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Jerry Lewis (born March 16, 1926) is an Americanmarker comedian, actor, film producer, writer, film director, singer and humanitarian. He is best-known for his slapstick humor in stage, screen, television, radio, recording and is also known for his charity fund-raising telethons and position as national chairman for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). Lewis has won several awards for lifetime achievements from The American Comedy Awards, The Golden Camera, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and The Venice Film Festival, and he has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Famemarker. In 2005, he received the Governors Award of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Board of Governors, which is the highest Emmy Award presented.

On February 22, 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Lewis the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. As an innovative filmmaker, Lewis is credited with inventing the video assist system in cinematography (some doubt now exists about this, due to a patent predating Lewis' by more than a decade ). Lewis was originally paired up with Dean Martin in 1946, forming the comedy team of Martin and Lewis. In addition to the team's popular nightclub work, they starred in a successful series of comedy films for Paramount Pictures. The act broke up ten years later.

Early life

Jerry Lewis was born Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jerseymarker, the son of parents of Russian Jewish ancestry. His parents, married in January 1925, were Daniel Levitch, a Master of Ceremonies and vaudeville entertainer who used the professional name Danny Lewis, and Rachel ("Rae") Levitch (née Brodsky), a piano player for the radio station WORmarker and musical arrangement performer.

Lewis started performing at the age of five, and by the age of fifteen had developed his Record Act, in which he mimed lyrics of operatic and popular songs to a phonograph. He attended Irvington High Schoolmarker in Irvington, NJmarker. At about age sixteen, he began using the professional name Jerry Lewis instead of Joey Lewis to avoid confusion with comedian, Joe E. Lewis or heavyweight champion Joe Louis.


Teaming with Dean Martin

Lewis initially gained fame with singer Dean Martin, who served as straight man to Lewis's zany antics in the Martin and Lewis comedy team. They distinguished themselves from the majority of comedy acts of the 1940s by relying on the interaction of the two comics instead of planned skits. In the late 1940s, they quickly rose to national prominence, first with their popular nightclub act, next as stars of their own radio program, then with appearances on early live television (most notably in 1950 as the first of a series of hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour), and finally as film stars in a string of successes for Paramount Pictures.

However, as Martin's roles in their films became less important, the partnership became strained. Martin's diminished participation became an embarrassment in 1954, when Look magazine used a publicity photo of the team for the magazine cover, but cropped Martin out of the photo. The partnership finally ended on July 25, 1956. Attesting the team's popularity, DC Comics published the best-selling The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comic books from 1952 to 1957. The series continued a year after the team broke up as DC Comics then featured Lewis solo, until 1971, in The Adventures of Jerry Lewis comic books. In this latter series, Lewis was sometimes featured with Superman, Batman, and various other DC Comics heroes and villains.

Both Martin and Lewis went on to successful solo careers, but for years neither would comment on the split, nor consider a reunion. The next time they were seen together in public was a surprise appearance by Martin on Lewis's Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon in 1976, arranged by Frank Sinatra. As well, in Lewis's 2005 book Dean and Me (A Love Story), Lewis wrote of his kinship with Martin, who had died in 1995. The pair eventually reconciled in the late 1980s after the death of Martin's son, Dean Paul Martin. The two men were seen together on stage in Las Vegas when Lewis pushed out Dean's birthday cake and sang Happy Birthday to him.

Solo achievements

After the split from Martin, Lewis remained at Paramount and became a major comedy star with his first film as a solo comic, The Delicate Delinquent (1957). Teaming with director Frank Tashlin, whose background as a Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoon director suited Lewis's brand of humor, he starred in five more films, and even appeared uncredited as Itchy McRabbitt in Li'l Abner (1959). Lewis tried his hand at singing in the 1950s, having a chart hit with the song "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody" (a song largely associated with Al Jolson and later re-popularized by Judy Garland) as well as the song, "It All Depends on You" in 1958. He eventually released his own album titled, Jerry Lewis Just Sings.

