Claim to fame: comedian, actor, film producer, director, writer, and singer
DOB: March 16, 1926
Date of death: August 20, 2017
Diabetes type: 1
Jerry Lewis was born Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jersey. Because his parents both worked in show business and were frequent travelers, Lewis spent the majority of his childhood living with relatives. However, the summers when his parents returned to visit him and perform for local venues had a huge impact on the young comedian. He dropped out of high school in order to travel around the country and perform his own comedy routine.
In 1946, Lewis met fellow comedian Dean Martin, who joined Lewis’ show when one of its original acts dropped out. Almost immediately, Lewis and Martin’s routine, filled with slapstick and improvisational banter, made them a must-see attraction along the boardwalk. By the end of the 1940s, Martin and Lewis were the most popular comedy team in the nation.
In 1949, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin made their debut on the big screen with supporting roles in the film My Friend Irma. Because their characters were so popular, they were not only granted significantly larger roles in the sequel, but also went on to make thirteen comedies for Paramount, including My Friend Irma Goes West, Jumping Jacks, and Artists and Models. After wrapping their final film, Hollywood or Bust, the team announced their split in July of 1956.
The success he had built with Dean Martin made restarting a solo career quite easy for Jerry Lewis. In 1957, he produced The Delicate Delinquent. He then starred in the movie The Sad Sack. Lewis’ success had reached new heights, and eventually, he signed a ten-million-dollar contract with Paramount. He was featured in a DC Comics book, and starred in many feature films, including Don’t Give Up the Ship, Visit to a Small Planet, and Cinderfella. In 1960, Lewis made his directorial debut with The Bellboy, and then, in 1961, went on to direct and produce the comedies The Ladies’ Man and The Errand Boy. In 1963, Lewis directed and released one of his most popular films, The Nutty Professor, and starred in Who’s Minding the Store? and The Disorderly Orderly.
In 1965, he starred in his last feature for Paramount, Boeing Boeing, before moving to Columbia Pictures in 1966 to exercise more creative control. In the mid- to late-1960s Lewis participated in a string of unsuccessful films for Columbia, including The Big Mouth, Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River, Hook, Line, and Sinker, and Which Way to the Front? With his filmmaking career in jeopardy, Lewis spent much of his time dabbling in different areas of the entertainment industry. He worked on Broadway in the production Helzapoppin’ for a short time, made appearances on the lecture circuit, and also wrote a book entitled The Total Filmmaker.
Lewis was eventually able to make a comeback for himself as a feature filmmaker when he wrote, directed, and starred in the 1981 hit Hardly Working. Lewis reinforced this comeback in 1983 with his critically-acclaimed performance in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. He continued working throughout the 1990s in film and television. In 2008, he reprised his role as Professor Kelp in the computer-animated sequel to his 1963 classic, The Nutty Professor.
Lewis won many awards from such organizations as The American Comedy Awards, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and The Venice Film Festival. In 2005, he was presented with one of the highest Emmy honors, the Governor’s Award of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. In 2009, he was presented with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Congressman Les Aspin of Wisconsin concluded his nomination of Jerry Lewis for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 by saying, “Jerry Lewis is a man for all seasons, all people, all times. His name has, in the hearts of millions, become synonymous with peace, love, and brotherhood.” In September of 1976, the United States Senate unanimously adopted a resolution of appreciation “…for his outstanding contribution in the fight against muscular dystrophy.” In June of 1978, the communications industry honored him with the NATPE (National Association of Television Program Executives) Award of the Year for his humanitarian efforts in raising funds to combat neuromuscular disease through his annual MDA Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon.
Also in June of 1978, Lewis received the Jefferson Award for the Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged in special ceremonies at the Supreme Court in Washington, D. C. In January of 1980, the Touchdown Club of Washington, D. C. honored him with its prestigious Hubert H. Humphrey Humanitarian Award. This award is given annually to an individual who best exemplifies the ideals and courage of the late Vice President.
Lewis suffered from back pain that began with a fall in 1965 while performing at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. He became addicted to the painkiller Percodan, but later said he had been off the drug since 1978.
Lewis battled prostate cancer, type 1 diabetes, and pulmonary fibrosis, and had two heart attacks. Prednisone treatment in the early 2000s for pulmonary fibrosis resulted in weight gain and a noticeable change in his appearance. Some months thereafter, Lewis began an arduous, months-long rehabilitation that weaned him off the prednisone that had so altered his appearance and enabled him to return to work.
Lewis suffered a serious heart attack in December 1982, and second minor heart attack on June 11, 2006 at the end of a cross-country commercial airline flight. It was later found that he had pneumonia. Lewis had two stents inserted into an artery in his heart that was 90% blocked, and it restored full blood flow to his heart. This allowed him to continue his rebound from the lung issues he had suffered from 2001 to 2005, and his health had improved. While this meant canceling several major events, he recuperated in a matter of weeks. Lewis passed away from end-stage cardiac disease and peripheral artery disease in August of 2017.
When asked about his secret vices in a 2003 interview, Lewis said, “I have diabetes, but I love candy. I get in all kinds of trouble for that.”
Jerry Lewis left behind six sons from his first marriage to Patti Palmer, from whom he was divorced in 1982, as well as one daughter with his most recent wife, SanDee Pitnick; seven grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. His personal motto reflected his real love for humanity: “I shall pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again!”