Jerry Lewis, an actor and auteur who was one of the most influential forces in American comedy, died Sunday morning at his Las Vegas home. He was 91.
“Legendary entertainer Jerry Lewis passed away peacefully today of natural causes at 91 at his home with family by his side,” his family said in a statement to the Las Vegas Review-Journal writer John Katsilometes.
In a career that spanned vaudeville, radio, television, film and philanthropy, Lewis established the persona of a manic, juvenile jokester, which belied darker, more self-lacerating elements below the surface, giving his seemingly silly performances a fascinatingly edgy undercurrent. That tension powered his artistic life as well, as Lewis modeled himself after earlier filmmakers such as Charlie Chaplin, seeking to gain control over his idiosyncratic, deeply personal art by writing, directing and producing his own material. Revered by everyone from Martin Scorsese to Jerry Seinfeld, Lewis was intimately involved with some of his greatest films, including 1960’s The Bellboy and 1963’s The Nutty Professor, always with a mind toward challenging himself and entertaining an audience. “I learned from my dad that when you walk in front of an audience, they are the kings and queens, and you’re but the jester,” he said in 2016. “And if you don’t think that way, you’re going to get very, very conceited.”
Born in March 1926 in New Jersey into a family of entertainers — his father a vaudeville performer, his mother a piano player — Lewis caught the acting bug early, appearing on stage with his parents at a young age. Dropping out of high school and dreaming of breaking into show business, he worked at clubs in the Catskills, worried that his physical appearance would keep him from having a career. As he wrote in his 2005 memoir Dean and Me: A Love Story, “I was tall, skinny, gawky; cute but funny-looking. With the voice God had given me, I certainly wasn’t going to be a singer like my dad, with his Al Jolson baritone. I always saw the humor in things, the joke possibilities. At the same time, I didn’t have the confidence to stand on a stage and talk.” Instead, he realized that playing the broad clown — wearing goofy wigs, pantomiming in an exaggerated fashion — opened up a rich vein of comic possibilities. “God hadn’t made me handsome,” Lewis wrote, “but he’d given me something, I always felt: funny bones.”
Lewis parlayed that rambunctious stage act into a successful odd-couple pairing with Dean Martin, a dashing, suave comic. Starting their partnership in 1946, Martin and Lewis worked their way up from nightclubs to a radio show, eventually costarring in comedy films such as 1949’s My Friend Irma. The duo made 16 movies over 10 years, becoming major stars in the process by juxtaposing Martin’s leading-man demeanor with Lewis’s wizardly screwball tomfoolery.
After the partnership ended in 1956, Lewis focused on film, joining forces with director Frank Tashlin on a series of successful comedies, like 1958’s Rock-A-Bye Baby. Soon, though, Lewis’s ambitions found him writing, directing and producing his own work, leading to a series of iconic films such as The Nutty Professor, in which he played the nerdy, unattractive chemistry professor Julius Kelp, who creates a formula that transforms him into the charming, debonair Buddy Love. A comedic take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Nutty Professor was widely read as Lewis’s attack on his photogenic old partner Martin, but it was also a hilarious, pratfall-filled film in which the director-star excoriated his own insecurities. For Lewis, his movies were a form of psychiatry. The comic once said of his reason for avoiding going into therapy, “If I find out what’s bothering me, I won’t be funny any more.”
Lewis’s popularity declined in the mid-1960s, but he continued to make movies, as well as spent time teaching film at the University of Southern California. This was but one way that he would help shape a new generation of filmmakers, including George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who took his classes. (Lewis was proud of mentioning, “Steven said one night, ‘I get more information from a Jerry Lewis evening than I do from a university.'”)
But perhaps his most famous movie of the period was one he never released: a bold 1972 drama called The Day the Clown Cried, about a German clown (played by Lewis) imprisoned in a concentration camp. Lewis never allowed The Day the Clown Cried to be viewed publically, which only made the movie more of a fascinating curio to cineastes. “There’s not a day of my life when I don’t think about this movie,” Lewis once admitted, although he insisted the film was a failure. “It was all bad and it was bad because I lost the magic,” Lewis declared at a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. “You will never see it, no one will ever see it, because I am embarrassed at the poor work.”
While Lewis’s career faded, his reputation was growing among French filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, who took his work seriously as art. (The Nutty Professor made his list of the Top 10 films of 1963.) And in the early 1980s, Lewis experienced a revival thanks to his great dramatic work in Scorsese’s caustic showbiz comedy The King of Comedy, in which he played a Johnny Carson-like talk-show host who’s stalked by Robert De Niro’s demented aspiring comic Rupert Pupkin. It was a change-of-pace role for Lewis, and it earned him some of his best reviews. “The films Jerry has made over the years, I still screen them,” Scorsese said in 2013 of his star. “The visionary aspect, the staging, clarity of the frame, composition, timing — natural timing and physical timing — and the characters in the frame — they are timeless.”
In later years, Lewis remained a cultural figure thanks to his annual hosting of The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association. And his style of anarchic comedy echoed in the inspired, rubber-faced antics of latter-day stars such as Jim Carrey. Plus, Lewis’s most iconic film, The Nutty Professor, was remade in 1996 by Eddie Murphy, becoming one of the year’s biggest hits and spawning a successful 2000 sequel. Just as significant, Lewis’ name became synonymous with a particular kind of divisive artist who’s most admired and appreciated overseas. For decades, Lewis has been a revered institution in France, receiving the nation’s Legion of Honor award in 2006. (“This is my country,” he said about France in 1982. “I only live in America.”)
The recipient of the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2009, Lewis had largely retired from acting before taking on the lead role of an aging widower in 2016’s Max Rose. Until the end, he approached his work as a performer and filmmaker with the innocence of a newcomer.
“What you have to do is to stick a pipe in your ear and let it suck out all memory of what you are supposed to do,” he said in 2016 about his creative process. “You do that and then you make the movie. Suck out all of the information in your brain and go and do this as a novice and hope you’re OK. It helps with your spontaneity. That’s a good actor.”