By the end of his contract with producer Hal B. Wallis, Lewis had several productions of his own under his belt. His first three efforts, The Delicate Delinquent (1957), Rock-A-Bye Baby (1958) and The Geisha Boy (1958), were all efforts to move away from Wallis, who Lewis felt was hindering his comedy. In 1960, Lewis finished his contract with Wallis with Visit to a Small Planet (1960), and wrapped up work on his own production, Cinderfella.

Cinderfella was postponed for a Christmas 1960 release, and Paramount, needing a quickie feature film for its summer 1960 schedule, held Lewis to his contract to produce one. Lewis came up with The Bellboy. Using the Fontainebleau Hotelmarker in Miami as his setting—and on a small budget, with a very tight shooting schedule, and no script—Lewis shot the film by day and performed at the hotel in the evenings. Bill Richmond collaborated with him on the many sight gags. During production Lewis developed the technique of using video cameras and multiple closed circuit monitors, which allowed him to review his performance instantly.

Later, he incorporated videotape, and as more portable and affordable equipment became available, this technique would become an industry standard known as video assist. Lewis followed The Bellboy by directing several more films which he co-wrote with Richmond, including The Ladies Man (1961), The Errand Boy (1961), The Patsy (1964) and the well-known comedy hit, The Nutty Professor (1963), which was later successfully remade as a vehicle for Eddie Murphy in 1996 and followed by a sequel in 2000, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps both executive produced by Lewis for Universal Pictures and Image Entertainment.

Lewis occasionally handed directing reins to Frank Tashlin, who directed several of his productions, including It's Only Money (1962) and Who's Minding the Store? (1963). In 1965, Lewis directed and (along with Bill Richmond) wrote the comedy film The Family Jewels about a young heiress who must choose between six uncles, one of which is up to no good and out to harm the girl's beloved bodyguard who practically raised her. Lewis played all six uncles and the bodyguard.

By 1966, Lewis, now 40, was no longer an angular juvenile and his routines seemed more labored. His box office appeal waned to the point where Paramount Pictures new executives felt no further need for the Lewis comedies. Undaunted, Lewis packed up and went to Columbia Pictures, where he made several more comedies. Lewis taught a film directing class at the University of Southern Californiamarker in Los Angeles for a number of years, mentoring such students as George Lucas. In 1968, he screened Steven Spielberg's early film, Amblin' and told his students, "That's what filmmaking is all about."

Lewis starred in and directed the unreleased The Day the Clown Cried in 1972. The film was a drama set in a Nazi concentration camp. Lewis rarely discusses the experience, but once explained why the film has not been released, by suggesting litigation over post-production financial difficulties. However, he recently admitted during his book tour for Dean and Me that a major factor for the film's burial is that he is not proud of the effort.

Lewis also appeared in stage musicals. In 1976, he appeared in a revival of Hellzapoppin' with Lynn Redgrave, but it closed on the road before reaching Broadwaymarker. In 1994, he made his Broadway debut, as a replacement cast member playing the Devil in a revival of the baseball musical, Damn Yankees, choreographed by future film director Rob Marshall (Chicago).

Lewis returned to the screen in 1981 with Hardly Working, a film he both directed and starred in. Despite being panned by the critics, the film did eventually earn $50 million. He followed this up with a critically acclaimed performance in Martin Scorsese's 1983 film, The King of Comedy, in which Lewis plays a late-night TV host plagued by obsessive fans (played by Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard). The role had been based on and originally offered to Johnny Carson.

Lewis continued doing work in small films in the 1990s, most notably his supporting roles in Arizona Dream (1994) and Funny Bones (1995). He appeared on television on one episode of Mad About You's first season in 1992, playing an eccentric billionaire. In 2008, Lewis reprised his role as Prof. Kelp in The Nutty Professor, his first CGI animated film and follow-up to his original 1963 film with Drake Bell as his nephew, Harold Kelp.

Lewis and his popular movie characters were animated in the cartoon series, Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please Sit Down. Produced by Filmation in association with ABC, the show ran from 1970 to 1972 lasting only one season containing 18 episodes. The cartoon starred David Lander (later of Laverne & Shirley fame) as the voice of the animated Lewis character. Lewis was portrayed by Sean Hayes (Will & Grace) in the 2002 made-for-TV movie, Martin and Lewis opposite Jeremy Northam as Dean Martin.

