The Day the Clown Died: Jerry Lewis at 91

 
Photo by Erik Pendzich/REX/Shutterstock

Jerry Lewis was the man you either loved or loathed. He was the boy who wouldn’t grow up. His style was brash and abrasive and yet even grudgingly admired by detractors. How can you gainsay a man that raises over $2 billion to fight neuromuscular diseases?

Lewis, aged 91, passed Sunday morning in Las Vegas.

He leaves a wife, an ex-wife, five living sons, an adopted daughter and the entire nation of France.

He and former partner Dean Martin were signed to a contract at Paramount where studio execs saw them as the next generation answer to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Their pairings never made less than $5 million in initial release, or around $52 million in today’s inflated dollars.

After the break up, both Lewis and Martin made stellar careers for themselves as single acts. Frank Sinatra’s conniving to reunite them on Lewis’ annual MDA telethon remains a highlight of live television.

Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s growing community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Get your first month free.

There are 36 comments.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  1. Gary Robbins Reagan

    Rest In Peace. I hated his movies, I love the man.

    • #1
    • August 20, 2017, at 11:38 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  2. Sandy Member

    Our family–all five generations of us–loved Jerry. The movies he wrote were not stellar, but there were always utterly brilliant bits. TV with Martin was a world away–no, two worlds away–from what we have now. Thanks, EJ.

    • #2
    • August 20, 2017, at 11:47 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  3. Nanda "Chaps" Panjan… Inactive

    Awwww, Martin and Lewis flicks were Friday-night fun during several months of early-adolescent hospitalizations for orthopedic surgeries…Tons of fun. May his name be for a blessing! Thanks, EJ!

    • #3
    • August 20, 2017, at 12:02 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  4. ctlaw Coolidge

    EJHill: After the break up, both Lewis and Martin made stellar careers for themselves as single acts. Frank Sinatra’s conniving to reunite them on Lewis’ annual MDA telethon remains a highlight of live television.

    • #4
    • August 20, 2017, at 12:07 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  5. Titus Techera Contributor

    Mensch!

    • #5
    • August 20, 2017, at 12:55 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  6. Podkayne of Israel Member

    He became famous making fun of the handicapped. I can’t really forgive him for this.

    My sister has a childhood friend who suffers from a form of Muscular Dystrophy, and she resents Lewis. “Yep, I’m one of “Jerry’s Kids”. He owns all of us.”

    • #6
    • August 20, 2017, at 1:07 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  7. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    He lead a rich, successful and generous life.

    • #7
    • August 20, 2017, at 1:08 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  8. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill Post author

    Podkayne of Israel: My sister has a childhood friend who suffers from a form of Muscular Dystrophy, and she resents Lewis.

    Very early in my career I produced two MDA telethons on the local side. I came away with mixed feelings.

    I had admiration for the patients and their parents, empathy for their plight and I was totally aware that I was there to exploit them. Also admired the local coordinators who served those families for very little compensation of their own.

    I was also aware of the accounting tricks, holding pledges back until the last 90 minutes or so to push the emotional impact to its fever pitch.

    • #8
    • August 20, 2017, at 1:23 PM PDT
    • 13 likes
  9. Percival Thatcher

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Podkayne of Israel: My sister has a childhood friend who suffers from a form of Muscular Dystrophy, and she resents Lewis.

    Very early in my career I produced two MDA telethons on the local side. I came away with mixed feelings.

    I had admiration for the patients and their parents, empathy for their plight and I was totally aware that I was there to exploit them. Also admired the local coordinators who served those families for very little compensation of their own.

    I was also aware of the accounting tricks, holding pledges back until the last 90 minutes or so to push the emotional impact to its fever pitch.

    I remember watching a talk show where he was taking questions from the audience and when a lady had a legitimate question about just that subject he compared her to Eva Braun.

    The lady didn’t deserve that. That colored my opinion of him.

    On the other hand, he made me laugh when I was little. My elementary school had some of his movies and showed them in the waning days of the school year just before we were released for the summer.

