Jerry Lewis, Comic Icon And Titan Of Telethons, Dies At 91 : The Two-Way Lewis, whose comedic duo with Dean Martin launched him to the peak of showbiz, starred and directed in dozens of films. He was perhaps just as famous for his charity work fighting muscular dystrophy.
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Jerry Lewis, Comic Icon And Titan Of Telethons, Dies At 91

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Jerry Lewis, Comic Icon And Titan Of Telethons, Dies At 91

Jerry Lewis, Comic Icon And Titan Of Telethons, Dies At 91

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DWANE BROWN, HOST:

Jerry Lewis was truly a star of stage, screen and television. He created a hit nightclub act with singer Dean Martin. He starred in more than 60 movies and directed some 15 of those, including the original "The Nutty Professor." And Lewis spent four decades raising hundreds of millions of dollars for charity in his annual Labor Day Telethon. Jerry Lewis died today at the age of 91. Pat Dowell has this remembrance. She was a big fan, and this was the last piece she finished before she passed away.

PAT DOWELL, BYLINE: Jerry Lewis was the son of small-time entertainers who were always on the road. As Lewis told TV interviewer David Susskind in 1965, he spent a lot of time with relatives.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

JERRY LEWIS: I was a rent-a-kid-a-day club, you know? Who wants Jerry this week (laughter)?

DOWELL: Lewis did get to travel with his folks, mostly as a teenager. That's when he developed his own act. But he didn't hit it big until he teamed with Dean Martin, who played the suave, handsome grownup to Lewis's juvenile.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEAN MARTIN: (As character) What are you doing in my fountain anyhow?

LEWIS: (As character) Oh, I came over here, sir, from the employment agency. And they said that you needed a very fine, upstanding, sanitary soda jerker, sir. Well, look know further, buddy. I'm your jerk.

(LAUGHTER)

DOWELL: Such crazy crackups made Martin and Lewis the highest-paid comedy act in the country. They got their own radio and TV shows and made 16 hit movies, including the 1956 Western parody, "Pardners." Dean rejects Jerry through the whole movie. When the words the end appear on screen, they shoot them off.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PARDNERS")

LEWIS: We have something to say to you. Right, Dean?

MARTIN: We sure do, Jer. We want you folks to know we sure enjoyed working for you, and we hope you enjoyed the picture.

LEWIS: Yeah, and we hope you'll keep coming to see us because we like seeing you.

DOWELL: Shortly after "Pardners," Martin and Lewis broke up without public explanation. But with headlines in all the papers, they made one more movie - again, a hit - but they were hardly speaking to each other by that time and for decades after. Yet Lewis always used the word love to describe his relationship with Dean Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LEWIS: We never, ever fell out of love.

DOWELL: Fifty years after the breakup, Lewis told WHYY's Fresh Air that their success with club owners and audiences wasn't about the jokes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LEWIS: They were paying for two men to let an audience see how much fun they were having and the love that went on between the older guy and the younger guy. When we were able to project that to an audience, we had them in our pockets from day one.

DOWELL: Going solo let Lewis realize his ambition to write, direct and star in his own movies. He was an early adopter of new film and video technology. He pioneered the now-standard practice of placing a video monitor on the film camera to provide immediate feedback to the director on how a scene looks. He used it on all of the films he directed, including his biggest hit, "The Nutty Professor."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NUTTY PROFESSOR")

LEWIS: (As Prof. Julius Kelp) The various aspect, of course, is relativity to hydrogen. There is hydrogen - duly explosive and more devastating than the atomic.

DOWELL: Lewis plays both Professor Julius Kelp in the 1963 comic take on Jekyll and Hyde, and Kelp's chemically liberated id, the smug hipster, Buddy Love.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NUTTY PROFESSOR")

LEWIS: (As Buddy Love) Here you are, baby. Take this. Wipe the lipstick off. Slide over here next to me, and let's get started.

DOWELL: Lewis wrote in his autobiography, "In Person," that he hated Buddy Love. But co-star Stella Stevens recalls that when it came time to shoot the scene in which the irresistible bully publicly reverts to the shy academic, Lewis balked.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STELLA STEVENS: And he locked himself in his dressing room and was crying. To come out - to have to make the transition between being Buddy Love back to the nutty professor himself.

DOWELL: Lewis's struggle was not surprising in a film that has an almost confessional air about it, says Lewis biographer Shawn Levy.

SHAWN LEVY: There's something very, very personal about that film - very revelatory, you know. Jerry as a solo director and performer made a lot of films about multiple personalities. There's two Jerry Lewises is in "The Bellboy." There's five or six in "The Family Jewels." There's three in "Three On A Couch." But in "The Nutty Professor," I think it's the only one where you have a contrast between the nebbish, you know, Professor Kelp, who invents something, and then this guy who kind of destroys it, who much more resembled the off-camera Jerry Lewis than any other character he ever played.

DOWELL: Levy says that Lewis could be brusque and self-confident. He also could be intimidating, says Martin Scorsese, who directed Lewis in "The King Of Comedy."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN SCORSESE: Could be gracious, could be difficult, and is the kind of person who, you know, walks into his office or an area, and people just move aside.

DOWELL: Lewis was also a great film maker, Scorsese says, right up there with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCORSESE: The concepts, I think, really, the absurdity of the imagery and the execution of those ideas visually - very precise, very brilliant.

DOWELL: By the time Scorsese directed him in 1983, Lewis's filmmaking career was over. But he'd become such an entertainment powerhouse that he'd acquired the rights to his films, which allowed him to control and cash in on remakes. And, in 2012, he turned "The Nutty Professor" into a stage musical, which he directed himself at the age of 86. And Lewis remained popular around the world, most notably in France, where the government gave him its highest civilian honor.

But Jerry Lewis never got an Oscar for his filmmaking. And many critics here refused to take him seriously. The Academy did give him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2009 for his decades of fundraising for the Muscular Dystrophy Association on his annual telethon. But he was criticized for that, too, by activists who complained he patronized people with disabilities. Lewis brushed off all of his critics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LEWIS: I would do it again in a heartbeat. To hear an audience laugh, you go to any extreme because that's your lot in life. Now, if you're not dedicated to the love of your work, that's a whole different performer. Those are people that don't get nervous before they go on. Those are people who are there for the paycheck, and that's all they know about. So what they're giving is a mechanical performance.

You would never know it. He looks like he's singing great, or he looks like he's dancing great. But, in truth, he's waiting to get the check. That's all that means to him. He would respond no differently if he was a shoemaker. And that's not the true sense of the word performer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME RAIN OR COME SHINE")

LEWIS: (Singing) You're going to love me like nobody loved me. Come rain or come shine.

DOWELL: And Jerry Lewis was a performer in the truest sense. For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME RAIN OR COME SHINE")

LEWIS: (Singing) Days may be cloudy or sunny.

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