Film legend Jerry Lewis died Sunday at 91 in Las Vegas. In 2011, TV critic Robert Lloyd talked about Jerry Lewis and his dismissal as host of the Muscular Dystrophy Labor Day Telethon.
So. Jerry Lewis is out as host of the Muscular Dystrophy Labor Day Telethon, which he had captained since 1966 (though he had hosted local telethons for the charity as far back as the early 1950s). Having announced that the 2011 telethon would be his last, Lewis later called that into question; perhaps, like that other aging, raging lion, Lear, he suspected he might have been hasty in giving up the crown. The matter was then settled for him by the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. itself, which announced Wednesday, in the briefest possible statement, that his “more than half century of generous service to MDA” was done. “We will not be replacing him as MDA national chairman,” said Dr. R. Rodney Howell, chairman of the board of directors, “and he will not be appearing on the Telethon.”
There may continue to be an MDA Labor Day Telethon without Jerry Lewis, though it will contract from 21 hours to six this year and possibly continue to shrivel away, like the vestigial appendix, to a memory of its former usefulness. But there is no Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon without him, and whatever difference that makes to the fate of “Jerry’s Kids” — no longer Jerry’s Kids, I suppose — or the number of dollars racked up on the tote board, that one very special tradition ends here. The charity may be no less worthy, but the television event is over. There is really no reason to watch it now.
Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis perform on stage at the Paramount Theatre in July 1951 in New York City.(Donaldson Collection / Getty Images)
Lewis eventually became known as much for his philanthropy as his comedy and acting.(NBC)
Jerry Lewis, right, and Dean Martin dressed to the nines in an undated image.(John Springer Collection / Corbis)
Jerry Lewis as Stanley in the 1960 comedy film The Bellboy.(John Springer Collection / Corbis via Getty Images)
(John Springer Collection / Corbis via Getty Images)
Dean Martin, left, and Jerry Lewis, hosts of their own NBC radio show, react at the news that the presentation of Redbook magazine’s 14th Silver Cup Movie Award will be made on their show.(John Springer Collection / Corbis)
Lewis shares a smooch with Marion Marshall in 1952’s “The Stooge,” which starred the comedic duo Martin and Lewis. It’s about a comedian who wants to ditch his partner and make it on his own; Martin left the team in 1956.(©1961 Hal Wallis Productions / Paramount Pictures)
Lewis’ puts his knack for physical comedy to good use in 1964’s “The Disorderly Orderly” about a med school flunky who gets a job at a private rest home.(File Photo / LA Library)
Comedian Jerry Lewis frames a shot for director Robert Siodmak on the set of “The File on Thelma Jordon.” Lewis was taking a break from filming his first movie, “My Friend Irma,” to visit Siodmak.(John Springer Collection / Corbis via Getty Images)
Dean Martin at a golf course with Jerry Lewis and Donna Reed in a scene from the film ‘The Caddy’, 1953.(Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)
Jerry Lewis and Stella Stevens in a 1963 photo from “The Nutty Professor.”(Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images)
Jerry Lewis on a stage on his knees with a group of men surrounding him in a scene from the film ‘The Family Jewels’, 1965.(Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)
Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis clown around in May 1956.(Associated Press)
Jerry Lewis with his wife, Patti, and their sons Gary and Ron.(John Springer Collection / Getty Images)
Jerry Lewis is photographed in 2016 in Beverly Hills. That year the movie “Max Rose” featured Lewis’ first starring role in more than two decades.(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
Jerry Lewis and Martin Short perform during the 34th Muscular Dystrophy Assn. Telethon in Los Angeles in 1999.(Jay Laprete / Associated Press)
Jerry Lewis jokes with Abby Umali, 9, during the 2008 telethon in Las Vegas.(Richard Brian / Associated Press)
Jerry Lewis, right, and Dean Martin in a publicity still from the 1955 movie “Artists and Models.”(unknown / Paramount Pictures)
Dean Martin, left, Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis perform during the 1976 telecast of the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Assn. Telethon in Los Angeles.(Muscular Dystrophy Assn. )
Jerry Lewis and his wife, SanDee, at the opening festivities of the Cannes Film Festival in May 1983(Larry Armstrong / Los Angeles Times)
Dean Martin, left, and Jerry Lewis appear together in Las Vegas on Lewis’s annual telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Assn.(Associated Press)
Actor and comedian Jerry Lewis is photographed Aug. 26, 2010, at the South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, site of his 44th annual Muscular Distrophy Assn. telethon.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Jerry Lewis at a photo shoot in Las Vegas in 2010.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Some might say that was already becoming the case. There was a time, when Lewis was younger and his associates were hale — many, of course, lacking his superheroic constitution, have predeceased him to that great Friar’s Club in the sky — that the telethon was a lively, star-studded event, worth staying awake for almost through its entirety. It was unpredictable, in a good way; it had currency. More lately, it can seem a little shopworn or second-string, emerging as if out of a time capsule, or like the mythical, musical city of Brigadoon, reappearing whole once a year, but here showing its years.
So it is with Lewis, who, like most of us, remains a creature of his own youth into the youth of a different world. (In more than one interview over the last decade he has suggested that one problem with showbiz kids these days is that they don’t know who Al Jolson is.) His timing, in a kind of existential sense, is off. His jokes, which, in the habit of his generation, flirt with racial and gender stereotypes — or I should say, flirt with them in a way in which no irony is apparent — have created little hiccups of controversy in recent years. The show became unpredictable, in a less good way. And yet it was no less fascinating. The man, like the artist, represents an inextricable mix of sentiment and steeliness, and part of the fascination of the telethon has been watching him rocket between those poles, like the divided self he played in his masterpiece “The Nutty Professor” — the sweet scientist, with his thick glasses and sideways teeth, and the soulless swinger, with his slicked hair and sharp tux.
But that is only part of the story. Because if the telethon was on the one hand a very long variety show, it was also something greater: a kind of ritual, a rite of sacrifice, an altar across which Lewis splayed himself in order that the coffers would be filled and a cure found. If there was something almost unseemly in the intensity of his identification with his cause, an identification that may have ultimately discomfited the organization for which he worked for so long as “a labor of love,” there was also something wonderful about it. He played the telethon like a Yiddish-theater Las Vegas remake of the climax of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” where James Stewart holds the Senate floor, flooding it with truth and beauty, until he collapses — but with funny walks and noises and faces. For many years, Lewis was onstage for the whole 21 hours: Going the distance was part of the point; it was what the gods required.
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