For decades, Jerry Lewis’ star had been as bright as any comedic force in America. His partnership with Dean Martin forged the hottest comedy team of an era, and his films were embraced by audiences raised on his manic, over-the-top, rubber-faced routines.
Then, as if by design, he shifted gears and poured his energy and time into philanthropy as host of the annual Muscular Dystrophy Assn. telethon, a charity event he hosted for 44 years. As he raised hundreds of millions, however, his own work as an actor and filmmaker became eclipsed, sliding into the distance.
But in a dramatic and unexpected return to cinema in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” in 1982, Lewis reignited the admiration of longtime fans and introduced himself to a whole new generation of movie lovers.
Lewis died Sunday morning of natural causes in Las Vegas with his family by his side, his publicist Candi Cazau said. He was 91.
In a show-business career that spanned more than 70 years, Lewis at various times was said to be the highest-paid nightclub comic, television entertainer and film director in the world.
“He was the top comedy star of his generation,” the film critic and historian Leonard Maltin said Sunday. “First in tandem with his partner Dean Martin and then on his own in the mid-1950s.”
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)
And with Martin for 10 of those years, he was half of what has been called the most successful comedy duo in history.
They teamed on stage for the first time in 1946, in a boardwalk nightclub in Atlantic City, N.J. Audiences had never seen anything like them: Martin, the handsome Italian crooner with the laid-back style; Lewis, the skinny, animated “kid” with the shrill, adolescent whine.
On stage together, Martin and Lewis were known as a super-charged mix of jokes, routines, singing, dancing and, most notably, ad-libbing. The wildly unpredictable Lewis thought nothing of cutting off customers’ neckties, flinging food off their plates or setting the musicians’ sheet music on fire.
“I have been in the business 55 years, and I have never to this day seen an act get more laughs than Martin and Lewis,” comedian Alan King once recalled in the New Yorker, decades after seeing the team perform at New York City’s fabled Copacabana nightclub in 1948. “They didn’t get laughs — it was pandemonium.”
Martin and Lewis created pandemonium off stage as well, generating the kind of frenzied mob scene previously reserved for the likes of bobby-soxer heartthrob Frank Sinatra and unheard of for a comedy act.
At the Paramount Theatre in Manhattan in 1951, Martin and Lewis performed six sold-out shows a day (seven on Saturday) for two weeks. With lines forming outside the theater as early as 6 a.m., more than 22,000 people a day flocked to see them.
On television from 1950 to 1955, the comedy duo regularly hosted “The Colgate Comedy Hour.” And Lewis’ signature lines became national catch phrases, including “I like it! I like it!” and “La-a-a-dy!”
Excluding uncredited cameos in Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s “Road to Bali,” Martin and Lewis appeared in 16 feature films together — from “My Friend Irma” in 1949 to “Hollywood or Bust” in 1956. In 1952, they landed in first place in the annual Motion Picture Herald listing of the top 10 movie stars.
Lewis continued to score at the box office after going solo, beginning with “The Delicate Delinquent” in 1957. Two years later, he signed a record-breaking contract with Paramount Pictures: $10 million to appear in 14 films over seven years.
Lewis, who had made a point of learning about every phase of filmmaking from camera lenses to editing, went on to star in, direct and co-write a string of his own films.
“He had complete autonomy over his movies,” Maltin said. “He was such a big box office star that Paramount gave him carte blanche and he delivered the goods for them. He was also a great student of comedy who befriended Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy, and got to spend time with Charlie Chaplin, so he knew comedy inside out.”
In late 1962, he signed a lucrative deal with ABC to host a weekly, two-hour, live Saturday night variety-talk show.
Despite great fanfare from ABC, “The Jerry Lewis Show” was a legendary flop, canceled by the network after only 13 weeks in 1963. Lewis then took out full-page ads in the show-business trade papers that said simply: “Oops!!! jerry lewis.”
It was a rare public acknowledgment of failure from a star whom many considered to have one of the biggest egos in Hollywood, a man who in later years was given to referring to himself in the third person and calling himself “an American icon.”
“I don’t give a … if people think I have a fantastic ego,” Lewis told the New Yorker in 2000. “I earned it! I worked my heart out! And you know what? I’m as good as they get.”
