The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES–Jerry Lewis, the manic, rubber-faced showman who jumped and hollered to fame in a lucrative partnership with Dean Martin, settled down to become a self-conscious screen auteur and found an even greater following as the tireless, teary host of the annual muscular dystrophy telethons, has died.
He was 91.
Lewis died yesterday of natural causes in Las Vegas with his family by his side, publicist Candi Cazau said.
Tributes from friends, co-stars, and disciples poured in immediately.
“That fool was no dummy. Jerry Lewis was an undeniable genius an unfathomable blessing, comedy’s absolute!” Jim Carrey wrote yesterday on Twitter.
“I am because he was!”
“The world has lost a true innovator & icon,” comedian Dane Cook wrote.
In Las Vegas, a message honouring the comedian is being featured on a marquee at Caesars Palace, where Lewis once was a headliner and also had hosted telethons.
In Los Angeles, fans and admirers gathered at Lewis’ two Hollywood Walk of Fame stars: one for television and one for film.
Lewis’ career spanned the history of show business in the 20th century, beginning in his parents’ vaudeville act at the age of five.
He was just 20 when his pairing with Martin made them international stars.
He went on to make such favourites as “The Bellboy” and “The Nutty Professor,” was featured in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” and appeared as himself in Billy Crystal’s “Mr. Saturday Night.”
“Jerry was a pioneer in comedy and film. And he was a friend,” Lewis’ “The King of Comedy” co-star Robert De Niro said in a statement.
“I was fortunate to have seen him a few times over the past couple of years,” De Niro added.
“Even at 91, he didn’t miss a beat. Or a punchline.”
In the 1990s, Lewis scored a stage comeback as the devil in the Broadway revival of “Damn Yankees.”
And after a 20-year break from making movies, Lewis returned as the star of the independent drama “Max Rose,” released in 2016.
In his 80s, he still was travelling the world, working on a stage version of “The Nutty Professor.”
He was so active he sometimes would forget the basics, like eating, his associates would recall.
In 2012, Lewis missed an awards ceremony thrown by his beloved Friars Club because his blood sugar dropped from lack of food and he had to spend the night in the hospital.
A major influence on Carrey and other slapstick performers, Lewis also was known as the ringmaster of the Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Association, joking and reminiscing and introducing guests, sharing stories about ailing kids, and concluding with his personal anthem, the ballad “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
From the 1960s onward, the telethons raised some $1.5 billion, including more than $60 million in 2009.
He announced in 2011 that he would step down as host, but would remain chairman of the association he joined some 60 years ago.
Lewis’ fundraising efforts won him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2009 Oscar telecast.
But the telethon also was criticized for being mawkish and exploitative of children, known as “Jerry’s Kids.”
A 1960s muscular dystrophy poster boy, Mike Ervin, later made a documentary called “The Kids Are All Alright,” in which he alleged that Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Association had treated him and others as objects of pity rather than real people.
“He and his telethon symbolize an antiquated and destructive 1950s charity mentality,” Ervin wrote in 2009.
Responded Lewis: “You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair, stay in your house!”
Lewis also sassed and snarled at critics and interviewers who displeased him.
He pontificated on talk shows, lectured to college students, and compiled his thoughts in the 1971 book, “The Total Film-Maker.”
“I am not ashamed or embarrassed at how seemingly trite or saccharine something in my films will sound,” he wrote.
“I really do make films for my great-great-grandchildren and not for my fellows at the Screen Directors Guild or for the critics.”