Lewis, Jerry (1926—)

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Lewis, Jerry (1926—)

For more than half a century comedian Jerry Lewis has been entertaining audiences around the world with his unique style of exaggerated mugging and heavy-handed sentimentality. A national presence since the mid-1940s, when he teamed up with crooner Dean Martin to create one of show business' legendary comedy acts, Lewis has been hailed by some as a comic master equal to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and reviled by others as self-indulgent and grating. Author Tim Brooks best captures the intensity of the contrasting opinions of Lewis when he writes, "He is perhaps the most controversial performer in show business; depending on whom you read, he is either the greatest comic genius of the Western world, or the most idiotic no-talent to ever foul the screen." After a decade as entertain-ment's hottest comedy team, Martin and Lewis broke up in 1956. Each went onto successful solo careers, with Lewis writing and directing a series of popular films. As his film work diminished, he remained in the public eye as the host of his annual Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. Lewis overcame a series of personal problems in the 1980s to enjoy a resurgence of popularity on both film and stage. However, despite his international acclaim, he remains an acquired taste for many Americans.

Born Joseph Levitch, on March 16, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey, Lewis was destined to a life in entertainment from birth. His parents, vaudevillian Danny Lewis and pianist Rae Lewis, were veteran performers who encouraged their son to follow in their footsteps. Jerry Lewis made his professional debut at the age of five in New York's Borscht Belt singing "Brother Can You Spare a Dime." As a teen, the young comic was noted for his manic stand-up routine in which he impersonated popular singers. His career was stalled until 1946 when Lewis decided to form an act with an Italian singer named Dean Martin. Their partnership began on July 25, 1946 at the 500 Club in Atlantic City, when Lewis suggested his friend replace another entertainer who had quit the bill. The pair originally worked separately, but later began to join forces on stage, where they traded insults, improvised jokes, and embodied a sense of lunacy. Martin's handsome, romantic persona made him the perfect straight man for the goofy Lewis. Many of their routines revolved Lewis' attempts to break-up Martin's musical numbers with his childish antics. The team was soon discovered performing at the Copacabana by film producer Hal Wallis, who signed them to a long-term contract with Paramount Pictures. They made their screen debut in My Friend Irma (1949), in which they essentially performed their nightclub routine. Audiences quickly embraced the pair, who went on to star in more than a dozen highly successful comedies. Along with their movie work, Martin and Lewis appeared frequently in nightclubs, on radio shows, and on television. In the mid-1950s, relations between the performers soured and they made national headlines with their decision to break-up the act. Martin and Lewis made their last regular appearance together at the Copacabana on July 25, 1956, ten years to the day after they became a team.

Many believed the split of Martin and Lewis would doom both of their careers. However, the pair proved doubters wrong as Martin achieved solo success in film, television, and recordings. Lewis emerged from the break-up as a comedy auteur. During the 1960s, he produced, starred, and directed a number of successful comedies. His most noteworthy films of this period are The Bellboy (1960), Cinderfella (1960), The Patsy (1964), and The Nutty Professor (1963). In this last film, a take-off of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Lewis plays a nerdy chemist who transforms himself into a cool lounge lizard named Buddy Love. Some critics saw this performance as a send-up of Dean Martin. French critics viewed Lewis' 1960s films as proof that he was a true comic master. In fact, they deemed The Nutty Professor the best picture of the year. While many Americans found Lewis' work overly broad and sentimental, Europeans viewed him as the successor to Chaplin and Keaton. In 1984, he was inducted into the French Legion of Honor and praised by the French Minister of Culture for his humanitarian work and comic genius.

Despite praise from Europe, Lewis' popularity in America declined in the 1970s. His self-indulgent films that offered little more than Lewis mugging through tired plots alienated U.S. audiences. Lewis' career reached its nadir with his unreleased film The Day the Clown Cried (1972), in which he portrayed a clown named Helmut Doork, who attempts to entertain Jewish children while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. To offset his career setbacks, he devoted most of his attention to raising funds to fight Muscular Dystrophy. He raised millions of dollars each Labor Day and was nominated for the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. It was on his 1976 telethon that Lewis was stunned by the surprise appearance of Dean Martin. Frank Sinatra reunited the pair, who had remained distant for decades, in one of TV's most memorable moments. The following years saw Lewis face several health crises and overcome a long-time Percodan addiction.

Lewis saw his career take an upswing in the 1980s with his acclaimed dramatic performance as a talk show host kidnapped by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy. He appeared infrequently thereafter in films, but made strong showings on the TV crime drama Wiseguy and on Broadway in the 1995 revival of Damn Yankees. For his role as the Devil he became the highest paid performer in Broadway history. As the millenium approaches, Jerry Lewis remains a prominent figure on the American landscape as several of his 1960s comedies, like The Nutty Professor, are being remade for a new generation. Still, Lewis remains a controversial figure. When asked to discuss the ambivalent feelings he generates Lewis replied: "People hate me because I am a multifaceted, talented, wealthy, internationally famous genius." Such statements reveal why Lewis has not been completely embraced by the American public. However, his unique comic style and voluminous amounts of charity work have won him a spot in the hearts of millions of others around the globe.

—Charles Coletta

Further Reading:

Brooks, Tim. The Complete Directory to Prime Time TV Stars. New York, Ballatine Books, 1987.

Grace, Arthur. Comedians. New York, Thomasson-Grant, 1991.

Lewis, Jerry, and Herb Gluck. Jerry Lewis in Person. New York, Atheneum, 1982.

Levy, Shawn. King of Comedy. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Marx, Arthur. Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime (Especially Himself): The Story of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis. New York, Hawthorn, 1974.

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