Born in Newark, N.J., on March 16, 1926, Lewis was the only child of Danny and Rae Levitch. Danny was a small-time song and dance man; Rae was a pianist who went on the road with her husband while their young son stayed with relatives.
Lewis made his stage debut at age 6 during the summer of 1932, singing the Depression-era anthem “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” at a Jewish resort hotel, with his mother accompanying him on the piano.
By the time he was 12, he was demonstrating his ability to make people laugh: While working as a “tea boy” at a resort hotel in Lakewood, N.J., where his father was performing for the winter, Lewis and two waiters would do hilarious parodies of current movies for the guests in the hotel lobby.
A class clown with a gift for mugging, Lewis was expelled from high school at 15, then dropped out of a vocational high school 10 days before his 16th birthday.
He then attempted to break into show business in New York City with a lip-synch act in which he mugged outlandishly to records by Betty Hutton, Frank Sinatra, Carmen Miranda and opera star Igor Gorin.
By the time he was booked into the 500 Club in Atlantic City in the summer of 1946, Lewis was 20 years old, still struggling to make his mark in show business with his record act, and the father of a year-old son. (He married Patti Palmer, a young singer with the Ted Fio Rito orchestra, in 1944; a perforated eardrum and a heart murmur kept him out of the military.)
When the singer on the bill at the 500 Club was fired, Lewis recommended a singer he had shared the bill with at the Havana-Madrid nightclub in New York several months earlier and with whom, he told the club manager, he had done “a lot of funny stuff” on stage: Dean Martin.
“A handsome man and a monkey,” as Lewis later described the heavily improvised act he and Martin performed at the 500 Club, was an immediate hit.
Lewis came out dressed in a busboy’s jacket while Martin sang. And from there, Lewis wrote in “Jerry Lewis in Person,” his 1982 autobiography: “We juggle and drop dishes and try a few handstands. I conduct the three-piece band with one of my shoes, burn their music, jump offstage, run round the tables, sit with the customers and spill things while Dean keeps singing.”
Within three nights of their July 25, 1946, debut, the new comedy team of Martin and Lewis was packing the 500 Club and crowds were being turned away even for the 4 a.m. show.
Two years after teaming up, Martin and Lewis were the hottest comedy act in show business.
From the start, Lewis received the lion’s share of attention from reviewers. Typically, a New York Times review of the team’s debut “Colgate Comedy Hour” appearance referred to Lewis as the team’s “works” while dismissing Martin simply as a “competent” straight man.
Lewis always maintained that no one really understood Martin’s “brilliance” as a straight man. In his autobiography, Lewis called his ex-partner “the greatest straight man in the history of show business.”
By the time they were working on their last film together, “Hollywood or Bust,” Martin reportedly told Lewis, “You’re nothing to me but a ... dollar sign.”
The Martin and Lewis roller-coaster ride ended on stage at the Copacabana in New York City on July 25, 1956 — the 10th anniversary of their first show.
Any fears Lewis had about going on his own were allayed two weeks later when he was asked to fill in for an ailing Judy Garland at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas.
With Garland, who had strep throat, sitting on the edge of the stage at Lewis’ request — the audience had paid to see Garland, after all — he did 55 minutes of what he called “nonstop clowning.” He closed his show by asking Garland what song she sang as a finish, then he proceeded to bring down the house with the old Al Jolson hit “Rockabye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody.”
Lewis recorded the song three days later. Released by Decca Records, it sold more than 1.4 million copies.
“The Bellboy,” a 1960 comedy written by Lewis and set in a Miami Beach hotel, marked his feature film debut as a director. He went on to direct, co-write (with Bill Richmond) and star in films such as “The Ladies Man,” “The Errand Boy,” “The Nutty Professor,” “The Patsy,” “The Family Jewels” and others.
But as Lewis took on the role of what he called “the total filmmaker,” some American critics felt his self-directed efforts were no match for his previous movies and castigated him for self-indulgence.
“The difference in his films was obvious: they were ponderous where once they had been light and airy, pretentious where once they had been so unassuming,” Maltin, the historian, wrote in his book “The Great Movie Comedians.”