Lewis has long remained popular in Europe: he was consistently praised by some French critics in the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinéma for his absurd comedy, in part because he had gained respect as an auteur who had total control over all aspects of his films, comparable to Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. In March 2006, the French Minister of Culture awarded Lewis the Légion d'honneur, calling him the "French people's favorite clown". Liking Lewis has long been a common stereotype about the French in the minds of many English-speakers, and is often the object of jokes in Anglosphere pop culture.

In 1994, the Columbia Pictures film, North featured footage of Lewis's classic movies. In June 2006, Lewis first announced plans to write and direct a stage musical adaptation of his 1963 film, The Nutty Professor. In October 2008, in an interview on Melbournemarker radio, Lewis said he had signed composers Marvin Hamlisch and Rupert Holmes to write the show for a Broadway opening in November 2010. In 2009, Lewis traveled to the Cannes Film Festivalmarker to announce his return to the silver screen after a 13 year absence for the film Max Rose, his first leading role since Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy.


Lewis has been criticized by members of the disability rights community. In 1990, he wrote a first-person essay entitled "If I Had Muscular Dystrophy" for Parade magazine, in which he characterized those with muscular dystrophy as "being half a person". Many in the disabled community viewed his remarks as prejudicial, contributing to the idea that people with disabilities are "childlike, helpless, hopeless, non functioning and noncontributing members of society". Members of the disability rights community object to Lewis receiving the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

In February 2000, Lewis stunned an audience gathered to honor his work at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival by saying he doesn't like female comics. Lewis said, "I don't like any female comedians. A woman doing comedy doesn't offend me, but sets me back a bit. I, as a viewer, have trouble with it. I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies in the world." He later defended the remark, saying it was taken wildly out of context, and added that he made 11 movies with comic character actress Kathleen Freeman.

During the 2007 Labor Day Telethon, Lewis almost let slip the word "faggot" while live on air. While talking to a cameraman, he joked: "Oh, your family has come to see you. You remember Bart, your oldest son, Jesse, the illiterate fag--no...", at which point he turned away from the camera. He later apologized. On July 25, 2008, Lewis was cited for carrying a concealed weapon without a permit at McCarran International Airportmarker. Lewis's manager told the Associated Press that the gun was a hollowed-out prop gun that couldn't fire which the authorities disputed, stating that the gun was a functioning weapon. Lewis later stated that the unloaded handgun was a specially engraved gift from a professional engraver during his 2007 telethon. He also stated that he had packed it in a carrying case after the '07 telethon ended and that he had forgotten about it and had not used that case until it was found by authorities, and the case was dismissed without prejudice (meaning that the court would allow charges to be reinstituted at a later date) on September 19. In October 2008, Lewis again offended some in the gay community with a remark he made on Australian television, calling cricket, "... a fag game."

Personal life


Lewis has been married twice:

  • First Wife: Patti Palmer (née Esther Calonico), a former singer with the Ted Fio Rito Orchestra; married October 3, 1944, divorced September 1980.
  • Second Wife: SanDee Pitnick; married February 13, 1983. Lewis was 56, They were married in Key Biscayne, Floridamarker; at the time she was 32-year old Las Vegas dancer.

He has a total of six sons and one adopted daughter.

  • Gary Harold Lee Levitch was born on July 31, 1945 to Lewis and Patti Palmer. Gary Levitch's name was subsequently legally changed to Gary Lewis. As a 1960s pop musician, Gary Lewis had a string of hits with his group Gary Lewis & the Playboys.
  • Ronald Lewis; adopted July 1950 with Patti Palmer
  • Scott Lewis; born February 1956 to Patti Palmer
  • Christopher Joseph Lewis; born October 1957 to Patti Palmer
  • Anthony Lewis; born October 1959 to Patti Palmer
  • Joseph Lewis; born January 1964 to Patti Palmer
  • Danielle Sarah Lewis (daughter); adopted March 1992 with SanDee Pitnick.

