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|Also Known As:||Joseph Levitch,Joe Levitch||Died:|
|Born:||March 16, 1926||Cause of Death:|
|Birth Place:||Newark, New Jersey, USA||Profession:||Cast ... actor producer director writer professor of cinema (USC) singer busboy shipping clerk soda jerk teacher theater usher|
ous choice to host a national telethon in 1966. Though the idea of a major telethon on a holiday weekend was dismissed by some as an unquestionable failure, Lewis' sheer force of will, along with the help of numerous celebrity guests, helped to raise over $1 million for the charity. He repeated the success the following year, and topped it in 1973 by raising $10 million. Three years later, the telethon made headlines when guest Frank Sinatra brokered an on-air reunion between Lewis and Dean Martin. The telethon had as many detractors as supporters; critics found Lewis treacly and overbearing as a host, and disability rights activities took umbrage at how he described MD sufferers as incapable of taking care of themselves without the support of the telethon. However, few could deny Lewis' passion for the cause, which he displayed through 16-hour stretches on air and ceaseless campaigning in advertising. By 2009, his efforts had raised $1.46 billion for muscular dystrophy, which resulted in a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 1977.
Though his humanitarian efforts received considerable praise, Lewis' film career was dead in the water by the 1970s. He remained exceptionally popular in Europe; most notably France, where the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinema heaped some of its most effusive words on his body of work. In America, however, he was regarded as hopelessly out of date, with the dotage by Continental critics and audiences a popular gag with comics and pundits at the expense of Lewis and the French alike. Lewis attempted to resuscitate his image with "The Day the Clown Cried" (1972), a European-produced melodrama about a circus clown forced by the Nazis to lead children into the death chambers. The project horrified just about anyone who heard about it, and the select few who viewed it reported the experience as both baffling and unsettling. Litigation over production fees forced Lewis to cease completion on the film, and in the decades following its production, he was alternately hopeful and dismissive of a final release. Lewis also suffered from a debilitating addiction to the painkiller Percodan during this period, which he eventually overcame in 1978.
A frustrated Lewis returned to his first showcase â¿¿ the stage â¿¿ for a 1976 production of "Hellzapoppin'," but the frantic Jazz Era musical folded before it ever reached Broadway. He was forced to focus on the telethon, as well as comedy performances and lectures to maintain his career until 1981, when he returned to features with "Hardly Working." The comedy, about a hapless circus clown who fails miserably at every attempt to hold down a steady job, relied on relentless slapstick and the broadest of gags, but the film was a surprise hit in American theaters. Sensing a return to form, Lewis began crafting his next picture when disaster struck.
A massive heart attack nearly killed him in 1982; the experience, which he later described as near-death, served as the perverse inspiration for his next picture, "Smorgasbord" (1983), which told the story of a man (Lewis) whose failures extend even to suicide. The picture was released directly to cable under the title "Cracking Up." Its failure was soon overshadowed by a remarkable dramatic turn as a late night talk show host kidnapped by an obsessive fan (Robert De Niro) in Martin Scorsese's black comedy, "The King of Comedy" (1981). Critics were effusive in their praise for Lewis' performance, but he was unable to turn the triumph into subsequent work of the same caliber. Instead, he floundered in a ghastly adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's "Slapstick of Another Kind" (1983), which saw him don appalling makeup and a semi-moronic stance as one half of a pair of monstrous children who are revealed to have extraterrestrial origins. A year later, he returned to France to make a pair of comedies so grim that he retained the rights in order to keep them out of the United States.
In 1986, he enjoyed a resurgence of respect with a dramatic turn in the ABC TV movie "Fight for Life," about a doctor (Lewis) whose struggle to obtain a rare drug for his epileptic daughter highlighted problems within the Food and Drug Administration. He followed this with an impressive four-episode arc on the crime drama "Wiseguy" (CBS, 1987-1990) as a garment business owner who turns to Ken Wahl's undercover agent for protection against mobsters. The appearances sparked a sort of revival of Lewis' career, and he enjoyed a string of modest and well-praised appearances in features like "Mr. Saturday Night" (1992) and "Funny Bones" (1994), most of which traded on his long and storied showbiz career. In 1994, he enjoyed a triumphant run on Broadway as the Devil in a production of "Damn Yankees." Two years later, one of his longest gestating projects, a remake of "The Nutty Professor," finally made it to screen, but with Eddie Murphy as both Julius Kelp and Buddy Love. A blockbuster with audiences, it generated a vulgar 2000 sequel and a tidy sum for Lewis, who served as producer on both films.
Unfortunately, Lewis' health issues and a string of controversial statements forced him to take a back seat throughout most of the new millennium. Prostate cancer, diabetes, pulmonary fibrosis, and a second heart attack nearly brought him to death's door a second time, and the treatment for the fibrosis through Prednisone resulted in his weight ballooning to dangerous levels. Lewis eventually battled an addiction to the medication, as well as pneumonia, viral meningitis and the insertion of two stents in a blocked artery. The press was sympathetic to Lewis's continuing health issues, but less so in regard to unfortunate statements like his 2000 dismissal of female comics in front of a festival crowd and homophobic jokes made during the 2007 and 2008 telethons. In 2008, he was cited for carrying a concealed weapon at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.
Despite these incidents, Lewis remained both active and popular as he entered his eighth decade. In 2008, he announced that he was working on a musical stage adaptation of "The Nutty Professor" with composers Marvin Hamlisch and Rupert Holmes. The following year, he was cast as the lead in "Max Rose" (2009), his first lead in a feature film since "King of Comedy." Lewis' long and fabled career received its share of tributes during this period as well, most notably the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 81st Annual Academy Awards for his work for muscular dystrophy. The award was one of several major fetes between 2004-09, including a career achievement award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the Governors Award from the Emmys in 2005, a Satellite Award for an appearance on "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC, 1999- ) and an induction into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2009. After 45 years of hosting the MDA Labor Day telethon, Lewis announced in May 2011 that he would be stepping down later that year as host, stating that it was time for "new telethon era." He confirmed he would make his final appearance on the September telecast, but still continue in his longtime role as the association's national chairman.66 to begin a string of comedies intended to rebuild his career with movie audiences, but the pictures â¿¿ including "Three on a Couch" (1966), "Way Way Out" (1966), which featured a title song by his son Gary Lewis' pop group the Playboys, and "Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the River" (1967) â¿¿ failed to generate much box office traction. Sensing the downward motion of his career, he focused his boundless energies on other endeavors, including a film directing class at the University of Southern California where he mentored, among others, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
Lewis also became deeply invested in his annual MDA Labor Day Telethon, which raised money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association since 1966. Lewis began hosting regional telethons for the organization as early as 1952, and was the obvi
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