Jerry Lewis dies at 91; Comedy icon had a major influence on slapstick performers
Published 7:50 am Tuesday, August 22, 2017
LOS ANGELES — Jerry Lewis, the manic, rubber-faced showman who jumped and hollered to fame in a lucrative partnership with Dean Martin, settled down to become a self-conscious screen auteur and found an even greater following as the tireless, teary host of the annual muscular dystrophy telethons, has died. He was 91.
Lewis died Sunday of natural causes in Las Vegas with his family by his side, publicist Candi Cazau said.
Tributes from friends, co-stars and disciples poured in immediately.
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“That fool was no dummy. Jerry Lewis was an undeniable genius an unfathomable blessing, comedy’s absolute!” Jim Carrey wrote Sunday on Twitter. “I am because he was!”
“The world has lost a true innovator & icon,” comedian Dane Cook wrote.
In Las Vegas, a message honoring the comedian is being featured on a marquee at Caesars Palace, where Lewis was once a headliner and had also hosted telethons. In Los Angeles fans and admirers gathered at Lewis’ two Hollywood Walk of Fame stars — one for television and one for film.
Lewis’ career spanned the history of show business in the 20th century, beginning in his parents’ vaudeville act at the age of 5. He was just 20 when his pairing with Martin made them international stars. He went on to make such favorites as “The Bellboy” and “The Nutty Professor,” was featured in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” and appeared as himself in Billy Crystal’s “Mr. Saturday Night.”
“Jerry was a pioneer in comedy and film. And he was a friend. I was fortunate to have seen him a few times over the past couple of years. Even at 91, he didn’t miss a beat. Or a punchline,” Lewis’ “The King of Comedy” co-star Robert De Niro said in a statement.
In the 1990s, he scored a stage comeback as the devil in the Broadway revival of “Damn Yankees.” And after a 20-year break from making movies, Lewis returned as the star of the independent drama “Max Rose,” released in 2016.
In his 80s, he was still traveling the world,
working on a stage version of “The Nutty Professor.” He was so active he would sometimes
forget the basics, like eating, his associates would recall. In 2012, Lewis missed an awards ceremony thrown by his beloved Friars Club because his blood sugar dropped from lack of food and he had to spend the night in the hospital.
A major influence on Carrey and other slapstick performers, Lewis also was known as the ringmaster of the Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Association, joking and reminiscing and introducing guests, sharing stories about ailing kids and concluding with his personal anthem, the ballad “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” From the 1960s onward, the telethons raised some $1.5 billion, including more than $60 million in 2009. He announced in 2011 that he would step down as host, but would remain chairman of the association he joined some 60 years ago.
Lewis’ fundraising efforts won him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2009 Oscar telecast.
In his early movies, Lewis played loose-limbed, buck-toothed, overgrown adolescents, trouble-prone and inclined to wail when beset by enemies. American critics recognized the comedian’s popular appeal but not his aspirations to higher art; the French did. Writing in Paris’ Le Monde newspaper, Jacques Siclier praised Lewis’ “apish allure, his conduct of a child, his grimaces, his contortions, his maladjustment to the world,
his morbid fear of women, his way of disturbing order everywhere he appeared.”
The French government awarded Lewis the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1983 and Commander of Arts and Letters the following year.Jerry Lewis dies at 91