A consummate entertainer and world-renowned humanitarian, Jerry Lewis is not just a cultural icon in the United States – he’s one of the most easily recognized personalities on the planet. Widely regarded as a comic genius, regarded as one of the true giants of the motion picture industry, and internationally celebrated for his vast contributions to humanity, Jerry personifies the term “living legend.”
Newsweek, in 2001, listed the most recognizable people on the planet:
1. Muhammad Ali
2. President Bush
3. Margaret Thatcher
4. Walter Cronkite
5. A tie between the Pope and Jerry Lewis.
One of the most successful performers in show business – with worldwide box office gross receipts of his films in excess of $800 million – Jerry Lewis has received global acclaim for his unique ability and style with both comedy and drama. Best known for his comedic genius, he’s considered among the elite in the history of comedy. He has an exceptional feel for comic timing and possesses all the other unique qualities of a great clown. Critic Harriet Van Horne described Jerry’s screen persona as “a sort of witless genius,” while Hollywood director Leo McCarey called Lewis ‘’the Pied Piper of the business, the heir to the mantle of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.”
In 1977 Jerry was nominated for the esteemed Nobel Peace Prize, and in 1991, he received two impressive honors as the show business industry recognized his lifetime of achievement. On January 13, he received the Comic Life Achievement Award during cable television’s annual ACE Awards. The National Association of Broadcasters paid tribute to Jerry by inducting him into the Broadcast Hall of Fame on April 17. Jerry was inducted into the International Humor Hall of Fame in 1992, and on February 22, 1998, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Comedy Hall of Fame. In 1999, legendary film director Martin Scorsese presented Jerry Lewis with a career Golden Lion award at the Venice International Film Festival. Lewis was honored as “an extraordinary example of the total filmmaker: scriptwriter, director and protagonist of his films, therefore fully responsible for his work.”
The Los Angeles Film Critics Association in 2004 named Jerry the winner of the group’s Career Achievement Award, in 2005 he won the Governor’s Award Emmy®, in 2006 he was awarded a medal and induction into the French Legion of Honor, and in 2008, he was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame for his services to arts, entertainment and charity. Some renowned performers are proud to have a star set into the sidewalk as part of the Hollywood Hall of Fame.
Jerry has two: one for his work with film and one for television. Most recently, he was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Academy Award in 2009.
BORN TO BE IN SHOW BUSINESS
Jerry Lewis was destined to be in show business. He was born Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926, in Newark, N.J., to Danny and Rae Lewis – both professional entertainers. While his father, as Jerry puts it, “was the total entertainer;’ his mother played piano at New York radio station War, made musical arrangements and was her husband’s musical director.
At age 5, Jerry made his debut at a hotel in New York’s Borscht Belt Circuit, singing, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” as his father, the master of ceremonies, watched from the wings. By the time he was 15, Lewis had perfected a comic routine that’s still known as “The Record Player,” miming and silently mouthing lyrics of operatic and popular songs played on a phonograph offstage.
He attended high school in Irvington, N.J., quitting after two years, a move that he has often regretted. Then came a variety of jobs, including counterman behind a drugstore lunch counter, usher at Loew’s State in New York City and shipping clerk in a hat factory. Meanwhile, dressed in a drape jacket and pegged pants, Jerry continued to brave the offices of booking agents. When he finally got a booking, it was at a burlesque house in Buffalo, where he was hooted off the stage with shouts of “bring on the broads” before he’d even started his act.
Disheartened and ready to give up, Jerry was encouraged to keep trying by veteran burlesque comedian Max Coleman, who had worked with Jerry’s father for years in burlesque. Max Coleman went to Jerry and got his attention, telling him, “If you’re quitting, you’re no son of Danny Lewis:’
MARTIN AND LEWIS
In July 1946, Jerry was performing at the 500 Club in Atlantic City and one of the other entertainers suddenly quit. Jerry, who had already worked with a young crooner named Dean Martin at the Glass Hat in New York, suggested Dean as a replacement. They started out performing separately but were soon ad-libbing together,
improvising insults and jokes, squirting seltzer water, hurling bunches of celery and creating a general atmosphere of zaniness. In less than 18 weeks, their salaries soared from $250 a week to $5,000, and a partnership was born that dominated show business for 10 years, turning both men into household names.