The problem, Maltin argued, was that “there was no longer anyone to veto an idea, so Jerry indulged his every whim, allowed Jerry the comedian to milk gags far beyond endurance, and discarded conventional notions of good taste, modesty, continuity and — oddly enough — humor.”
Though largely dismissed by American critics, Lewis was considered a cinematic genius in Europe, where he was named best foreign director eight times and was made a commander in the Order of Arts and Letters, France’s highest cultural honor.
Wrote Shawn Levy in his insightful and not-always flattering biography of Lewis, “King of Comedy”: “Though it’s sometimes hard to remember, if not believe, Jerry Lewis was the most profoundly creative comedian of his generation and arguably one of the two or three most influential comedians born anywhere in this century.”
As a filmmaker in the early ’60s, Levy noted, Lewis was known for experimenting in sound, editing, set decor, cinematography and plotting. He also created the “video assist,” the now-extensively used closed-circuit television system that allows a director to watch takes on a monitor.
As a comedian, Levy wrote, Lewis “single-handedly created a style of humor that was half anarchy, half excruciation. Even comics who never took a pratfall in their careers owe something to the self-deprecation Jerry introduced into American show business.”
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Lee, elected in 2011, was the first Chinese American mayor of San Francisco, home to the oldest Chinatown in the United States. He oversaw years of dramatic growth that transformed the city’s skyline while also sending real estate values to stratospheric levels. He was 65. Full obituary(David Butow / For The Times)
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(Edward Ornelas / Los Angeles Times)
As one of the founding fathers of rock ’n’ roll, Fats Domino blazed a singular path in the history of popular music. Pounding a piano and booming in a baritone both warm and conversational, he gave the nascent genre a shot of rhythm and blues, jazz and boogie woogie from his native New Orleans. He was 89. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
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Bennington, the lead singer of Los Angeles hard rock band Linkin Park, led the sextet to become one of the biggest acts of the 2000s. The group’s beat-driven sound was long a force on rock radio. He was 41. Full obituary(EPA)
Kanno spent what should have been his final high school years confined to a World War II-era internment camp. He went on to become one of America’s first Japanese American mayors as an early-day politician in Orange County. He was 91. Full obituary(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Romero will be remembered best for co-writing and directing “Night of the Living Dead.” The “Living Dead” franchise went on to create a subgenre of horror movies whose influence across the decades has endured, seen in films like “The Purge” and TV shows such as “The Walking Dead.” He was 77. Full obituary(Amy Sancetta / Associated Press)
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Mirzakhani was a Stanford University professor who was the first and only woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal in mathematics. She was 40. Full obituary(EPA)
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Pressman, center, was an Emmy-winning journalist who worked at WNBC for more than 50 years after stints at New Jersey’s Newark Evening News and the New York World Telegram and Sun. He covered the 1956 sinking of the Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria, riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the Woodstock festival in 1969 and the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He was 93. Full obituary(Ron Frehm / Associated Press)
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A close confidante of Nelson Mandela, Kathrada dedicated his life to opposing apartheid and racism. An African National Congress activist, he played a major role in South Africa’s liberation struggle. He was 87. Full obituary(Kopano Tlape / EPA)
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The Nobel-prize winning poet was known for capturing the essence of his native Caribbean. His work was widely praised for its depth and bold use of metaphor, and its mix of sensuousness and technical prowess. He was 87. Full obituary(Berenice Bautista / Associated Press)
A towering political figure who became the top prosecutor in Los Angeles County and then California before running for governor, Van de Kamp helped institute a revolutionary computerized fingerprint identification program, was instrumental in the push to “fast track” cases stuck in the state’s civil courts and pressed a laundry list of environmental, consumer rights and campaign finance reform cases. He was 81. Full obituary( Los Angeles Times)
Waller’s bestselling, bittersweet 1992 novel “The Bridges of Madison County” was turned into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood and a Broadway musical. “Bridges” turned the unknown writer into a multimillionaire and made Madison County, Iowa, an international tourist attraction. He was 77. Full obituary(Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier)
