American Icon, Comedian, and Philanthropist Jerry Lewis passed away from natural causes yesterday at the age of 91.
Born Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jersey, his career in show business spanned 70 years. beginning with his first appearance with his parents, who were both entertainers, in the Catskill Mountains Circuit at age 5.
He began using the professional name Joey Lewis, but later changed it to Jerry, reportedly to avoid confusion with comedian Joe E. Lewis.
In the summer of 1946, Lewis teamed up with (Dean) Martin – first with a nightclub act, then radio and television appearances. Martin was the suave, debonair singer while Lewis was the zany, boyish sidekick with the huge grin and squeaky voice.
They went on to make a series of movies together before the partnership ended in 1956 and both launched successful solo careers.
Lewis became a major comedy star with his first solo film, 1957’s “The Delicate Delinquent,” followed by “Rock-A-Bye Baby” and “The Geisha Boy.” His later films included “The Bellboy,” “Cinderfella,” “The Nutty Professor” and “The King of Comedy.”
He also appeared in stage musicals and in 1994 made his Broadway debut as the Devil in a revival of “Damn Yankees.”
Lewis was consistently respected abroad and a perennial favorite of French critics, sometimes to the amusement of fans at home. In 2006 the French Minister of Culture awarded him the Legion d’Honneur, saying he was the ‘French people’s favorite clown.”
Throughout his career, Lewis worked ceaselessly to raise funds for muscular dystrophy and was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
He was married twice, to Patti Palmer from 1944 until 1980 and to SanDee Pitnick from 1983 until his death. He had five surviving sons from his first marriage (a sixth died) and a daughter from his second.
Lewis was not only a masterful comedian, he was also a skilled Song and Dance Man and a gifted actor.
Perhaps his biggest mark on American Society was the outstanding work he did for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and his “kids”.
For 45 years, American families would, while spending time together, watch the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon. The telethon would begin on Sunday Evening and continue for 21 1/2 hours, ending on Monday evening at 5:00 p.m. Central. Co-hosted in later years by Ed McMahon and Norm Crosby, stars of stage, screen, and television would appear, alongside corporate executives, all there to raise money for “Jerry’s Kids”.
And, when I say “stars”, I mean STARS.
Jerry’s good friend, Sammy Davis, Jr. would come on every year, on Monday afternoon, and do a solid 30 minutes of entertaining, usually badgering Jerry, until he would come out and do a couple of songs with him, usually ending in a tap dance “challenge”.
Here is an example of how their friendship and antics together would entertain us every year:
Mr. Las Vegas himself, Wayne Newton, would come on after that and bring down the house, with several high energy numbers, wearing his huge American Eagle Belt Buckle and “TCB” Necklace, which Elvis Presley gave him as a sign of friendship and respect.
Speaking of the King, while Elvis did not appear live every year, usually, also sometime Monday Afternoon, Ed McMahon would say,
Jerry, we just received a call from Graceland.
Which meant that Elvis. known throughout my hometown of Memphis for his great generosity, had just phoned in a huge donation.
Perhaps, one of the most poignant moments in the history of the telethon came during the 1976 Program, when the Chairman of the Board, Francis Albert Sinatra, showed up. Frank told Jerry that he had brought a friend with him and asked him to come out. That friend was Jerry’s ex-partner, Dean Martin. The two had been estranged for years. Jerry became emotional. He hugged Dino, and, when everyone became silent, he asked,
So, how ya been?
6 years ago, after 45 years of magnanimous service, raising untold millions for the MDA, Lewis was cruelly and unceremoniously dumped. In fact, the MDA did not even have the guts to tell Jerry Lewis that they dumped him!
We honor Jerry Lewis, we admire the work he’s done for us, and we respect his decision to retire.
That particular quote came from Valerie Cwik, the MDA’s interim president, at the time. She replaced Gerald Weinberg, who was reportedly behind Lewis’s ouster and who stepped down as president, after 54 years with the organization.
She made the lame argument that the changes in the telethon were part of a necessary evolution in fundraising strategy, to put less emphasis on the once-a-year event.
It has to change because the American audience has changed. A 21.5-hour show doesn’t fit in a 140-character world.
During 2016, the current MDA President reached out to Lewis and attempted to smooth things over with him, opening the door for possible voice-over projects in the future.
I swear, “The Smartest People in the Room”. a.k.a., Modern American Liberals, screw up everything.
Okay. I know that Lewis had a reputation as an ego-maniacal pain-in-the-rear to work with, but, these were people’s lives that the MDA was messing with. It could have, and should have, been handled differently.
However, Jerry Lewis also devoted over half his life for “his kids”, visiting them in hospitals around the nation, with no cameras around, along with calling and visiting Corporate CEOs and A-List Celebrities, getting them to help him raise money for those kids and adults struck down by these debilitating Muscular Disorders.
His ouster by MDA showed no respect or gratitude, whatsoever.
What happened to Jerry Lewis, seems to be happening to American Society in general.
This lack of respect seems to be an epidemic in this country. In the workplace, I have noticed that there sure does seem to be a lot of “millennials” who have no respect whatsoever for decorum, their co-workers, or authority.
Now, I may just be a 58 year old fuddy-duddy Cracka, but I have no desire to see your brand new shoulder tattoo in the business office, ladies…nor your neck tattoo with Pookie’s name on it, young Skillet.
And, when older folks in your place of business try to tell you how the world works, kiddies, you would be well-served to listen to us. We’re trying to help.
This is real life. You’re not playing “World of Warcraft” or “Final Fantasy”. People’s families depend on their paycheck. And, when you do not “pull your weight” at your job, you affect everyone’s incomes.
As the MDA learned the hard way, the “young and culturally hip” are usually not as reliable as the “experienced and professional”.
Of course, as it always has been…some folks have to learn things the hard way.
And, that’s when they find out that they are not as smart as they think they are.
But, I digress…
Jerry Lewis’ legacy will be that of a man, who, with all of his flaws, left an indelible mark on both the Entertainment and Medical Industries. The money which he helped raise for the Muscular Dystrophy Association helped advance their fight against neuromuscular disease.
And, while he was able to lend his talents to that great cause, “Jerry’s Kids” knew that they never walked alone.
Rest in Peace, sir.
Until He Comes,