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Jerry Lewis, America's funnyman, dies at 91

Jerry Lewis, 91, the jester who ruled as America's clown prince and France's "roi de crazy," died Sunday. The love-him-or-loathe-him funnyman was the patron saint of every gamma geek who aspired to be an alpha male. He was a livewire who made audiences roar — and recoil.

In this Sept. 1, 2008 file photo, Jerry Lewis listens to the final tally of donations during the 43rd annual Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day Telethon.
In this Sept. 1, 2008 file photo, Jerry Lewis listens to the final tally of donations during the 43rd annual Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day Telethon.Read moreAP Photo/Las Vegas Sun, Steve Marcus, File

Jerry Lewis, 91, the jester who ruled as America's clown prince and France's roi de crazy, died Sunday morning of natural causes at age 91 in Las Vegas with his family by his side, his publicist Candi Cazau told the Associated Press.

The love-him-or-loathe-him funnyman was the patron saint of every gamma geek who aspired to be an alpha male. He was a live wire who made audiences roar — and recoil.

Over an eight-decade career, the entertainer was a box-office top dog and a critic's chew toy. He scored in vaudeville and in Vegas, on the Borscht Belt and in swanky nightclubs. In the movies, he worked both sides of the camera. On television, he hosted variety shows and raised more than $2.6 billion for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Mr. Lewis influenced generations of comedians. Steve Martin's jerk, Eddie Murphy's multiple personalities, and Adam Sandler's eternal juvenile are all branches of the Jerry Lewis comedy tree.

An innovator who wrote, starred in, and directed himself in blockbusters such as The Bellboy and The Nutty Professor, Mr. Lewis helped develop and popularize "video assist," the closed-circuit apparatus enabling directors to see immediately what they had shot without waiting for developed film footage.

As biographer Shawn Levy summed him up, Mr. Lewis was half of the most successful comedy duo, a peerless physical comedian, the first actor of the sound era to direct himself, a top recording artist, and the highest-paid performer on the big screen and network television.

This only child of two small-time vaudevillians spent most of his career in the big leagues, smiling through open-heart surgery, pulmonary fibrosis, prostate cancer, and chronic pain. The last, the result of pratfalls he took on stage, led to his addiction to the painkiller Percodan, which led to erratic behavior.

He was born Jerome Levitch in Newark, N.J., in 1926 to entertainers Danny and Rae Levitch. At 5, young Jerry donned a tiny tux and joined his parents onstage to warble "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" When he took a bow, his foot slipped and hit a floodlight. The light burst into smoke, the boy into tears, the audience into laughter. Throughout his career, Mr. Lewis simultaneously provoked such emotional extremes in himself and his audience.

While his parents entertained in the Catskills, young Jerry was left in the care of his maternal grandmother in Irvington, N.J. At 11, he accompanied his parents to Lakewood, N.J., where the elder Levitches were booked at the Arthur Hotel. As Dad sang ballads on stage, accompanied by  Mom on the piano, Sonny was in the lobby, improvising movie parodies. Audiences left Danny and Rae's performance to catch their son's free-for-all. Two years later, his parents were no-shows at his bar mitzvah.

At Irvington High, classmates dubbed him "Id" — not for the part of the psyche, but for "Idiot." The class clown was expelled in 10th grade. He experimented lip-synching to incongruous recordings. He waited tables in the Catskills, occasionally filling in onstage. He traveled the burlesque circuit, and in between stripteases, performed his "record act." A perforated eardrum exempted him from military service.

At 18, Mr. Lewis met singer Patti Palmer, 23, at the Downtown Theater in Detroit. He married her in 1944 and together they raised six sons. At 19, he met singer Dino Crocetti, 28, on a street corner near Times Square. In the following year, 1946, billed as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis at the 500 Club in Atlantic City, the low-key crooner and highly strung prankster together raised hell and made show-business history.

The entertainers chased each other around tables. They spritzed seltzer at the audience, sampled the food off plates, snipped the ends of customer's neckties and cigars. Mr. Lewis described the act as "Three hours of 'Didja take a bath this morning?' 'Why, is one missing?' "

They took their act to the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill (they slept in Philadelphia, where they famously destroyed a hotel room while playing indoor football), the Loew's State in New York, and the Rio Cabana in Chicago.