The Boxing Hall of Fame trainer and manager handled the careers of 19 champions including heavyweight Evander Holyfield. Duva with his family built the promotional company Main Events into one of boxing’s powerhouses. He was 94. Full obituary(Mike Groll / Associated Press)
As a state legislator and 10-term congressman from Southern California, Beilenson advocated for abortion rights, environmental protection and gun control. Among his proudest achievements was sponsoring the 1978 legislation that created the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, protecting a wilderness that extends from the Hollywood Hills to Point Mugu. He was 84. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
The silver-haired and dapper Osborne was a bona fide movie connoisseur who displayed his wide knowledge of films as the genial host on Turner Classic Movies since its launch in 1994. Osborne was a longtime columnist for the Hollywood Reporter and the “official biographer” of the Academy Awards. He was 84. Full obituary(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Preval was the only democratically elected president of Haiti to win and complete two terms. He was elected by a landslide in 1995 as the chosen successor of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. His second term, which started in 2006, was marred by the disastrous earthquake of Jan, 12, 2010. Many Haitians accused him of a fumbling response to the tragedy. He was 74. Full obituary(Associated Press)
Paxton’s career began in B-movies, experimental film and music videos, then moved through bit parts in big pictures and, ultimately, leading roles. His movie successes included “Apollo 13,” “Titanic,” “A Simple Plan,” “Weird Science,” “Twister” and “True Lies,” and among his TV role was that of a polygamist Mormon businessman in the HBO series “Big Love.” He was 61. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
The retired Los Angeles County Superior Court judge became an unlikely American TV icon. Called the “Solomon of Small Claims,” Wapner presided over “The People’s Court” for 12 years in the 1980s and ’90s. He was 97. Full obituary(Rene Macura)
Arrow was the youngest person to win the Nobel Prize for economics. He helped push and pull economics into unexpected arenas — global warming, the electoral process, pay equity and healthcare. His groundbreaking work redefined the world’s understanding of the free marketplace. He was 95. Full obituary(Associated Press)
In a career spanning five decades, thousands of reviews and dozens of books, Schickel chronicled Hollywood’s changing landscape. His piercing critiques made him one of America’s most important film critics in an era when cinema became increasingly ingrained in the cultural consciousness. He was 84. Full obituary(Michael Lionstar / Knopf)
McCorvey was the “Jane Roe” in the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe vs. Wade, which struck down many state laws that restricted abortion. Years later, she told a U.S. Senate subcommittee that she would like nothing more than to see Roe vs. Wade overturned. Her statements reflected the journey of a woman who went from being an anonymous plaintiff to a symbol for both sides of the abortion debate. She was 69. Full obituary(Getty Images)
Dubbed the “Acrobat of Scat” for his vocal delivery, Jarreau was admired by fans for his imaginative and improvisational qualities. He is best known for his single “We’re in This Love Together” from 1981. He is the only Grammy vocalist to win in the jazz, pop and R&B categories. He was 76. Full obituary(Felipe Dana / Associated Press)
Mansfield won the Nobel Prize for helping to invent MRI scanners. In 1978, he was the first person to step inside a whole-body MRI scanner so it could be tested on a human subject. His work, alongside chemist Paul Lauterbur, revolutionized the detection of disease by revealing internal organs without the need for surgery. He was 83. Full obituary(David Jones / Associated Press)
The Los Angeles producer, composer and arranger influenced some of the hip-hop era’s biggest hits, most notably Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “The Next Episode.” Among those whose work includes Axelrod productions are A Tribe Called Quest, DJ Shadow, Schoolboy Q, Wu-Tang Clan, Mac Miller, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Earl Sweatshirt and Common. Axelrod was 83. Full obituary(B+ / Stock)
Nakamura, the “Father of ‘Pac-Man,’ ” founded the Japanese video game company behind the hit creature-gobbling game. The company started out as just two mechanical horse rides on a department store rooftop but went on to pioneer game arcades and amusement parks. He was 91. Full obituary(Associated Press)
Riva’s portrayal of an elderly woman in the 2012 end-of-life drama “Amour” earned her international acclaim and the distinction of being the oldest nominee for a lead actress Oscar. She was 89. Full obituary(Francois Mori / Associated Press)
