At the end of a remarkable show business life, Jerry Lewis might be best remembered for “Jerry’s Kids,” the children affected by muscular dystrophy.
The consummate showman, comedian, director and actor became synonymous with throwing his worldwide fame into a career-long battle against the degenerative disease, most notably through The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon, which he hosted from 1966 to 2010.
The prominent and seemingly unstoppable force, who ended each telethon singing You’ll Never Walk Alone, was silenced for good when Lewis died Sunday morning at age 91, his close friend Nancy Kane and his manager Mark Rozzano confirmed to USA TODAY.
Rozzano said Lewis died at home of natural causes, surrounded by family. "The world has lost one of the most significant human beings of the 20th century," Rozzano manager told USA TODAY.
The comedian's death was first reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
The international star had worked through highly publicized health issues before. In June, Lewis had been hospitalized near his Las Vegas home for a urinary tract infection. His publicist Candi Cazau had predicted a complete recovery and a return to the actor’s still-busy schedule; he was about to travel to Toronto for a movie shoot.
Previously, Lewis fell ill during a June 2011 appearance in Sydney, moments before he was expected onstage to raise money for muscular dystrophy.
He overcame that health setback and set his sights on appearing in what was to be his final performance at the 21-hour Labor Day telethon. But MDA chairman R. Rodney Howell thanked Lewis for “more than a half-century of generous service” and pulled the plug on the star’s final show for reasons never fully explained.
Lewis would fall into his legendary grouchiness whenever he declined to talk about the departure — and never disclosed why he had dedicated himself to the cause for so many decades. But he remained supremely proud of his efforts to raise an estimated $2.6 billion for the disease.
“I don’t know anyone in the world who has ever done anything that represented $2 billion dollars,” Lewis told USA TODAY in 2016.
It would take someone of Lewis’ energy and massive worldwide fame to make it happen.
Born Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926, in Newark, N.J., Lewis started performing at age 5 with his vaudeville entertainer father and piano-playing mother. He later changed his professional name to Joey Lewis and then to Jerry to avoid confusion with reigning heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis.
He gained international acclaim for his 1960 directorial debut, The Bellboy, which he wrote, produced and starred in. Three years later, he hit box office and critical gold again with The Nutty Professor, a film he produced, co-wrote, directed and starred in as well.
The Nutty Professor was his most famous screen role: A cross-eyed, buck-toothed academic nerd transforms into the smooth-talking Buddy Love thanks to the magic of science. The film would spawn two remakes starring Eddie Murphy and later be selected for preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
“A lot of people resent that I’ve been in someone’s life for 50 years,” Lewis told USA TODAY in 2002. “Why shouldn’t people have an affection for me and what I’ve done? Didn’t I have to be genuine for them to buy into what I did? There are children who grow up today who will not have that when they’re 55 years old. With whom will they have it? Name an example for me.”
Lewis was married twice, but his life and career largely were defined by one very public relationship and split: his partnership with Dean Martin. After meeting in 1945, the two quickly became the most sought-after duo in show business, with Lewis bringing the zany laughter and singer Martin playing the straight man.
In their 11 years working together, Lewis and Martin shared the screen in 16 films. Despite the playful chemistry onscreen, the relationship between the two became strained as Lewis received the lion’s share of the credit for their success.
As the two entertainers increasingly clashed — a situation made worse when Look magazine cropped Martin out of a cover photo — it became clear that the gig was up. On July 25, 1965, more than a decade after their debut, the two men took the stage together for one last time and didn’t speak again for another 20 years.
“We didn’t know where we were going, but we were at that place where men get to where they have no recourse,” Lewis told the Associated Press in 2005 while promoting his memoir Dean & Me (A Love Story). “I hated him for allowing the split to happen. He hated me for allowing the split to happen.”
In his book, Lewis spoke about the love and respect the two shared before Martin’s death in 1995. They famously reunited on national television in 1976 during the MDA Telethon, thanks to the efforts of mutual friend Frank Sinatra.
Lewis showed a distinctly moody side in his widely praised role as late-night talk show host Jerry Langford, kidnapped by Robert De Niro’s aspiring comic in Martin Scorcese's 1982 drama The King of Comedy. In the ’80s, Lewis married SanDee Pitnick, who would be his partner and caregiver to the end and who helped him through open heart surgery in 1983 and prostate cancer in the early ’90s.
Lewis continued to work sporadically in the final decades of his life, starring in a lucrative 1995 Broadway revival of Damn Yankees and appearing at age 90 in the critically panned Max Rose in 2016. But he largely focused on his charity work through comedy shows and the iconic, grueling Labor Day telethon.
Even after the must-see Labor Day telethon fell victim to falling ratings and, eventually, its host’s departure, Lewis kept the flag flying.
After leaving the telethon in 2011, he was asked at a media event what he still needed to accomplish in his life.
“Get the cure for muscular dystrophy,” Lewis said simply. “Then I’m fine.”
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