The slapstick, the telethons, ‘Laaa-dy!’ — comic and philanthropist Jerry Lewis dies at 91 – Los Angeles Times
“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.”
But as they continued making pictures and doing television and nightclub appearances, Martin finally grew tired of “playing a stooge,” tired of Lewis being singled out as the “crazy, funny” one, tired, in fact, of Lewis himself.
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.”
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.
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.