Moore rose to stardom on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” in the 1960s and went on to headline “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” a highly successful sitcom in the 1970s (pictured). The actress and her television character became so entwined that Moore became a role model for women who sought to challenge the conventions of marriage and family. She was 80. Full obituary(CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images)
Cernan, commander of NASA’s Apollo 17 mission, set foot on the moon in December 1972 during his third space flight. He was the last of only a dozen men to walk on the moon. He returned to Earth with a message of “peace and hope for all mankind.” He died at 82. Full obituary(SSPL / Getty Images)
The former California state librarian wrote rich cultural, economic and political histories on the birth, growth and maturation of the Golden State. He captured the state’s rise in influence and its singular hold on the public imagination in his sweeping “Americans and the California Dream” series. Full obituary(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Youguang was a linguist considered to be the father of modern China’s Pinyin Romanization writing system. Adopted by the People’s Republic in 1958, Pinyin has virtually become the global standard because of its simplicity and consistency. He was 111. Full obituary(Wang Zhao / AFP/Getty Images)
Dutton was the owner of Dutton’s Books, a Los Angeles landmark with its overflowing shelves and hard-to-find titles. Dutton’s Books on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, along with sister locations in Burbank and downtown Los Angeles, was at the very center of literary L.A. when it opened in 1961. He was 79. Full obituary(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Kamae was one of the most influential Hawaiian musicians of the last half-century and a filmmaker who painstakingly documented the culture and history of the islands. He had long been the face of the Sons of Hawaii, a popular recording group and a pioneering force in traditional island music. He was 89. Full obituary(Marco Garcia / For The Times)
The British war correspondent was the first journalist to report the Nazi invasion of Poland that marked the beginning of World War II. She won major British journalism awards, and was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. She was 105. Full obituary(Mike Clarke / AFP/ Getty Images)
The former Iranian president was an aide to Iran’s revolutionary supreme leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Although Rafsanjani’s legacy was tarnished by allegations of corruption and authoritarianism, his backing helped moderate President Hassan Rouhani win election in 2013, setting the Islamic Republic on a path to ending its disputed nuclear program and easing its isolation from the West. He was 82. Full obituary(Ebrahim Noroozi / Associated Press)
A scholar of world religions, Smith is best known for his work “The Religions of Man,” first published in 1958. It was reissued as “The World’s Religions” in 1991 and has sold about 2 million copies. His informed yet accessible prose led many laymen to read his books as their introduction to religions of the East and West. He was 97. Full obituary(Tina Fineberg / Associated Press)
Said Lewis: “I never allowed my character to be any older than 9 years old. You just keep that age as a center point to work from and the mischief comes. I put it in the body of an adult man and I’ve made it work.”
But by the mid-1960s, Lewis’ brand of physical comedy had fallen out of fashion, and “The Kid” or “The Idiot,” as he called his bumbling and naive screen character, was beginning not to wear well on a man entering middle age.
Although he continued to tour and play Vegas, only one Lewis movie was released in the ’70s, the 1970 comedy “Which Way to the Front?”
Lewis’ 1972 film “The Day the Clown Cried,” in which he played a German circus clown who is sent to a Nazi death camp and used by his captors to lead unsuspecting Jewish children into the gas chamber, became tied up in litigation and was never released.
“Can’t talk about it. I won’t,” Lewis told The Times last year on the eve of the release of “Max Rose,” his first starring role in more than two decades.
He returned to the big screen in “Hardly Working,” a comedy about an unemployed circus clown, which received a critical drubbing although it did well at the box office when it reached U.S. theaters in 1981.
Then, in 1983, Lewis earned rave reviews from American critics for his first straight dramatic role: as a caustic comedian/talk-show host who is kidnapped by a fanatical fledgling comic (Robert De Niro) in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.”
Despite the career triumph, the preceding years had been personally difficult ones for Lewis.
In the late 1970s, he revealed his dependence on Percodan, which had turned into a habit of 10 to 15 tablets a day.
In 1980, nearly 36 years after they eloped, Patti Lewis filed for divorce. Lewis admitted in several interviews that he had been unfaithful, particularly during the heyday of Martin and Lewis when, he said, “I was like a kid in the candy store.”
