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Jerry Lewis, Beloved Actor and Comedian, Dies at 91

Jerry Lewis, the Emmy, Golden Globe and Nobel Peace Prize nominated actor, director, screenwriter and comedian has died in his home in Las Vegas at the age of 91 from natural causes, his agent has confirmed to Variety. As well as the aforementioned accolades, he was also awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Scientists in 2009 for his extensive charity work. Lewis’ fame originated when he paired with Dean Martin in 1946 and the two began touring with their nightclub act and would only continue to rise when the two starred in the television program, The Martin and Lewis Show (1949-1953). Their television appearances would continue with Toast of the Town on CBC, Welcome Aboard on NBC and The Colgate Comedy Hour on NBC, to name but a few.

This success continued as the pair signed a contract with Paramount Pictures, starting as supporting players in My Friend Irma (1949) and My Friend Irma Goes West (1950). Their first pictures as leading men started with At War With the Army (1950) and their last film together would be Pardners (1956); in total, the two made sixteen films for Paramount. In 1956 Martin and Lewis ended their partnership, with Martin citing a strained working relationship due to his ever-decreasing screen time compared to Lewis. The two would eventually reconcile after the death of Martin’s son in 1987.

It was after the pair’s working relationship was severed that Lewis’ solo career blossomed when he filled in for an ailing Judy Garland on stage in Las Vegas; telling jokes and singing songs to an audience of over a thousand. This led to a recording contract with Capitol Records, further stage shows and a successful solo acting career on television and film. Lewis remained with Paramount Pictures with his first solo movie, The Delicate Delinquent (1957) and he would make five more films with Paramount until 1959 when a contract dispute put an end to his contract, his last film with the company being Visit to a Small Planet (1960).

Lewis’ most consistent string of successful films, both critically and financially, would come throughout the 1960s, including The Bellboy (1960), an uncredited cameo appearance in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and dual leading roles in The Nutty Professor (1963), a role for which Lewis is perhaps best associated. Tom Shadyac would remake the film in 1996, starring Eddie Murphy, to much less successful results. Lewis would only make four on screen appearances during the 1970s and would not return to acting until Hardly Working in 1980.

As a director, Lewis directed many of his own comedy vehicles, including The Nutty Professor, but none of his directorial efforts would receive more controversy than the now buried The Day the Clown Cried (1972), a film about a circus clown who is imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. Its burial, because of Lewis’ embarrassment over the film, its existence and speculations over whether it will ever be screened have caused it to become a fascination for film buffs and those intrigued with cult curiosities. Perhaps Lewis’ greatest achievement as an actor would come when he played Jerry Langford, a comedian who is the object of stalker Rupert Pupkin’s fascination in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982). Internationally he was renowned in Europe and especially France, who considered him to be a comic genius, leading to a total of eight best director awards across Europe and was presented the French Legion of Honour in 1984.

He would only act sporadically between 1982 and his death, as his concentration shifted from show business to charity work. He was the national chairman and face of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, with his annual Labour Day telethons raising close to $2.5 billion for research for the disease. This work would lead to a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 1977 and he would continue performing on the telethons until 2011. 

He is survived by his ex-wife Patti Palmer and his five sons, Ron, Scott, Chris, Anthony, and musician Gary, who had several hit singles with his band, Gary Lewis and the Playboys.