Obituary

Comedy legend was a polarising personality

Jerry Lewis (above) made more than 50 films, including The Nutty Professor (with Stella Stevens), as well as countless club and television appearances. He made 16 films with Dean Martin before they broke up as a duo. They did not speak for 20 years until
Jerry Lewis (above) made more than 50 films, including The Nutty Professor (with Stella Stevens), as well as countless club and television appearances. He made 16 films with Dean Martin before they broke up as a duo. They did not speak for 20 years until Frank Sinatra staged a reunion at a 1976 telethon.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Jerry Lewis (above right) made more than 50 films, including The Nutty Professor (with Stella Stevens), as well as countless club and television appearances. He made 16 films with Dean Martin (above left) before they broke up as a duo. They did not speak
Jerry Lewis (above right) made more than 50 films, including The Nutty Professor (with Stella Stevens), as well as countless club and television appearances. He made 16 films with Dean Martin (above left) before they broke up as a duo. They did not speak for 20 years until Frank Sinatra (above centre) staged a reunion at a 1976 telethon.PHOTO: LAS VEGAS NEWS BUREAU/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Jerry Lewis made more than 50 films, including The Nutty Professor (above, with Stella Stevens), as well as countless club and television appearances. He made 16 films with Dean Martin before they broke up as a duo. They did not speak for 20 years until F
Jerry Lewis made more than 50 films, including The Nutty Professor (above, with Stella Stevens), as well as countless club and television appearances. He made 16 films with Dean Martin before they broke up as a duo. They did not speak for 20 years until Frank Sinatra staged a reunion at a 1976 telethon.PHOTO: LAS VEGAS NEWS BUREAU/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Jerry Lewis, the master of slapstick, who wrote, directed and starred in his own movies, was both beloved and derided

WASHINGTON •Jerry Lewis, a comic actor whose rubber-limbed pratfalls, squeaky voice and pipsqueak buffoonery made him one of the most uncontainable screen clowns of all time, died on Sunday at his home in Las Vegas. He was 91.

He died of natural causes with his family by his side, the family said in a statement.

His partnership with the suave and assured crooner Dean Martin made them a sensation, easily the most popular comedy team of the mid-20th century. After their bitter break-up, which devastated their millions of fans, Lewis embarked on a solo career of dizzying summits and desperate lows, including an addiction to painkillers as years of physical comedy took their toll on him.

Fascinated by the technical side of film, he became one of the first sound-era comedians to write, direct and star in his own movies. He made many contributions to the industry, including the invention in 1960 of a device - the video assist, which allowed directors to review their work immediately on the set - still in common use.

He was credited with laying the groundwork for later comedic writer-director-actors such as Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.

Few comedians have been so beloved and so derided as Lewis, who amassed devoted fans and stunningly hostile reviews from critics. Few have been so accomplished as humanitarians - his annual muscular dystrophy telethons had raised almost US$1.5 billion by the late 2000s - or so polarising as personalities.

Lewis could be candid and coy, insightful and insulting in the same sentence. He was tireless, demanding and insecure - in his own words "a neurotic, temperamental imbecile". He could also play the charming child, telling interviewers he never felt more than nine years old.

"An audience is nothing more than eight or nine hundred mamas and papas clapping their hands and saying, 'Good boy, baby,'" he said. "You'll find that people who had enough 'Good boy, baby' from their parents rarely turn to comedy."

He was born Jerome Levitch on March 16, 1926, in Newark, the son of Jewish vaudevillians who performed at New York-area resorts.

He debuted in 1931, when his parents brought him onstage at a hotel to sing the Depression-era anthem, Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?. Once, he slipped onstage and his foot went through a footlight bulb. "There was this big laugh, relieved laughter when the audience saw I wasn't hurt," he told The Post. "So I went after a second bulb. I'd been hit by the poison dart. I knew how it felt to get a laugh."

A struggling comedian at 19, Lewis surged to stardom at 20 after partnering with Martin in 1946 at an Atlantic City nightclub. At the 500 Club, their act contained the core of what would excite crowds for the next decade: Martin acting seductively towards women, Lewis doing his utmost to interrupt the singer by breaking plates and drinking water from flower vases.

They made 16 films together, including Jumping Jacks (1952) and Artists And Models (1955), and were major television stars before breaking up in 1956 at their peak as a duo.

