Comedy Legend and Philanthropist Jerry Lewis Dead at 91
Lewis hosted the annual Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon for 44 years.
Jerry Lewis, whose show business career spanned more than 70 years, died of natural causes on Sunday in Las Vegas at 91-years-old.
Lewis was born in Newark, New Jersey. He was expelled from high school at 15, and dropped out of vocational high school 10 days before his 16th birthday. But then, partnered with Dean Martin, Lewis forged the “hottest comedy of an era” writes the Los Angeles Times. He was known for his “manic, over-the-top, rubber-faced routines” and audiences loved him.
“He was the top comedy star of his generation,” film critic and historian Leonard Maltin said Sunday to the Los Angeles Times. “First in tandem with his partner Dean Martin and then on his own in the mid-1950s.”
Lewis and Martin teamed up for the first time on stage in 1946, in a boardwalk nightclub in Atlantic City, N.J. They were wildly unpredictable; Lewis would even cut off customer’s neckties or set the musicians’ sheet music on fire. The duo would also sing, dance, joke and always ad-lib.
In 1951, at the Paramount Theater in Manhattan, Martin and Lewis performed six sold-out shows a day for two weeks — and seven on Saturdays. More than 22,000 people a day went to see them, and shows started as early as 6 a.m.
The pair then joined television and regularly hosted The Colgate Comedy Hour from 1950-1955. They also appeared in 16 films together.
When Lewis went solo, he signed a record-breaking contract with Paramount Pictures: $10 million to appear in 14 films over seven years, according to the Los Angeles Times. He went on to star, direct, and co-write his own films.
Lewis hit a roadblock when he started a two-hour, live Saturday night variety-talk show with ABC in 1962. It was canceled by the network after 13 weeks. But Lewis didn’t shy away from this failure, in fact, he openly acknowledged it. He took out full-page ads in the show-business trade papers that said: “Oops!!! jerry lewis.”
“I don’t give a … if people think I have a fantastic ego,” Lewis told the New Yorker in 2000, writes the LA Times. “I earned it! I worked my heart out! And you know what? I’m as good as they get.”
Then, Lewis shifted away from comedy and into philanthropy. He hosted the annual Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon for 44 years.
In 1982, Lewis returned to the movies in Martin Scorses’s The King of Comedy.
He is survived by his wife SanDee and five children. Watch some Lewis’ career highlights in the video above.
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