Lewis currently resides in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Health concerns

Lewis has suffered years of back pain after a fall that almost left him paralyzed when he flipped off a piano on March 20, 1965 while performing at the Sands Hotelmarker in Las Vegasmarker. He became addicted to the pain killer Percodan, but says he has been off the drug since 1978 and has not taken one since. In April 2002, Lewis had a "Synergy" neurostimulator, developed by Medtronic, implanted in his back, which has helped reduce the discomfort. He is now one of Medtronic's leading spokespeople.

Lewis has battled prostate cancer, diabetes I, and pulmonary fibrosis, and has had two heart attacks. Prednisone treatment in the early 2000s for pulmonary fibrosis resulted in weight gain and a noticeable change in his appearance. In September 2001, he was unable to perform at a planned charity event produced by comedian Steven Alan Green at the London Palladiummarker. (Green's take on the event was turned into a one-person show, I Eat People Like You For Breakfast, which Green performed at the 2003 Edinburgh Festival.) Some months thereafter, Lewis began an arduous, months-long drug rehabilitation which weaned him off prednisone and enabled him to return to work.

In December 1982, Lewis suffered a serious heart attack and then a second minor heart attack on June 11, 2006, at the end of a cross-country commercial airline flight en route home from New York City. It was discovered that he had pneumonia as well as a severely damaged heart. Two stents were surgically inserted into his heart valve which had become 90% blocked. The surgery resulted in a return to full blood flow and has allowed him to continue his rebound from earlier lung problems. Having the surgery also meant canceling several major events from his schedule, but Lewis fully recuperated in a matter of weeks.

In 1999, his Australian tour was cut short when he had to be hospitalized in Darwinmarker with viral meningitis. He was ill for more than five months. It was reported in the Australian press that he had failed to pay his medical bills; however, Lewis maintained that the payment confusion was the fault of his health insurer. The resulting negative publicity caused him to sue his insurer for US$100 million.

Honors and awards


  • 1952 – Winner of the special Photoplay Award
  • 1952 – Nominee for Best Comedian or Comedienne
  • 1954 – Winner for the Most Cooperative Actor, Golden Apple Award


  • 1965 – Winner, Golden Laurel, Special Award – Family Comedy King






  • The Total Film-Maker by Jerry Lewis. New Yorkmarker: Random House, 1971, ISBN 0-394-46757-4
  • Jerry Lewis: In Person by Jerry Lewis with Herb Gluck. New York: Atheneum, 1982, ISBN 0-689-11290-4
  • Dean & Me (A Love Story) by Jerry Lewis with James Kaplan. New York: Doubleday, 2005, ISBN 0-7679-2086-4

See also


  1. Retro Thing
  2. In Person, p. 13
  3. Jerry Lewis Biography (1926-)
  4. The Official Jerry Lewis Comedy Museum and Store
  5. (online excerpt from book, with link to Fresh Air radio show interview of Lewis by Terry Gross)
  6. In Person, p. 11
  7. In Person, p. 12
  8. In Person, p. 85
  9. Joseph McBride, Steven Spielberg – A Biography (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), pg. 168
  10. Hellzapoppin 1976 revival, closed on the road before reaching Broadway, at
  11. Damn Yankees 1994 Broadway revival, replacement cast at Internet Broadway Database
  12. 2006 announcement at of plans for stage musical version of The Nutty Professor
  13. Ernie Sigley interviews Jerry Lewis, radio 3AW Melbourne October 30, 2008, interview at
  14. Max Rose (2010) at Internet Movie Database
  15. The Infamous Parade Magazine Article
  16. The Trouble with Jerry
  17. YouTube – Broadcast Yourself
  18. In Person, p. 106
  19. In Person, p. 104
  20. Jerry Lewis Photo Gallery published by CBS News
  21. In Person, p. 128
  22. Gary Lewis and the Playboys
  23. Who is Jerry Lewis
  24. Jerry's Story at
  25. Price, Jenna (June 11, 2000). "Jerry Lewis Calls The Shots Now That He's Paid His Bill". The Canberra Times.
  26. Jerry Lewis Awards and Nominations at Internet Movie Database
  27. In Person, p. 307
  28. Entertainment Awards Database, published by the Los Angeles Times. Accessed March 8, 2009
  29. Veteran Actor Jerry Lewis To Receive Humanitarian Award At Oscars, Xinhua News Agency, February 2, 2009

Further reading

External links

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