As an actor, Lewis brought an antic joy to hundreds of millions of people who saw him play a role he called "the Idiot", a cross-eyed innocent who bested bullies despite his nasally voice and gangly appearance. The Idiot was the sort of uncontrollable character - falling down laundry chutes, breaking furniture and sputtering at the sight of an alluring woman - that set the loony standard for later generations of comedians, including Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler.

As hosts of the NBC's The Colgate Comedy Hour from 1950 to 1955, Lewis and Martin burst onto the airwaves with an anarchic style unlike most TV of that era. Lewis' goofball utterings - "I like it, I like it" and "La-a-a-dy!" - became national catchphrases.

"You see Jerry Lewis running up to the cameras and into the audience and breaking the rules right off the bat," said Mr David Schwartz, chief film curator at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. "It makes Robin Williams look sedate."

With a manic energy that often landed him in hospitals from overwork, Lewis made more than 50 films, countless club and TV appearances and several popular recordings. He was such a financial powerhouse at Paramount Pictures in the 1950s and early 1960s that one executive there was reported to have said: "If he wants to burn the studio down, I've got the match."

He debuted as a director, writer and actor in The Bellboy (1960), in which he played the hapless title character almost entirely in pantomime. The film was a smash and brought him the cachet to control his next few projects, including The Ladies Man (1961), The Errand Boy (1961) and The Nutty Professor (1963). He was greatly inspired by having worked under director Frank Tashlin, a former animator, on such films as Cinderfella (1960) and The Disorderly Orderly (1964).

Like Tashlin, Lewis exaggerated sound and sight for affect. In The Nutty Professor, the use of amplified sound allows the audience to experience the title character's hangover after a night of drinking.

When prominent American critics bothered to review Lewis' films at all, they generally dismissed them as recycled sight gags and plotless pratfalls that lacked continuity.

Lewis gained the grudging respect of some reviewers in 1983 when Martin Scorsese hired him for a dramatic part in The King Of Comedy as a talk-show host kidnapped by a fan (played by Robert De Niro).

To some French cinema theorists, Lewis was a "total film- maker" in the comic movie-making tradition of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, who also created and starred in their own projects. The theorists, and even directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, considered Lewis' broad comic sensibility a comment on an American penchant for excess, male self-doubt and sexual anxiety.

Lewis was contemptuous of the media and, to some degree, American audiences.

He told The Washington Post in 1972: "Americans are always wondering whether they should laugh if someone gets a pie in the face, if it will demean their character. Europeans don't think about things like that. They just laugh."

After a long run of successes without Martin, Lewis saw his film career plummet in the late 1960s amid audience demand for more topical humour.

Further problems developed in the 1970s. A chain of cinemas he owned went bankrupt and he wrestled with addiction to painkilling drugs to treat a back injury.

His movie career went fallow after he filmed what he considered his unreleased masterpiece. The movie was The Day The Clown Cried (1972), in which he played a concentration camp clown who entertains children as they are led to the gas chamber. Considered by those who have seen it as one of the most offensive films ever made, the film was indefinitely withheld from release amid lawsuits among its backers and writers.

His 1944 marriage to Esther Calonico, a big-band singer known as Patti Palmer, ended in divorce in 1980.

Survivors include his wife, SanDee Pitnick "Sam" Lewis, whom he married in 1983; five sons from the first marriage, including musician Gary Lewis; and a daughter from the second marriage.

A son from his first marriage, Joseph, died in 2009 of an apparent drug overdose.

Lewis remained a TV star as host of muscular dystrophy telethons, for which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognised the actor with its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2009.

The telethons featured guest appearances, vaudeville acts, acrobats and a procession of youngsters - called "Jerry's Kids" - suffering from muscular dystrophy.

They were the subject of enduring debate. TV critics and advocacy groups lambasted them as tasteless spectacles that exploited the children they professed to help.

Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Association parted ways in 2010, under circumstances that remain vague. Five years later, the association said it was ending the telethon for good.

The Lewis-Martin split was acrimonious. They did not speak to each other for 20 years, until a mutual friend, Frank Sinatra, staged an on-air reunion between them during the 1976 telethon, to the visible discomfort of both men.

A more lasting reconciliation came in 1987, when Lewis attended the funeral of Martin's oldest son, Dean Paul Martin, a pilot in the California Air National Guard who died in a crash.

They continued to speak occasionally until Martin died in 1995.

WASHINGTON POST, NYTIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2017, with the headline 'Comedy legend was a polarising personality'. Print Edition | Subscribe