Jerry Lewis retires from MDA telethon, plans to sing iconic closing song one more time


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Jerry Lewis, the comedian who has hosted the annual Muscular Dystrophy Assn. telethon for 45 years, is retiring from that job as the show goes through a major overhaul.

Nearly everything about the legendary Labor Day telecast is changing, though one of Lewis’ most famous moments, his tearful rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone,’ will remain intact for one more year.


That song will come at the end of a much-truncated version of the telethon, which has lasted a marathon 21.5 hours since it premiered in 1966.

‘I’ll continue to serve MDA as its national chairman, as I’ve done since the early 1950s,’ the 85-year-old actor said in a statement. ‘I’ll never desert MDA and my kids.’ Starting this September, the telethon will shrink to six hours, airing from 6 p.m. to midnight. There will still be a mix of entertainment, educational segments, sponsor shout-outs, pledges and local cutaways, but all in much shorter form than in years past.

There will be four co-hosts: Nigel Lythgoe of ‘American Idol’ and ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’ ‘Entertainment Tonight’s’ Nancy O’Dell and Jann Carl, and ‘The Biggest Loser’s’ Alison Sweeney.

The changes have been in the works for some time, and MDA spokesman Jim Brown said the new format will help the telethon attract more A-list celebrities to appear and more stations to carry the programming.

He described the upcoming show as ‘a very significant departure’ from the familiar telecast. He wouldn’t comment on why Lewis’ role was also scaled back, but the Las Vegas Sun had reported last fall that Lewis hadn’t been consulted before the fact about sweeping changes in the show.

Neither side made mention of any bad blood on Monday, with Lewis’ statement saying, simply, ‘it’s time for an all new telethon era.’ Brown called Lewis ‘tireless’ and ‘without rival’ in his support of MDA, presiding over some 900 hours of live TV fundraisers. The telethon pulled in nearly $59 million last year.

‘As MDA continues the growth Jerry Lewis has done so much to inspire, all of us who’ve been privileged to work beside him, and the hundreds of thousands throughout the world affected by the myriad of muscle diseases MDA battles, will acknowledge in our hearts forever the unrivaled role Jerry has played in our lives and the lives of all Americans,’ said MDA President and CEO Gerald C. Weinberg.

MDA execs didn’t have any announcements Monday on other talent for the show, but Brown said the group is getting ‘positive signs’ from artists and sponsors who are interested in appearing during prime time rather than insomniac hours.

‘The change in format will be good for guests and sponsors because they’ll be able to reach a much broader audience,’ Brown said. ‘And for stations — it will be easier for them to say yes to carrying the program when they don’t have to pre-empt 21 1/2 hours of their schedule.’

The telethon will air Sept. 4.


Lighting it up: an interview with Jerry Lewis

— T.L. Stanley