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Jerry Lewis Profile
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Jerry Lewis Profile

Say what you will about Jerry Lewis. The man is a 20th-century titan. As an actor, he dominated the box-office throughout the 1950s and well into the '60s. His films have been acclaimed as brilliant works of art by some and derided as moronic kitsch by others. He is possibly the world's best known humanitarian, for his years as host of the MDA Labor Day telethon. He has battled addiction. He has weathered severe health problems. He has been worshipfully praised and ruthlessly mocked. In spite of these challenges, or maybe because of them, Jerry Lewis has established himself as a cultural institution without parallel.

Born Joseph Levitch (Jerome, by some accounts) on March 16, 1926 in Newark, New Jersey, he quickly followed the footsteps of his parents and sought a show business career. Danny and Rae held a variety of jobs in the entertainment industry, most notably as musical variety entertainers. During the summers, the family would move to the Catskill Mountains and work in the so-called "Borscht" circuit, playing to (predominantly Jewish) urbanites vacationing in the highlands. At age five, Lewis made his first stage appearance, singing "Brother, Can you Spare a Dime?" while his mother accompanied on piano.

As he came of age, Lewis was forced to work at menial jobs to support his low-paying theatrical ambitions, which tended toward the comedic. His most notable early routine was a "record act," in which he aped the performances of well-known singers (such as Danny Kaye, Kate Smith and Louis Prima), to the tune of their 78's, playing off-stage. Inheriting his parents' tireless work ethic, Lewis evolved from a burlesque comedian in Buffalo, to a Borscht-belt comic at Loch Sheldrake, New York, to a stand-up entertainer in Manhattan.

It was during the Spring of 1946 that Lewis began to cross paths with Dean Martin, who was playing similar low-wage venues. Recognizing the potential chemistry of such total opposites (Lewis the screeching, spastic man-child, Martin the suave, insouciant romantic), they began to toy with an act, taking the stage at the end of the night at the Havana-Madrid nightclub, once the evening's entertainment was officially over. Billboard magazine caught one of these after-hours performances and found it had, "all the makings of a sock act" (which, in the vernacular of the trades, indicates sensational). But the act never traveled beyond the basement of the ersatz exotic Havana-Madrid.

A few months later, Lewis was running the same old record gag at the 500 Club in Atlantic City, when Martin was hired to replace singer Jack Randall. Once again, Martin and Lewis began their after-hours monkeyshines. Lewis later recalled the mechanics of the act, "All I had to do was to tell Dean I was gonna do such and such; that during one of his numbers I was gonna be a busboy in the audience. That's all I had to tell him; he went with me...If I started something, he'd pick up on it like a child goes after milk."

Lewis explained that one of the secrets of their success was that he was not always the funny-man. They lobbed the comic football back and forth over the course of the act. "And the wonderful thing was that no one ever knew when the cycle developed, when I was doing straight for Dean. No one ever knew it. We didn't plan it. It was innate within us that out of the blue he was doing six, seven, eight minutes of comedy and I was straight for him."

In his autobiography, Lewis cites June 25, 1946 as the date they first shared the stage. We now know they had worked their routine together months earlier, but it was only when they refined the act at the 500 Club that the comedy team of Martin and Lewis took form. Individually, they had been steadily but laboriously rising to popularity. As a team, they suddenly launched themselves into the stratosphere of fame. Within a year they were headlining at the top theaters and clubs of New York and Chicago.

When they played the legendary Copacabana in Manhattan, their salary shot up to $2,500 per week. It was there that Hollywood producer Hal Wallis (Casablanca, 1942) caught their act. "They were strangely ill-matched," he recalled, "Dean, tall and very handsome, didn't look like a comedian and Jerry, equipped with a mouthful of oversized false teeth and a chimpanzee-like hairpiece, seemed grotesque. But even before they began their act, the audience was screaming with laughter. Never before or since have I seen an audience react as this one did."

Wallis ordered a screen test, but when he watched it, he "felt a shock wave of disappointment. Great on stage, the two comics were awful on screen." A second test proved no better. Then, Wallis had a realization. "The reason they were terrible was that they were doing scenes written for them, playing characters." Wallis allowed Lewis to don the false teeth and encouraged the two to ignore the script and engage in some of their onstage improvisation. Suddenly, the magic was back, and it was being successfully captured on film.

Wallis gave the pair supporting roles in his production of My Friend Irma (1949, directed by George Marshall). Martin and Lewis stole so many scenes in this film and its sequel (My Friend Irma Goes West [1950]) that they scored their own vehicle (At War with the Army [1950]). They were now headliners on film, and headliners they would remain.

In an eight-year span, Martin and Lewis made sixteen pictures for Paramount, including Scared Stiff (1953) and The Caddy (1953), (not counting an unbilled cameo in the Hope/Crosby vehicle Road to Bali [1952]).

In 1955, the twosome appeared in Artists and Models, under the direction of influential comedy filmmaker Frank Tashlin (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? [1957]). Tashlin had begun his career as a writer/director of madcap cartoons (including Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig shorts), and his over-the-top style was perfectly suited to the larger-than-life antics of Jerry Lewis. Another frequent director was Norman Taurog (The Stooge [1952], Pardners [1956]), a journeyman director who would go on to make numerous Elvis Presley vehicles in the 1960s.

By 1956, the team of Martin and Lewis was beginning to unravel. Personality differences -- no doubt exacerbated by their enormous success -- had strained their working relationship to the point that they no longer spoke to each other off-camera. They announced their professional breakup on July 25, 1956, the tenth anniversary of their first success at the 500 Club.

