearance by Martin on Lewis's telethon in 1976, arranged by Frank Sinatra. Lewis wrote of his kinship with Martin in the 2005 book Dean and Me (A Love Story).
Lewis returned as a solo act with his debut film The Delicate Delinquent in 1957. Teaming with director Frank Tashlin, whose background as a cartoonist suited Lewis's brand of humor, he starred in five more films before he produced, directed, wrote, and starred in his own movie entitled The Bellboy in 1960. Using the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami as his setting, on a small budget, a very tight shooting schedule and no script, Lewis shot the film by day and performed at the hotel in the evenings. During production, Lewis decided to use the new technology of videotape to record the scene at the same time as he was filming it, allowing him to review the performance instantly. Later, as more portable and affordable equipment became available, this technique would become an industry standard known as video assist.
Jerry Lewis directed several more of his own films including The Ladies Man, The Errand Boy, and the iconic film, The Nutty Professor. During this period he was consistently praised by some highbrow French critics in the influential Cahiers du Cinema for his absurd comedy, in part because he had gained respect as an auteur who had total control over all aspects of his films, comparable to Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. This is the likely origin of the common but inaccurate belief in the United States that Lewis is a superstar in France.
Lewis' box office appeal waned by the mid 1960s. In 1966, he began hosting an annual Labor Day Telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, a charity with which he had been publicly associated since 1950.
Later, Lewis starred in and directed the unreleased The Day The Clown Cried in 1972. The film was a comedy set in a Nazi concentration camp. Lewis has explained why the film hasn't been released by suggesting litigation over post-production financial difficulties. It has been seen by very few select individuals, but those who see it either praise it for comedic genius or decry it as the utmost in bad taste (as Spy Magazine did in 1992).
After an eight year absence from movies, Lewis returned in the early 1980s with Hardly Working, a film he both directed and starred in. He followed this up with a critically acclaimed performance in Martin Scorsese's 1983 film The King of Comedy in which Lewis plays a late night TV host plagued by an obsessive fan. He currently resides in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ironically, the role had been offered to, and turned down, by Dean Martin.
Jerry and his popular movie characters were animated in the cartoon series Will The Real Jerry Lewis Please Sit Down? which premiered on ABC and lasted one season from 1970 to 1972. The show was produced at Filmation Studios. Only 17 episodes were created. Jerry Lewis was the show's partner.
Jerry Lewis opens the 2005 MDA telethon.Lewis has organized a Labor Day telethon to help raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) since 1966. His efforts have helped raise more than 2,000,000,000 (USD). In 1977, he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and in 1985, he received a US Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service. In September, 2005 Lewis is slated to receive the Governor's Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, honoring his long-running telethons.
The telethons are typically star-studded: among Lewis's co-hosts through the years were Ed McMahon and Casey Kasem. A frequent performer in the 1970s and 1980s was the late Frank Sinatra, who reunited Lewis with Dean Martin on the telethon in 1976.
On his 40th Labor Day telethon in 2005, Lewis added Salvation Army fundraising (for Hurricane Katrina) to his usual MDA fundraising.
This Jerry Lewis Biography Page is Copyright © 2004 - 2009 Chuck Ayoub