Jerry Lewis: No One Inspired Others As He Did

Iconic entertainer was 91, leaves behind a tremendous body of work across the decades

by Zachary Leeman | Updated 22 Aug 2017 at 12:32 PM

Comedian and filmmaker Jerry Lewis passed away Sunday at his home in Las Vegas at the age of 91.

There were few performers like him — and this is the rare time that phrase truly means something. Lewis and late musician Dean Martin were major draws wherever they went throughout the 1950s, and Lewis went on to become Paramount’s most reliable box-office star in the ’60s, with hit films such as “The Nutty Professor” and “The Bellboy.”

Never one to slow down over the years, Lewis made an appearance in a film as recently as last year, in “The Trust,” starring Nicolas Cage and Elijah Wood. Before that, he guest-starred in shows such as “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” and headlined his own feature film, “Max Rose,” which was first released in 2013.

The comedian struggled with his health in recent years; he was hospitalized not long ago, and in 2006 suffered a heart attack. He had surgery to deal with prostate cancer in 2003 and fought a long and public battle with pulmonary fibrosis. In 1983 he underwent open-heart surgery.

Born in 1926 in Newark, New Jersey, the entertainer discovered his love of show business at the mere age of five, when he took the stage at a borscht belt hotel in New York and sang, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" The son of a father who was a musical arranger and a mother who played piano, Lewis dropped out of high school and worked on building a routine as a comedian while holding down various jobs, including as a theater usher.

It was Lewis' partnership with Martin that sent him skyrocketing to fame. The crooning Martin would play straight man to Lewis' antics in their stage shows and in films such as 1953's "The Caddy" and 1951's "The Stooge."

"Other comedy teams never generated anything like the hysteria that Dean and I did, and that was because we had that X factor — the powerful feeling between us," Lewis wrote in the 2005 book, "Dean & Me (A Love Story)."

Beyond his acting and comedy, Lewis was also a writer and director, often of his own films. He was also well-known for his fundraising efforts as the national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. In that role, Lewis hosted an annual Labor Day telethon for an astonishingly long time — from 1955 to 2011 — and helped raise over $2.5 billion to fight the neuromuscular disease. In 1977 he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his charitable work.

What's most impressive about Lewis' life and work is how much time he spent inspiring others. He even taught at USC during the early '60s and late '70s, directly instructing such artists as the now-successful director Robert Zemeckis ("Back to the Future," "Cast Away").

Lewis was known for having right-leaning views and spoke positively of President Donald Trump. As Lewis told EWTN's managing editor and editor-at-large Raymond Arroyo about Trump in an exclusive interview last year that was published first in LifeZette, "I think he's great. He's a showman. And we've never had a showman in the president's chair."

Watch the highlights of Raymond Arroyo's exclusive interviews with Jerry Lewis here:

The passing of Lewis brought a rare moment of togetherness on social media for fans and the Hollywood community. Many set aside their partisan politics on Sunday to remember the man who inspired so many of them.

If the reaction to Lewis' death from a very divided Hollywood community means anything, it's this: The man's ability to inspire and bring people together will not be stopped by his passing. He will continue to spread joy forever through the work he leaves behind, the feelings he left with those he met and entertained, and through those he inspired.

Lewis is survived by his wife, SanDee Pitnick, and their daughter, Danielle. He also has four surviving sons from his first marriage to Patti Palmer.

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