The Five Best Performances by Jerry Lewis

Comedian and actor gave more than most to the industry through his creative genius

by Zachary Leeman | Updated 21 Aug 2017 at 10:36 PM

As a comedian, Jerry Lewis spread nothing but pure joy by performing live throughout his life, including famously partnering with the late musician Dean Martin and becoming one of the hottest ticket items of the ’50s.

As a philanthropist, Lewis donated his time and talents to help raise billions to help fight muscular dystrophy.

He also gave a lot to the film world as an actor, writer and director. Lewis was so in demand in the ’60s that Paramount gave him free rein to make what he wanted — including creative control over his projects.

His contributions to film lasted all the way until his death. In his final interview, he said he was still writing and planning on making more films.

Here's a look at Jerry Lewis' five best performances, all of which should be revisited to remember what a talent he was as an artist. He could make you laugh and cry — sometimes in the very same movie.

Related: Jerry Lewis: No One Inspired Others As He Did

1.) "The King of Comedy" (1982). For those who doubt Lewis could do more than wild antics on the big screen, make "The King of Comedy" a priority to watch next. Director Martin Scorsese gave the comedian an opportunity to act in 1982 as he had never done before.

Robert De Niro stars as a man obsessed with the idea of becoming a talk-show host, much like his idol (played by Lewis) — a man he begins stalking.

Lewis appeared to bring a lot of his own experiences to the role of Jerry Langford, a man desperate for privacy and at the end of a long career of ups and downs. Lewis quickly became the heart of the film with his weighty role. It's some of finest work on film and one of his most serious and demanding roles. He deserved an Oscar for his work opposite De Niro.

He was nominated for a BAFTA Award (the British equivalent of the Academy Award) for Best Supporting Actor. "The King of Comedy" is a film that has aged like wine and only gotten better, especially now that it exists in a world of social media in which people can regularly stalk their celebrity idols via the internet. Many can also use such platforms as Youtube to push their talents to the world, whether those talents are real or not.

It's obvious after only one scene in "The King of Comedy" that Lewis deserved a lot more roles like this.

Related: Jerry Lewis on His New Film: 'Almost Like Saying Goodbye'

2.) "Max Rose" (2013). This flick was treated a little unfairly. It was Lewis' final lead role in a film, and it was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. The release to theaters was delayed until 2016, when it was dropped on audiences without much hype.

While critics fairly pointed out some of its failures, Lewis was downright brilliant. Viewers can't take their eyes off him in a role into which he clearly poured his heart.

Max Rose (Lewis) is a man who discovers a secret about his late wife after 65 years of marriage — which leads him to question a lifetime of decisions and loyalty. The story takes on the realities of aging, death, secrets — and accepting the things we cannot change with grace.

It should be watched first and foremost for Lewis' work. He owns the screen. Asked by The Hollywood Reporter after Lewis' passing why the comedian signed on for the film, writer-director Daniel Noah said this:

He had had pulmonary fibrosis and been told he wouldn't survive it and he did, very much to his surprise. I think he felt he'd been given an extra chapter in life, and he wanted to do something with it. When we first started to meet and get to know each other, he told me he'd accomplished nearly everything he'd set his mind to in his life except a deep, dramatic performance. That was the one thing he felt he'd never done. He spoke to me about how he'd talked to his father quite a bit about it before he passed away. He had felt disappointment that he'd never done that for his dad before he lost his dad, and when the script for "Max Rose" came to him he felt that his father had sent it to him.

Related: Comic Icon Jerry Lewis on Eight Decades on Stage ... and Trump

3.) "The Bellboy" (1960). This is the kind of innocent comedy you'd be hard-pressed to find as a new entry today. Lewis stars as a mute bellboy whose clumsiness sets the stage for wildly funny scenes.

It was one of the icon's most successful movies; he wrote and directed it as well. It was a testament to his talent as a filmmaker that he could pull off some of these slapstick scenes both behind and in front of the camera.

Related: Jerry Lewis Slams Obama, Praises Trump

4.) "The Nutty Professor" (1963). This is arguably Lewis' most famous film; it was remade successfully in 1996 by Eddie Murphy.

Lewis stars as a professor named Julius Kelp whose social life is lacking. To cure his loneliness, he develops a potion that turns him into a handsome stud named Buddy Love, a personality who is his complete opposite. Things turn into a wildly comedic version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" when the professor's alter ego ends up being a little more obnoxious and troublesome than he's worth.

"The Nutty Professor" arrived at the height of Lewis' fame, and its popularity has only grown over time. It was even preserved in the United States Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2004. Lewis again worked behind the camera, directing and co-writing the feature.

Fun fact: Lewis actually reprised his role as Julius Kelp/Buddy Love in an animated sequel of the same name released 45 years later. It's the longest gap in film history for a sequel in which an original star reprised his role.

Related: Hidden Jerry Lewis Holocaust Film Leaks

5.) "Law and Order: SVU" (2006). Lewis guest-starred in what was one of the most powerful episodes of "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" — he played a homeless man accused of murder and suffering from possible dementia. It turns out Lewis' character Andrew is the long-lost uncle of detective John Much (Richard Belzer, a friend of Lewis in real life).

Lewis committed to his role and pulled off one of his best shows as an actor. He's completely believable as a man caught in the trap of madness. The episode, entitled "Uncle," was a highly publicized episode of "Law and Order," as many casual viewers hadn't seen a performance from Lewis in a long while. It was worth the hype.

Lewis remains one of the best and most powerful guest stars to go through the "Law and Order" machine.

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