“I get paid for what most kids get punished for,” said Jerry Lewis—and he got paid lots, as part of a phenomenon of a pairing in the 1940s and 1950s, and on his own ever after. Loved or mocked, he was never ignored, and there was more to him than what he called his “great success being a total idiot.”
Born March 16, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey, Joseph Levitch was cradled in comedy—his father, who used the name Danny Lewis, was in vaudeville, and his mother, Rachel, played piano for a radio station. By age 5 he was appearing onstage with his parents when they played the “Borscht Belt” circuit of Jewish hotels in New York’s Catskill Mountains and by 15 he had his own act, lip-synching to songs on a record player in that rubber-faced way of his. School held no allure for Jerry (“Joe Louis” already being in use by another comedian and the boxer) and the military turned him down due to a heart murmur, so he peddled his “Record Act” in nightclubs.
At 19, he met singer Dean Martin, who was nine years his senior, and also struggling in showbiz. They clicked, and when they debuted their act at Atlantic City’s 500 Club in 1946, they were an instant failure, so big the owner told them to shape up or ship out. Martin and Lewis quickly dropped their rehearsed material and improvised, with the handsome, unflappable singer playing straight man to Lewis’s “busboy,” who dropped plates and generally made a nuisance out of himself with his antics. Audiences loved their on-the-fly mix of shtick and songs, a departure from the usual club fare, and within a year they were earning $30,000 a week at New York’s prestigious Copacabana. “We came straight out of the blue ... a sexy guy and a monkey is how some people saw us,” Lewis recalled.
Their act was ripe for live television in its early days. In 1948 they were Ed Sullivan’s first guests on his new TV show, and they were among the hosts of the popular Colgate Comedy Hour when it began in 1950. By then they had made their first two movies, the radio adaptations My Friend Irma (1949) and My Friend Irma Goes West (1950). A hit in supporting parts, the two were drafted for starring roles in 1950’s At War with the Army.
Martin and Lewis established itself as a brand, with luxurious deals regarding their film, TV, records, merchandising and live appearances that made them kings of all media, long before Howard Stern gave himself that title. And the movies, directed by comedy veterans like George Marshall (1953’s Scared Stiff) and Norman Taurog (1953’s The Caddy) were funny, usually paper-thin confections held together by Martin’s girl-getting and Lewis’ goofing around (“Hey laaaaady!”—courtesy 1952's The Stooge). A bright sendup of superheroes and comic books, Artists and Models (1955) was more ambitious, and Lewis absorbed the sophisticated gags invented by director Frank Tashlin, who had directed Looney Tunes cartoons.
By then, however, the partnership had frayed badly. While Lewis always insisted that Martin was the spine of the act, Martin’s contributions to the films were diminished, to the point that Look magazine cropped him out of a cover story photograph. After 10 years and 16 movies, the partnership dissolved in 1956; their last film was Hollywood or Bust.
Neither went bust. Martin reinvented himself as a dramatic actor and singer with a self-deprecating side, while Lewis, at 30, refined his idiocy. A Martin and Lewis vehicle minus Martin, 1957’s The Delicate Delinquent was a hit, and under Tashlin’s direction he had several more, including Rock-A-Bye Baby (1958) and It’s Only Money (1962). It was: The latter was part of a rich seven-year deal—$10 million for 14 films, plus 60 percent of the profits—he signed with Paramount in 1959. In a four-week window in 1960 he quickly wrote, produced, and directed The Bellboy, a mostly silent slapstick farce that expanded his filmmaking range. The Ladies Man and The Errand Boy, both released the following year, continued his winning streak as a director.
Lewis had a rare critical success with The Nutty Professor (1963), a Jekyll and Hyde story in which the title character transforms himself into a suave hipster, based, he said, on self-important types he knew (not on Martin or the worst aspects of himself, as has been speculated). Audiences, unused to introspection from their favorite, were colder to the movie, which gained cult status and a successful 1996 remake with Eddie Murphy. The end of his contract coincided with his 40th birthday and the close of his hot streak, and by 1970 his movie career was at a standstill. Curiosity lingers over a bizarre project, his unreleased The Day the Clown Cried (1972), in which his clown leads children into the ovens of Auschwitz.
A word about his reputation. Yes, it’s true: After a publicity tour in France for 1965’s Boeing-Boeing, part of a failed switch to romantic comedies, the French revered him, and in 2006 he received the country’s highest civilian honor, the French Legion of Honor. “I’ve had the greatest respect for my work in this country by Americans,” Lewis said. “Critics have no brains.” But they did come around, eventually, to his stylized slapstick humor, crack timing and innovative filmmaking. (Lewis was key to inventing the industry-standard tool of video assist, so he wouldn’t have to wait 24 hours for the day’s rushes to be developed during The Bellboy’s breakneck shooting schedule.)
He returned to movies, and family-friendly slapstick, with an unexpected hit, 1980’s Hardly Working. Few saw Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982) on its initial release, but those who did were stunned by Lewis’s scrupulous control and cold fury as a Johnny Carson-like talk show host abducted by Robert De Niro’s showbiz-obsessed fan. Afterward, his film and TV appearances were sporadic, and he mellowed. Around the time he made his Broadway debut in 1995, in the revival of the musical Damn Yankees, he commented that by age 65 or 66, he felt “tremendous self worth.” The last decade was gold watch time for the entertainer, with Lewis receiving the Governors Award at the Emmys in 2005 and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscars in 2009.
“I don’t want to be remembered,” Lewis said. “I want the nice words when I can hear them.” Too late—but the prizes came in no small part from his decades-long association with the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethons broadcast on Labor Day weekends, from 1966 to 2010. These raised $2.6 billion for the cause and, in 1976, reunited him with Martin, a surprise guest. Lewis, who once referred to himself as “bigheaded, egotistical and a megalomaniac,” also said, “No one gets the satisfaction or the joy that I get out of seeing kids realize there is hope.” Hey laaaaady—the idiot had done good.