Jerry Lewis, the famed comedian and film director, who was noted for his charitable efforts, has passed away at the age of 91.
Jerry Lewis, the manic, rubber-faced showman who jumped and hollered to fame in a lucrative partnership with Dean Martin, settled down to become a self-conscious screen auteur and found an even greater following as the tireless, teary host of the annual muscular dystrophy telethons, has died. He was 91.
Lewis died Sunday of natural causes in Las Vegas with his family by his side, publicist Candi Cazau said.
Lewis was born Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jersey, on March 16, 1926. His father, billed as Danny Lewis, was a singer on the borscht and burlesque circuits. His mother played piano for Danny’s act. Their only child was often left alone in hotel rooms, or lived in Brooklyn with his paternal grandparents, Russian Jewish immigrants, or his aunts in New Jersey.
Joey Levitch made his professional debut at age 5, singing the Depression tearjerker “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” to great applause. He recalled that he eventually lost all interest in school and “began to clown around to attract people’s attention.”
By 16, Jerry Lewis (as his billing read) had dropped out of school and was earning as much as $150 a week as a solo performer. He appeared in a “record act,” mouthing crazily to the records of Danny Kaye, Spike Jones and other artists. Rejected by the Army because of a heart murmur and punctured eardrum, Lewis entertained troops in World War II and continued touring with his lip-sync act.
He once called himself “the luckiest Jew in the world.”
He was also a known supporter of Israel.
After stepping off the plane in Israel in 1981, his first visit to the Holy Land where he arrived for a telethon to raise money for handicapped children, he exclaimed, “I’ve been trying to get here [Israel] since I was born 55 years ago. As a matter of fact, I was booked on a flight out of London the night before the Six Day War.”
Lewis wrote and directed “The Day the Clown Cried,” a Holocaust film set in a concentration camp that was never released. Lewis plays a German circus clown named Helmut Doork who is held in a concentration camp during the Holocaust and ordered to entertain children before they are sent to the gas chambers.
In 2003, Lewis traveled to Tel Aviv for a weeklong film festival in his honor, produced in association with the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archives.
Tributes from friends, co-stars and disciples poured in immediately
“That fool was no dummy. Jerry Lewis was an undeniable genius an unfathomable blessing, comedy’s absolute!” Jim Carrey wrote Sunday on Twitter. “I am because he was!”
One of Our Greatest Entertainers and Humanitarians
Lewis’ career spanned the history of show business in the 20th century, beginning in his parents’ vaudeville act at the age of 5. He was just 20 when his pairing with Martin made them international stars. He went on to make such favorites as “The Bellboy” and “The Nutty Professor,” was featured in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” and appeared as himself in Billy Crystal’s “Mr. Saturday Night.”
“Jerry was a pioneer in comedy and film. And he was a friend. I was fortunate to have seen him a few times over the past couple of years. Even at 91, he didn’t miss a beat. Or a punchline,” Lewis’ “The King of Comedy” co-star Robert De Niro said in a statement.
Lewis was known as the ringmaster of the Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Association telethons, joking and reminiscing and introducing guests, sharing stories about ailing kids and concluding with his personal anthem, the ballad “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” From the 1960s onward, the telethons raised some $1.5 billion, including more than $60 million in 2009. He announced in 2011 that he would step down as host, but would remain chairman of the association he joined some 60 years ago.
“Though we will miss him beyond measure, we suspect that somewhere in heaven, he’s already urging the angels to give ‘just one dollar more for my kids,’” said MDA Chairman of the Board R. Rodney Howell on Sunday.
In a statement Sunday, the White House praised Lewis for his charity work.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Lewis “lived the American dream” and that “he truly loved his country, and his country loved him back.”
Sanders added: “Our thoughts are with his family today as we remember the extraordinary life of one of our greatest entertainers and humanitarians.”
Lewis’ fundraising efforts won him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2009 Oscar telecast.
By: United with Israel Staff and AP