    I’m sad that he’s gone.

    • #9
    • August 20, 2017, at 1:53 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  10. James Lileks Contributor

    If you grew up in the 60s and 70s, you might have had a complicated attitude towards Lewis – you liked him as a kid, even though there was something slightly creepy and off about the characters; then by the early 70s he was a Vegas cliche, and then he was washed up, emerging only on Labor Day. Then in the 80s you saw him in “King of Comedy,” and wondered where that guy had been all these years.

    I still think that last interview was mean.

    • #10
    • August 20, 2017, at 1:53 PM PDT
    • 14 likes
  11. The Cloaked Gaijin Member

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):
    Rest In Peace. I hated his movies, I love the man.

    Yeah, but you loved him because he liked Donald Trump.

    Some of us just might not love Donald Trump as much as you do.

    (Just trying to be funny…)

    • #11
    • August 20, 2017, at 1:53 PM PDT
    • Like
  12. George Townsend Member

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Podkayne of Israel: My sister has a childhood friend who suffers from a form of Muscular Dystrophy, and she resents Lewis.

    Very early in my career I produced two MDA telethons on the local side. I came away with mixed feelings.

    I had admiration for the patients and their parents, empathy for their plight and I was totally aware that I was there to exploit them. Also admired the local coordinators who served those families for very little compensation of their own.

    I was also aware of the accounting tricks, holding pledges back until the last 90 minutes or so to push the emotional impact to its fever pitch.

    This was very interesting to read. I was never involved in a telethon, so I wouldn’t be able to speak to how they are done.

    I do have a little story, however.

    I have mild Cerebral Palsy. It has never kept me from doing most of the things I’ve wanted to do, even though I’ve had an emotionally painful life. It could have been much worse, however, and I thank God that my case is mild.

    There used to be a telethon for CP, and it was terribly exploitative. They had, at several times during the show, a “parade” of people in wheelchairs, on crutches, and the people in charge sang, “Look at us, we’re talking; look at us, we’re walking”. I don’t assess motives. Maybe people thought they were doing good. But it was cruel.

    I never looked at Jerry’s telethon in that way, however. They raised a lot of money, which helped people. I can’t criticise that. I watched a few of them, donated to a couple. I just never saw any cruelty.

    • #12
    • August 20, 2017, at 1:55 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  13. Steve C. Member

    This I remember

    • #13
    • August 20, 2017, at 2:16 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  14. The Cloaked Gaijin Member

    James Lileks (View Comment):
    I still think that last interview was mean.

    (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGmyHivWyN8)

    (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qY7uIpULko)

    I thought this interview or its sequel was after that one, but apparently these were probably about a year or a month before that one.

    He called this interviewer the best he had ever had. I looked him up. It’s by Raymond Arroyo who apparently conducted the only ever recorded English-language interview with Pope Benedict XVI.

    • #14
    • August 20, 2017, at 2:19 PM PDT
    • Like
  15. Profile Photo Member

    One of many of my favorite Martin & Lewis skits:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMEgULHEkvw

    • #15
    • August 20, 2017, at 3:27 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  16. The Other Diane Coolidge

    James Lileks (View Comment):I still think that last interview was mean.

    I respectfully disagree. I think he might have had early dementia and was having a bad day cognitively and was furious that he had to do that interview and potentially reveal his inability to come up with a good answer. My 80 year old mother is highly gifted, and taking Namenda has slowed her Alzheimer’s tremendously over the past three years, which is a mixed blessing, to be honest. Mom is painfully aware that she is very slowly slipping mentally and physically, and responds to medical interviews with that same level of rudeness and barely suppressed rage seen in the Jerry Lewis interview when her stomach hurts because she ate dairy again but is lactose intolerant (and forgot that), and realizes that she won’t be taking a trip to the ER to make it better. There is a helpless fury to early dementia, especially for very intelligent people who are used to being in control. Know Jerry Lewis was often a jerk but still wonder if that’s what happened that day.