In 1946, the duo earned $150 a week. The following year, their rate skyrocketed to $7,500. In 1948, they played Slapsy Maxie's nightclub in Hollywood, exciting the attention of all the studio heads. The verdict of MGM's Louis B. Mayer: "The guinea's not bad. But what do I do with the monkey?"

The duo signed with Hal Wallis at Paramount and within a year dethroned Hollywood's reigning kings of comedy, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. At a time when the U.S. population was 150 million, 80 million tickets were sold for Sailor Beware in 1951, the fifth of Martin and Lewis's 17 films together. "Hey, la-a-a-a-dy!," Lewis' bray in The Caddy, became a catchphrase in the Eisenhower era.

While the virile Martin conformed to the Hollywood template of leading man, the nebbishy  Mr. Lewis was not an easy fit. The pair sizzled in live performance, but Mr. Lewis fizzled in his screen test. Through most of their screen collaborations Martin played the romantic lead and Mr. Lewis his anarchic sidekick.

When did they sleep? In 1953, there were the hit movies, the high-rated The Colgate Comedy Hour on television and the sold-out club dates. They were booked 24/7/365.

About this time, Mr. Lewis became known as a credit hog, peremptorily firing their TV writers Ed Simmons and Norman Lear. The following year, the friction between Martin and Lewis was palpable. Martin felt Mr. Lewis was controlling. Mr. Lewis felt Martin didn't appreciate him.

The chemistry between Mr. I-Don't-Care and Mr. Needy that worked so well in the act blew them apart offstage. It was a classic illustration of the showbiz adage that "what makes you, breaks you."

While shooting their last film, Hollywood or Bust, in 1956, Mr. Lewis attempted reconciliation, citing "the love we have for each other." Martin famously retorted: "To me, you're nothing but a dollar sign." In July 1956, 10 years to the day after they slayed 'em in Atlantic City, Martin and Lewis did their final show of a two-week run at New York's Copacabana, a performance recalled as "the most electrifying evening in the history of show business."

At 30, Mr. Lewis worried that his future was behind him. Soon his avowals of brotherly love for Martin curdled into sibling rivalry: "I am rid of a cancer," Mr. Lewis told reporters. He produced and starred in two successful films, The Delicate Delinquent and Rock-a-Bye Baby. He continued fund-raising efforts on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

The end of the most important relationship in Mr. Lewis' professional life marked the beginning of a solo career as successful as the double act, if more polarizing. As critic Harriet van Horne put it: "He's the only performer who can be endearing and disgusting in the space of two minutes."

By 1960, Mr. Lewis was a millionaire many times over and lived like a pasha. He spent $100,000 a year on clothes (wearing socks only once and giving away suits that needed cleaning). He owned 14 cars. He smoked four packs of cigarettes daily. He bought a 30-room Colonial in Bel-Air previously owned by MGM's Mayer.

And then, in a creative run comparable to that of silent clown Charlie Chaplin, from 1960 to 1965  Mr. Lewis wrote, directed and starred in five movies of startling originality. Even more startling: the extreme reactions he provoked. In Europe, he was hailed as a comic master. In America, he was greeted as unaccountably popular with kids and an "embarrassment" to adults such as cartoonist Al Capp, who famously slammed him as an "unentertaining fool."

In The Bell Boy (1960), The Ladies' Man (1961), The Errand Boy (1961), The Nutty Professor (1963), and The Family Jewels (1965), the nebbishy sidekick of the Martin and Lewis films morphed into the universal schlub who dreams of being a stud.

At 37, Mr. Lewis stood at the pinnacle of show business. He was the highest-paid entertainer on the big screen and small, a gifted filmmaker, and one of the biggest live draws in the world.

Then, he slipped. Prescription drugs accelerated his free fall.

While taping a segment of The Andy Williams Show, Mr. Lewis skidded in a puddle of water, banged his head, and sustained a skull fracture. Doctors prescribed Percodan. From 1965 to 1978, the comedian and filmmaker was popping Percodan for the pain, Nembutal to sleep, and Dexedrine to keep awake.