His personal problems continued a year later when his chain of Jerry Lewis movie theaters went bankrupt and he lost millions.
Even Lewis’ annual MDA telethon — a more than 20-hour mix of entertainers, testimonials and appeals for contributions concluding with Lewis typically fighting back tears as he sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone Again” — came under attack as a mawkishly sentimental pop-cultural institution whose “awfulness,” Washington Post critic Tom Shales wrote at the time, “is enshrined in tradition, like the ‘Miss America Pageant.’”
Over the past several decades, Lewis himself came under fire from former MDA poster children and others who claimed he portrayed them as objects of pity. In 1973, he was criticized for holding a child in his arms on the air and saying, “God goofed, and it’s up to us to correct his mistakes.
Still, from 1966 to 2010, the telethons raised more than $1 billion for what Lewis referred to as “my kids.”
Lewis received the French Legion of Honor in 1984; a year later he received the U.S. Defense Department’s highest civilian award, the Medal for Distinguished Public Service. And at the Academy Awards ceremony in 2009, he received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his fundraising work on behalf of MDA.
In May 2011, Lewis announced that the upcoming Labor Day telethon would be his last as host. But that August, the MDA unexpectedly said the 85-year-old comedian would not appear as host on the telethon and would no longer serve as its national MDA chairman, a position he had held since the 1950s.
In 1983, Lewis married Sandra “SanDee” Pitnick, a divorced former stewardess and dancer whom he had cast in a bit part in “Hardly Working.” Nine years later, they adopted their newborn daughter, Danielle.
At the time, Lewis was nearly 69 and about to make his Broadway debut in a revival of the classic musical comedy “Damn Yankees.” He played the devil.
Lewis, who underwent double bypass surgery in 1982, suffered various ailments in his later years, including pulmonary fibrosis, an increase of fibrous tissue on the lungs. Among the drugs prescribed to repair his lungs was prednisone, a powerful steroid, which led to a more than 60-pound weight gain that left his face severely bloated.
The comedian also had been plagued by chronic pain resulting from an on-stage pratfall that chipped a portion of his spine in 1965. The injury led to a highly publicized addiction to the painkiller Percodan in the 1970s. In early 2002, the pain grew so bad that, Lewis later said, “I really thought about what gun I was going to use.”
But in 2002, he underwent surgery to have a device implanted that prevents nerves in the spinal cord from relaying pain messages to the brain.
For the first time in decades, the man who had taken pratfalls onto wood and concrete floors reportedly was pain-free.
In recent years, American film critics began giving Lewis belated appreciation for his movies.
In 2004, Lewis released wide-screen DVD transfers of 10 of his movies from his “total filmmaker” period, prompting New York Times critic Dave Kehr to write: “Is it finally time to stop with the French-love-him jokes and acknowledge that Jerry Lewis is one of the great American filmmakers?”
That same year, the Library of Congress added “The Nutty Professor” to the National Film Registry, acknowledging that it was a movie of lasting cultural significance and worthy of preservation.
And in 2005, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. presented Lewis with a career achievement award.
“Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen,” Lewis said from the podium. “I am delighted to be the recipient of this award. What took so goddamned long?”
In 2012, the 86-year-old Lewis added something new to his extensive show-business resume: directing a stage-musical adaptation of his classic 1963 movie comedy “The Nutty Professor,” with a score by the late Marvin Hamlisch and a book and lyrics by Rupert Holmes.
The show, whose backers hoped to bring it to Broadway, featured a mostly unknown cast.
Using a mobility scooter to get around the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville, Lewis told the New York Times, “I say to myself, ‘You’re just as scared as the rest of them. You’re just as uncertain as these kids. And you have to use that uncertainty to get through to them.’”
Lewis is survived by his wife, SanDee; daughter Danielle; and four sons, Christopher, Anthony, Gary and Scott.
McLellan is a former Times staff writer.
Times staff writers Mark Olsen and Sonaiya Kelley contributed to this report.
5 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details and a response from film critic-historian Leonard Maltin.
11:50 a.m.: This article was updated with details about Lewis’ death.
This story was originally published at 11:10 a.m.