    • #16
    • August 20, 2017, at 4:01 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  17. Profile Photo Member

    Love this one, too! Don’t think you could do this today…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfj-puaURSI

    • #17
    • August 20, 2017, at 5:02 PM PDT
    • Like
  18. Front Seat Cat Member

    An American treasure:

    • #18
    • August 20, 2017, at 5:58 PM PDT
    • Like
  19. Nanda "Chaps" Panjan… Inactive

    Percival (View Comment):

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Podkayne of Israel: My sister has a childhood friend who suffers from a form of Muscular Dystrophy, and she resents Lewis.

    Very early in my career I produced two MDA telethons on the local side. I came away with mixed feelings.

    I had admiration for the patients and their parents, empathy for their plight and I was totally aware that I was there to exploit them. Also admired the local coordinators who served those families for very little compensation of their own.

    I was also aware of the accounting tricks, holding pledges back until the last 90 minutes or so to push the emotional impact to its fever pitch.

    I remember watching a talk show where he was taking questions from the audience and when a lady had a legitimate question about just that subject he compared her to Eva Braun.

    The lady didn’t deserve that. That colored my opinion of him.

    On the other hand, he made me laugh when I was little. My elementary school had some of his movies and showed them in the waning days of the school year just before we were released for the summer.

    I’m sad that he’s gone.

    @podkayneofisrael, I, too. have mixed feelings about telethons…Dennis James did them for kids with CP, as well. Human beings are complicated. May he find peace.

    • #19
    • August 20, 2017, at 6:41 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  20. Judge Mental Member

    James Lileks (View Comment):
    Then in the 80s you saw him in “King of Comedy,” and wondered where that guy had been all these years.

    In that and in Cookie. He was really great as a straight actor. Makes you wonder why he wasn’t doing more of it.

    • #20
    • August 20, 2017, at 9:32 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  21. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill Post author

    Judge Mental: In that and in Cookie. He was really great as a straight actor.

    Most comedians are good straight actors. Few straight actors make good comedians. The former do just what they’ve always done, deliver their lines sincerely, the latter think they have to “act funny.”

    • #21
    • August 21, 2017, at 6:51 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  22. Fezzik Inactive

    Lots of comics have dark personalities and he was no exception. But he did try to help people with MD while encouraging a spirit of charity with the telethons. In our time of mega-foundations (e.g. Bill and Melinda Gates) and the ease of the Internet we don’t remember the power of going door-to-door to ask for small donations. This was a powerful lesson to a child.

    I was in the McDonald’s All American High School Jazz Band when that was still a thing. One of the things we did was travel to Las Vegas to be on the Telethon. Jerry Lewis came by a rehearsal to hear us and was very complimentary. (He has played trumpet as a young man IIRC).

    • #22
    • August 21, 2017, at 7:30 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  23. Manny Member

    God bless him. You guys brought up all the points I would have too. May God grant eternal rest for this good man.

    • #23
    • August 21, 2017, at 7:30 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  24. Nanda "Chaps" Panjan… Inactive

    @ejhill, the ‘meanness’ in that Hollywood Reporter clip may’ve had to do with condescension/stupidly ageist, boring questions…I’d have been tetchy, too. Just sayin’.

    • #24
    • August 21, 2017, at 7:54 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  25. Johnny Dubya Inactive

    I mean no disrespect to the recently departed, but even as a child I couldn’t understand the appeal of this performer who never made me laugh or even smile a single time.

    I didn’t appreciate until later the extent to which comedy changes so drastically from generation to generation. Even gags that are funny to an individual earlier in his life may seem corny and unfunny later. For example, my late father always said that he laughed uproariously when he saw Peter Sellers in A Shot In The Dark when it was first released. When my dad was older, we rented the DVD, and we agreed that the film by today’s standards – and by my father’s changed standards – was not funny.

    I don’t personally know a single fan of Lewis’s comedy. It seems that much of his reputation today hinges on his fundraising for MD. If not for that, I think he would have been largely forgotten.

