Veteran American comedian, Jerry Lewis, whose goofy brand of physical comedy endeared him to millions in a career spanning six decades, has died on Sunday aged 91.
Jerry Lewis, an actor and auteur who was one of the most influential forces in American comedy, died Sunday morning at his Las Vegas home. He was 91.
“Legendary entertainer Jerry Lewis passed away peacefully today of natural causes at 91 at his home with family by his side,” his family said in a statement to the Las Vegas Review-Journal writer John Katsilometes.
In a career that spanned vaudeville, radio, television, film and philanthropy, Lewis established the persona of a manic, juvenile jokester, which belied darker, more self-lacerating elements below the surface, giving his seemingly silly performances a fascinatingly edgy undercurrent.
That tension powered his artistic life as well, as Lewis modeled himself after earlier filmmakers such as Charlie Chaplin, seeking to gain control over his idiosyncratic, deeply personal art by writing, directing and producing his own material. Revered by everyone from Martin Scorsese to Jerry Seinfeld, Lewis was intimately involved with some of his greatest films, including 1960’s The Bellboy and 1963’s The Nutty Professor, always with a mind toward challenging himself and entertaining an audience.
“I learned from my dad that when you walk in front of an audience, they are the kings and queens, and you’re but the jester,” he said in 2016. “And if you don’t think that way, you’re going to get very, very conceited.”
Born in March 1926 in New Jersey into a family of entertainers – his father a vaudeville performer, his mother a piano player – Lewis caught the acting bug early, appearing on stage with his parents at a young age.
Dropping out of high school and dreaming of breaking into show business, he worked at clubs in the Catskills, worried that his physical appearance would keep him from having a career. As he wrote in his 2005 memoir Dean and Me: A Love Story, “I was tall, skinny, gawky; cute but funny-looking. With the voice God had given me, I certainly wasn’t going to be a singer like my dad, with his Al Jolson baritone. I always saw the humor in things, the joke possibilities.
“At the same time, I didn’t have the confidence to stand on a stage and talk.” Instead, he realized that playing the broad clown – wearing goofy wigs, pantomiming in an exaggerated fashion – opened up a rich vein of comic possibilities. “God hadn’t made me handsome,” Lewis wrote, “but he’d given me something, I always felt: funny bones.”
Honored with accolades at home and abroad, including a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977, Lewis became known as much for his tireless efforts to promote awareness of Muscular Dystrophy as for his unique brand of physical comedy.
Over the course of 45 years, he raised some 2.45 billion dollars for combatting the disease with an annual television event. Born Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jersey to two New York City entertainers, Lewis first took center stage at the tender age of five, when he performed “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” He began playing at resorts outside New York City that catered to Jewish patrons, known by touring entertainers as the Borscht Circuit.