After movie producer Hal Wallis saw the two perform at the Copacabana in New York City, he signed the duo to a movie contract with Paramount Pictures. Of their 1949 film debut, “My Friend Irma,” prominent New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote: “We could go along with the laughs which were fetched by a new mad comedian, Jerry Lewis by name. The swift eccentricity of his movements, the harrowing features of his face, and the squeak of his vocal protestations … have flair. His idiocy constitutes the burlesque of an idiot, which is something else again. He’s the funniest thing in the picture.”
For 10 years, Martin and Lewis sandwiched 16 money-making films between nightclub engagements, personal appearances and television bookings. Their last film together was Hollywood or Bust in 1956. On July 25 of that year, the two made their last nightclub appearance
together at the Copacabana, exactly 10 years to the day from when they began as a team. From 1950 to 1956, they were the world’s top box office earners.
JERRY LEWIS GOES SOLO
From then on, Jerry was constantly on the move. He recorded several records and albums – one of which, “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby,” released by Decca Records, sold nearly 4 million copies. With increased confidence, Jerry plunged into screenwriting, producing and directing as well as acting. In 1957, he became a major comedy star with his first film as a solo comic, The Delicate Delinquent. In the spring of 1959, a contract between Paramount and Jerry Lewis Productions was signed – then the biggest single transaction in film history for the exclusive services of one star – specifying a payment of $10 million plus 60 percent of the profits for 14 films over a seven year period. The partnership was dissolved in 1965.
In 1957 and 1959, and from 1961 to 1964, Jerry was the number-one movie draw in the world. In 1965, he moved to Columbia Pictures, where he produced, directed and starred in Three on a Couch; then to 20th Century-Fox to write, produce and star in The Big Mouth and Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River for Columbia release. He then went to England to direct Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford in One More Time for United Artists, before moving to Warner Brothers to produce, direct and star in Which Way to the Front?
After a hiatus of several years, Jerry returned to the screen with Hardly Working. Since then, his motion picture credits have included acting in such films as Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy; Arizona Dream with Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway, and 1994’s Funny Bones, filmed on location in Great Britain. Ever the virtuoso of the silver screen, in 2009 he announced he had the leading role in the upcoming indie film drama Max Rose, which he introduced at the Cannes Film Festival. He’s also made numerous television dramatic appearances, among them the ABC made-for-TV movie Fight for Life and five episodes of the Emmy®-nominated series “Wiseguy.” His autobiography, Jerry Lewis in Person, written with Herb Gluck, was published in 1982.
In 1994, Jerry fulfilled a lifelong dream when he went to Broadway and starred (as the Devil) in “Damn Yankees” for six months. In 1995, he became the highest paid performer in Broadway history. The show then toured the United States and played in London until August 1997.
FROM THE DIRECTOR’S CHAIR
A fact not widely known in the United States is that Jerry Lewis has been named Best Director of the Year eight times in Europe since 1960. The French film critic Robert Benayoun wrote: “I consider Jerry Lewis, since the death of Buster Keaton, to be the foremost comic artist of the time. He corresponds to his era both reflecting and criticizing our civilization.” French director Jean-Luc Godard remarked: “Jerry Lewis is the only American director who has made progressive films … he is much better than Chaplin and Keaton.” In February 1993, Jerry journeyed to Paris to receive yet more recognition from his French fans. He was given the Cinematech’s most prestigious honor, a 10-day homage acknowledging his body of work.
Jerry continues to stay very active in his directorial role. His latest coup in this regard is a Broadway musical rendition of “The Nutty Professor;’ some 46 years after the film version met with acclaim. With Jerry at the helm, the stage performance is set to debut in the 2010-11 Broadway season. It will complement a computer-animated sequel to ‘’The Nutty Professor” that Jerry produced in 2008.
His directing prowess was recognized in yet another quarter when a book titled simply “Jerry Lewis” was released by the University of Illinois Press in November 2009. Author Chris Fujiwara, an accomplished writer, film critic, journalist and editor, in assessing Jerry’s talent says, “No director has done more than Jerry Lewis to exploit the meaningful possibilities of [film].” The character Professor John Frink in “The Simpsons” is based on Jerry’s role as Professor Kelp in “The Nutty Professor,” and Jerry has done Frink’s voice in at least one “Simpsons” episode.
Although gratified by such esteem, Jerry values the words of his friend, President John F. Kennedy, engraved on a plaque in his dressing room more: “There are three things that are real… God, human folly and laughter. Since the first two are beyond comprehension, we must do the best we can with the third.”