    • #25
    • August 21, 2017, at 7:54 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  26. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill Post author

    Johnny Dubya: I don’t personally know a single fan of Lewis’s comedy. It seems that much of his reputation today hinges on his fundraising for MD. If not for that, I think he would have been largely forgotten.

    Jim Carrey tweeted out “I am because he was!” Performance has a way cascading through the generations whether the general public is aware of it or not.

    Crosby inherited the Jolson cry. Sinatra inherited the Crosby phrasing. Subsequent performers inherited the Sinatra swagger.

    • #26
    • August 21, 2017, at 3:10 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  27. George Townsend Member

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):
    @podkayneofisrael, I, too. have mixed feelings about telethons…Dennis James did them for kids with CP, as well. Human beings are complicated. May he find peace.

    This is the point I was trying to make about telethons. Some of them are worthwhile. The ones with Dennis James were particularly upsetting to me, though, as one who has had CP all of his life. That telethon my have raised money for the cause. I would never deny that. But it did so by making people pity CP sufferers. We don’t need that kind of condescension. This is what the left does to everyone. Most handicapped people can do a lot. We just need a chance, not the pity of probably-well-meaning-but-ultimately-destructive people.

    • #27
    • August 21, 2017, at 4:36 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  28. Johnny Dubya Inactive

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Johnny Dubya: I don’t personally know a single fan of Lewis’s comedy. It seems that much of his reputation today hinges on his fundraising for MD. If not for that, I think he would have been largely forgotten.

    Jim Carrey tweeted out “I am because he was!” Performance has a way cascading through the generations whether the general public is aware of it or not.

    Crosby inherited the Jolson cry. Sinatra inherited the Crosby phrasing. Subsequent performers inherited the Sinatra swagger.

    Totally agree. It is the subsequent performers who remember, who study, and who translate the innovations and techniques for contemporary audiences. There are very few performers who remain relevant until the end.

    • #28
    • August 22, 2017, at 7:54 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  29. Sandy Member

    Johnny Dubya (View Comment):
    I mean no disrespect to the recently departed, but even as a child I couldn’t understand the appeal of this performer who never made me laugh or even smile a single time.

    I didn’t appreciate until later the extent to which comedy changes so drastically from generation to generation. Even gags that are funny to an individual earlier in his life may seem corny and unfunny later. For example, my late father always said that he laughed uproariously when he saw Peter Sellers in A Shot In The Dark when it was first released. When my dad was older, we rented the DVD, and we agreed that the film by today’s standards – and by my father’s changed standards – was not funny.

    I don’t personally know a single fan of Lewis’s comedy. It seems that much of his reputation today hinges on his fundraising for MD. If not for that, I think he would have been largely forgotten.

    I believe he got his start on the Borscht circuit, and the comedians on that circuit derived their understanding of comedy heavily from their Jewish and general European experience, which probably explains the adulation of the French. My ancestors came from Sicily and I grew up in an immigrant urban neighborhood in the 40’s and 50’s, which may partly explain my attraction to his particular brand of speech and slapstick. We understood schlemiels, and we understood the comic relationship of schlemiels to their betters.

    • #29
    • August 22, 2017, at 8:17 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  30. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill Post author

    I saw Sinatra on the ’88 Rat Pack Tour, after Martin’s withdrawal and before Liza joined them. Sinatra was in fairly good voice for his age (73) and yet it was disheartening to see him rely on the TelePrompTer for songs he had been singing for decades.

    Technology is a wonderful thing and and awful thing for performers all at the same time. It’s wonderful that we have these eternal snapshots of great talent. But then they are literally competing against themselves for the rest of their careers.

    And others compete against the younger versions of the greats. Who would ever want to be in The Music Man when you’re just not competing against the memory of Robert Preston but the forever young, vibrant Robert Preston of the 1962 film?

    But it’s great when talent can build upon talent. Jim Carrey films ARE Jerry Lewis pictures. Could I see Jerry and Stella Stevens in The Mask? Absolutely. It is The Nutty Professor in Green.

    • #30
    • August 22, 2017, at 8:55 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  1. 1
  2. 2