Comedian And Showman Jerry Lewis Dies at 91
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.
Publicist Candi Cazau says Lewis died Sunday morning of natural causes at age 91 in Las Vegas with his family by his side.
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 favourites 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.
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 90s, he was still performing standup shows.
A major influence on Jim 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.
“I believe, in my own way, that I say something on film. I’m getting to those who probably don’t have the mentality to understand what ... A Man for All Seasons is all about, plus many who did understand it,” he wrote. “I am not ashamed or embarrassed at how seemingly trite or saccharine something in my films will sound. I really do make films for my great-great-grandchildren and not for my fellows at the Screen Directors Guild or for the critics.”
He was born Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jersey, on March 16, 1926. His father, billed as Danny Lewis, was a singer on the borscht and burlesque circuits. His mother played piano for Danny’s act. Their only child was often left alone in hotel rooms, or lived in Brooklyn with his paternal grandparents, Russian Jewish immigrants, or his aunts in New Jersey.
“All my life I’ve been afraid of being alone,” Lewis once said. In his later years the solitude haunted him, and he surrounded himself with an entourage at work and at home.
Fame brought him women and Lewis wrote openly of his many partners. After 36 years of marriage and six sons, Patti Lewis sued her husband for divorce in 1982. She later wrote a book claiming that he was an adulterer and drug addict who abused their children. Son Gary became a pop singer whose group, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, had a string of hits in 1965-66.
In his late 50s, Lewis married Sandra Pitnick, 32, a former airline stewardess. They had a daughter, Dani, named for Jerry’s father.