Yet another comedic icon has passed away. Jerry Lewis, the brash slapstick comic who became a pop culture sensation in his partnership with Dean Martin and then transformed himself into an auteur filmmaker of such comedic classics as “The Nutty Professor” and “The Bellboy,” has died in Las Vegas. He was 91.
Lewis died at his home in Las Vegas at about 9:15 a.m. Sunday morning, his agent confirmed.
For most of his career, Lewis was a complicated and sometimes polarizing figure. An undeniable comedic genius, he pursued a singular vision and commanded a rare amount of creative control over his work with Paramount Pictures and other studios. He legacy also includes more than $2.5 billion raised for the Muscular Dystrophy Association through the annual Labor Day telethon that he made an end-of-summer ritual for decades until he was relieved of the hosting job in 2011.
But Lewis’ brand of humor did not always wear well as times and attitudes changed. Over the last 10 years of his life, his reputation soured slightly as he was forced to apologize for making a gay slur on camera during the 2007 telethon, continued to make racist and misogynistic jokes, and didn’t hesitate to share his right-wing political views.
In addition to his most famous films, Lewis also appeared in a number of notable works, such as Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” but was largely offscreen from the late ’60s on and was more active with his telethon and philanthropic efforts. As late as 2016, Lewis continued to perform in Las Vegas, where he first debuted his comedy routine back in 1949.
The high regard in which his comic abilities were held in France — he received the Legion of Honor award in 1983 — became a running joke in the U.S. long after Lewis’ style of broad physical comedy fell out of fashion. His final film, “Max Rose,” screened at France’s Cannes Film Festival in 2013.
The telethon, like other aspects of Lewis’ life, was beset by controversy. The comic’s offstage persona was anything but humorous. He was, by his own admission, an impatient man, and over the years battled numerous illnesses and a prescription drug dependency. His parting with Martin in 1956 after 10 years as a duo was acrimonious. And the telethons were awash in claims that there was a disparity between the money pledged and the money collected.
Lewis’ pairing with Martin, featuring their improvisatory backbiting and physical chicanery, was an instant hit in 1946. When producer Hal Wallis saw them performing at the Copacabana and at Slapsie Maxie’s in Hollywood, he saw the potential for a new Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and signed them to a Paramount Pictures contract.
For the next 10 years, Martin and Lewis turned out one silly film after the next starting with “My Friend Irma” in 1949 and including “The Caddy,” “The Stooge,” “Artists and Models” and “Pardners.” None of their films grossed less than $5 million, a handy sum in those days.
The premises of the films grew tired, and the more Martin and Lewis worked together, the more disparate they appeared. In 1956, after their film “Hollywood or Bust,” they made their last dual appearance at the Copacabana.