As a solo artist, Martin opted for a career with fewer challenges, enjoying the spoils of fame while generally coasting through familiar roles with his Rat Pack brethren. Lewis, meanwhile, launched a steady stream of slapstick comedies, under Tashlin and Taurog, without deviating too far from his established persona. In 1959, he signed the most lucrative contract ever offered to a performer -- entitling him to $10 million and 60% of net profits for a series of Paramount comedies.

The salary was well-warranted. As a team, Martin and Lewis had reigned among the top ten box-office earners from 1951 to 1956, according to Quigley's Annual "Top Ten Money Makers Poll" (published in the International Motion Picture Almanac). On his own, Lewis remained on the list for 1957-59 and 1961-63.

Lewis's ambitions weren't limited to money. Wanting more involvement in the creative process, he assumed the role of director and producer of The Bellboy (1960). Occasionally he would work under other directors, such as Tashlin, but Lewis was intent upon cultivating his own film style, building films around his characters to maximize their comic potential, while offering his own wry jabs at mid-century American consumer culture (something he seems to have learned from Tashlin).

Critics and historians still disagree on how seriously Lewis should be taken as a director. In France, Lewis was quickly hailed as another Charlie Chaplin or Jacques Tati, two auteurs who melded the cinematic style of the film to the personalities of their recurring characters (while managing to offer subtle insights into the human condition). Decades later, American cineastes and scholars seem to be warming to the idea of Lewis, "Le Roy du Crazy," being admitted into this canon of artful comedy, but it is admittedly difficult at first to glean the social commentary and human insights from a brash, mawkish comedy such as The Nutty Professor (1963).

After 1965's The Family Jewels, Lewis's career took a gradual turn. He left Paramount in favor of the greater creative control offered by Columbia Pictures. Over the next five years, his films did not dominate the box-office charts as they had in the past. Rather than grapple with a fickle audience to reclaim his fading glory, he sought other challenges, and began to focus more of his attention elsewhere.

In 1966, at age 40, Lewis hosted his first Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day telethon, a tradition he has carried on to the present day, forty years later. To reward his efforts, Lewis was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1977.

He taught filmmaking at the University of Southern California, and compiled his lectures into a book on filmmaking (The Total Filmmaker, 1971).

Beyond that, the seventies were a difficult decade for Lewis. He opened a chain of movie theaters that vowed to limit itself to family entertainment. Within a few years, the vow was being strained. Some of the independently-operated Jerry Lewis Family Cinemas began to drift away from G-rated movies in order to survive in the competitive marketplace. In time, the franchise folded altogether, resulting in a legal and financial morass.

He continued to make films, but refused to be bound to the "Hey laaady" formula of modern slapstick. In 1972, Lewis directed and starred in The Day the Clown Cried. Preceding Roberto Benigni's concentration camp comedy Life Is Beautiful (1997) by 25 years, Clown revolves around a performer who entertains the children in the Nazi death camps before they are exterminated. The production has been shrouded in mystery and is the topic of wild speculation. No one knows if it was Lewis's crowning masterpiece or a sensational error in judgment, because The Day the Clown Cried has never been publicly screened.

After the Clown ordeal, Lewis launched an unsuccessful assault at Broadway, starring in a 1976 production of Helzapoppin, which closed before it ever reached the Great White Way.

After the difficult decade of the seventies, Lewis's 1980 film Hardly Working was something of a comeback. Although dismissed by the (American) critics, it earned an impressive $18 million at the domestic box-office. But his greatest cinematic achievement of the eighties was his acting appearance in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1983). In the role of a Johnny Carson-like talk show host, Lewis brilliantly conveyed the stress and fatigue of a lifetime of funny business -- especially in one dramatic monologue in which Lewis confesses his foibles and worries to his misguided fan-turned-kidnapper (Robert De Niro).

In 1982, shortly after the completion of The King of Comedy, Lewis suffered a heart attack and was pronounced clinically dead before making a remarkable recovery. In spite of the risks to his health, he continued to host the MDA telethon. He turned his attention to television, directing a handful of episodes of the short-lived sitcoms Brothers (1984) and Good Grief (1990), and making dramatic appearances in the TV movie Fight for Life (1987), as well as walk-on roles in Wiseguy (1988-89) and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2006).

A second stab at Broadway proved more successful than his first, when he replaced Victor Garber as the star of the Adler and Ross musical Damn Yankees (1995). The New York Times wrote, "From Mr. Lewis's first entrance, rising out of the depths in clouds of steamy vapor, until the finale, the star plays it straight. He gives a good, thoroughly accomplished performance, singing a little, dancing a little and tossing off the comic lines with ease, though not exactly with gusto." At the time he played Applegate (aka the devil), Lewis was the highest-paid performer ever to appear on Broadway.

In 2001, Lewis was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis (an often fatal illness in which scar tissue invades the lungs), but has miraculously continued to perform. Testament to his resilience, Lewis checked himself into a hospital to help kick his addiction to the steroid prednisone prescribed to treat the disease (this medicine caused the facial swelling that altered Lewis's appearance during the early 2000s).

Today, the titan seems unstoppable. At age 80, he plans to host the 2007 MDA telethon from the South Point Hotel Casino in Las Vegas. Also in the works is an animated remake of The Nutty Professor, in which Lewis will provide one or more voices.

by Bret Wood
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