Thus medicated, no longer in business with Paramount, Mr. Lewis flew to Paris to make 1965's Boeing Boeing. When his plane arrived at Orly in the middle of the night, he was mobbed by fans including French intelligentsia. Director Jean-Luc Godard pronounced Mr. Lewis superior to Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

No one was more surprised than the American has-been by his coronation as le roi de crazy. Stand-up comedian Woody Allen saw The Nutty Professor in Paris and asked Mr. Lewis to direct him in his script Take the Money and Run. Mr. Lewis told Allen to direct it himself.

George Lucas was a student of Mr. Lewis', and  Francis Coppola audited his lectures, at the University of Southern California in the late 1960s. Those classes and the 1971 publication of Mr. Lewis' The Total Film-Maker influenced the next generation of American filmmakers.

Even so, he was increasingly irrelevant to American moviegoers. He continued to host the Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon. He longed to make a statement film.

In 1971, he would direct and star in The Day the Clown Cried, about a circus entertainer sent to Auschwitz for satirizing Hitler. At the camp, he is coerced into service as a pied piper who leads Jewish children into the gas chambers. The controversial film resulted in a tangle of lawsuits and remains unreleased.

For Mr. Lewis, the MDA telethon was a bright spot during dark times. In 1976, Frank Sinatra agreed to appear live. He came onstage with a friend. It was Dean Martin. Before a television audience of millions, the former partners hugged and joked.

Shortly after the on-air reunion there was unfounded speculation that Mr. Lewis had skimmed money from MDA. The following year, citing Mr. Lewis' efforts on behalf of MDA, then-U.S. Rep. Les Aspin (D., Wis.) nominated Mr. Lewis for the Nobel Peace Prize. He lost to Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat.

The following year, scheduled to star in a Broadway revival of Hellzapoppin', Mr. Lewis locked horns with producer Alexander Cohen. The show closed in Boston and never made it to Broadway. Soon after, doctors found that Mr. Lewis had a fist-sized bleeding ulcer. Percodan had masked the symptoms.

Off painkillers but hardly working, he found a script called Hardly Working, about an underemployed clown. He directed and starred. When Fox bought American distribution rights in 1981 it became Mr. Lewis' first hit movie in 15 years. The following year, Martin Scorsese cast him as a talk-show host stalked by deranged fan Robert De Niro in King of Comedy, in which the typically raucous Mr. Lewis gave a subdued, nuanced performance.

In 1980, Mr. Lewis become romantically involved with actress SanDee Pitnick, 23, younger than his sons and the same age as his wife Patti when they first met. His wife of 36 years learned of the affair from the tabloids. Shortly before he wed Pitnick in 1983 he had a heart attack and was declared clinically dead. The newlyweds adopted a daughter, Danielle.

As he neared 70, Mr. Lewis became a magnet for honors. France named him commander in the nation's order of arts and letters and gave him a Legion of Honor for his charitable work. He was subject of a 1993 retrospective at the American Museum of the Moving Image, won a 2005 Governor's Award at the Emmys, and the 2009 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Prize from the Academy of Motion Pictures.

Beginning in 1981, Mr. Lewis became a target of disability-rights advocates critical of the telethon and its host for framing those with neuromuscular disease as helpless. The complaints grew louder, drowning out positive news about breakthrough research to combat Duchenne muscular dystrophy. In 2011, after 59 years of involvement with the MDA and 45 years as host of the telethon, the charity announced that Mr. Lewis had been "released" from his position, just weeks before Mr. Lewis was to host his last telethon.

The MDA decision was a dark patch on Mr. Lewis' iridescent twilight. But 1995 was the comeback year. He delivered another terrific performance in Peter Chelsom's Funny Bones, an inventive Oedipal comedy starring Mr. Lewis as a legendary funnyman distant from his entertainer sons. The same year Eddie Murphy remade The Nutty Professor, executive-produced by Mr. Lewis. That year, at the age of 69, Mr. Lewis made an acclaimed Broadway debut as the devil in red socks in the revival of Damn Yankees.

The theater was blocks from where the unknown vaudevillian first encountered his erstwhile partner Martin 50 years previously. In the intervening half-century, Mr. Lewis triumphed in every entertainment medium.

Mr. Lewis is survived by his wife, daughter Danielle, and five of six sons from his first marriage, Gary, Ron, Scott, Chris, and Anthony. His son Joseph died in 2009.