Comic actor, tireless telethon host and needy performer Jerry Lewis dies at 91

Jerry Lewis is awarded the Jean Hersholt Awards at the 81st Annual Academy Awards on Feb. 22, 2009 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, Calif.
Jerry Lewis is awarded the Jean Hersholt Awards at the 81st Annual Academy Awards on Feb. 22, 2009 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, Calif. TNS

The world’s oldest teenager died Sunday. The calendar says the man born Jerome Levitch (also reported as Joseph Levitch) was 91. But the Jerry Lewis loved for two decades by moviegoers always acted like an insecure, endearing high schooler.

Titles of the movies that made him the world’s top box office draw in the 1950s tell the story: “The Delicate Delinquent,” “The Geisha Boy,” “The Bellboy,” “The Errand Boy.” Yet the facade of a screaming juvenile concealed a fast and fertile mind: He wrote, directed and produced many of his films (including his best, “The Nutty Professor”) and created a video-assist camera to show directors instantly what they’re shooting on the set. Today, it’s in use around the world.

By the time he died, Lewis was a once-a-year phenomenon, perennial and tireless host of the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon on Labor Day weekend. Yet in his prime, Lewis briefly dominated radio, television, night clubs and film – and when he finally made his Broadway debut at 68 in 1995 as the Devil in “Damn Yankees,” he became the highest-paid person ever to star in a Broadway show at the time (at a reported $40,000 a week).

His lifelong ambition, insecurity and need for attention sprang from a childhood where his parents traveled the Borscht Belt vaudeville circuit for Jewish audiences, neglecting their son.

“An audience is nothing more than eight or nine hundred mamas and papas clapping their hands and saying, ‘Good boy, baby,’ ” Lewis once said. “You’ll find that people who had enough ‘Good boy, baby’ from their actual parents rarely turn to comedy.”

Turn to it he did, after dropping out of high school in northern New Jersey at 16. (He reportedly punched a German teacher in the mouth for an anti-Semitic remark.) Lewis did a burlesque act where he lip-synced to records, married first wife Patty Palmer (a Catholic) at 18, then made his smartest career move at 20: He hooked up with singer Dean Martin at the 500 Club in Atlantic City, N.J., in July 1946.

The engagement made them the hottest pair in show business for a decade. Martin, the suave crooner who made ladies swoon, was the straight man; Lewis, the body-contorting and asexual man-child, got the laughs. Their film career ran from “My Friend Irma” in 1949 to “Hollywood or Bust” in 1956, with Lewis locked in the role of yearning nerd. (He was in his 30s when he wanted to play uber-loner Holden Caulfield. Luckily, J.D. Salinger refused him and everyone else the rights to “Catcher in the Rye.”)

By then, Lewis had done his first MDA telethon (in 1951) and, along with Martin, become the highest-paid artist in TV and film. He used his newfound clout to become a producer of his own movies in 1957, then writer-director on “The Bellboy” in 1960. He was what the French would call an auteur, the sole author of his films. Not since Charlie Chaplin had a comedian been star-writer-director-producer (and occasionally composer) on a film.

Yet this titan was still afraid to disappoint his parents. They expected Lewis’ sons to be raised as Jews, although the boys followed Patty’s faith and were confirmed as Catholics. So Jerry faked a 1958 bar mitzvah photo, in which eldest son Gary held up a Torah.

Lewis peaked in 1963 with “The Nutty Professor,” playing nebbishy scientist Julius Kelp and singer/swinger Buddy Love, whom Kelp turns into after taking a potion. Most commentators saw it as a thinly disguised vengeance on his ex-partner: Kelp was the childlike Lewis (who wins gorgeous Stella Stevens), while the cold-hearted, sadistic and sexist Love represented Lewis’ view of Dean Martin.

Beloved in France

Europeans continued to embrace Lewis long after U.S. moviegoers lost interest in him in the mid ’60s. Europe saw him as the quintessential Ugly American – loud, pushing, sexually infantile, good-hearted and impulsive but often destructive and confused.

Even their fondness couldn’t provoke the release of “The Day the Clown Cried,” a 1972 drama legendary for its presumed awfulness – “presumed” because a finished print was never cut and few people saw even the rough version. Lewis played Helmut Doork, a clown who entertained children on their way to the gas chambers in a Nazi death camp.

In 1984, the French gave him their highest cultural honor, the Order of Arts and Letters; two months later, he went back to Paris to join the French Legion of Honor for his charity work. He milked the “prophet without honor in his homeland” angle for French media, though U.S. critics had praised him as an embittered talk show host in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.”

The ’80s brought changes. His 38-year marriage ended in 1982, and the divorce alienated most of his six children. He married SanDee Pitnick four months later and had another child with her.

Lewis finally kicked his addiction to Percodan, a painkiller he’d abused since wrenching his back in 1965. When he got off the drug, his weight ballooned. He also became richer than ever by taking a piece of “The Nutty Professor” when it was remade as two pictures with Eddie Murphy.

He played small roles in films or TV shows through his later years and worked faithfully on the MDA telethon. His crowning achievement was “Damn Yankees” – first on Broadway, then on a national tour and then in London.

Reaction to reviews

But despite the acclaim, his neediness never diminished. Observer theater critic Tony Brown saw him in Charlotte in 1996 and reported: “In Act 2 … the show stops dead while Lewis does a stand-up routine, reciting off-color limericks, Polish jokes and rabbi stories while trying to catch but missing 16 canes that are thrown in from off-stage. It may sound offensive, but it had Tuesday night’s audience in stitches for almost 10 minutes.”

The incensed actor wrote to him from Indianapolis, the next stop on the tour, on stationery from Charlotte’s Park Hotel. He signed off, “With no regards, Jerry Lewis,” and sent further screeds (and copies of adoring reviews) from Las Vegas, Dallas and Chicago.

The angry letters stopped for about six months – until Lewis mailed Brown a fresh diatribe about his triumph in London. Even the applause of millions of mamas and papas saying “Good boy, baby,” hadn’t been enough.

5 crucial Jerry Lewis performances:

“My Friend Irma” (1949): First teaming with Dean Martin (in supporting roles as juice-bar owners) and first appearance onscreen of Lewis’ overgrown delinquent.

“The Bellboy” (1960): Lewis plays a mute bellboy who keeps getting into predicaments at a Miami hotel. This is his tribute to Charlie Chaplin and his feature directing debut.

“The Nutty Professor” (1963): His bizarre Jekyll-and-Hyde masterpiece, with Lewis as a goofy, buck-toothed professor and the callous, sexist “swinger” he turns into after taking a potion.

“Boeing Boeing” (1965): Lewis moves into straight roles, playing best friend to philandering Tony Curtis as the latter makes his way through a list of compliant stewardesses.

“The King of Comedy” (1982): Lewis plays a megalomaniac talk show host who’s full of bile and gets kidnapped by a comic (Robert De Niro) who wants a stint on his show.

Lawrence Toppman