Jerry Lewis was many things to many people. But most people remember him as kind, funny and good hearted. He passed away at home in Las Vegas this morning. He was 91 years old.
Lewis had a long and mostly successful career which launched in the mid 1950’s after connecting with crooner, Dean Martin. Later, he went on his own as a film star. Jerome Levitch, as he was born on March 26, 1926, was a high school dropout at 16 who had an insecure upbringing as he was passed around to different family members while his entertainer parents were on the road.
Jerry was able to avoid being drafted into World War II with an F4 classification. He met and married his wife Patti Palmer, with whom he had six sons, and about the time of their marriage, his career took off. He began touring with Dean Martin. Martin played the straight man to Lewis’s constant slapstick. They were a huge hit. They also made frequent appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The post war era and the rise of the film industry led to Jerry Lewis’s movie stardom. His best known movie is perhaps, “The Nutty Professor“, which is still quite funny, and a clean comedy for children to watch. He added to this, personal live appearances in Vegas and started as spokesman for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, all in the 1950’s. Lewis stayed connected with MDA until his death over 60 years later, although he stepped down as Chairman in 2011. In 1966, he held the first Labor Day continuous telethon, setting records for charity fund-raising in a 24 hour period.
Lewis, like many other Hollywood elite, struggled with addiction. His was with painkillers. He also had a 4 pack a day smoking habit, and survived a double bypass surgery in 1982. The rude awakening led him to give up his smoking habit.
After Jerry’s sons grew up, one of them died. His marriage ended in divorce and he married again, to SanDee Pitnick, and they adopted a daughter together. Jerry’s son Gary had a brief rock and roll career, with a band called, Gary Lewis and the Playboys.
After the decline of his career in the United States, he remained quite popular and had a large following in France. They are mourning his death today as well.
My own encounter with Jerry Lewis was many years ago at the age of 19. I worked in a camera department of an appliance store in Dearborn, Michigan. College was out for the summer. Mr. Lewis came in to buy a camera and, because I was the only female on the counter, he wanted my assistance, much to the dismay of the guys I worked with. He did buy the equipment, and the owner, whom he knew, gave him the dealer cost discount. I made no commission but Jerry gave our entire department tickets to his show that weekend at the local Hyatt Regency. He even stopped by our tables during intermission and said hello.
It is not often to be able to cherish such memories. Some will say he had his faults, but he was certainly a down to earth person who didn’t act like he was above anyone. He made everyone feel comfortable. The world will miss his clean and spontaneous humor and unselfish heart.
The Bellboy is one of the most famous early film comedy clips that Lewis performed.