On this day in history, Aug. 20, 2017, 91-year-old Jerry Lewis died of natural causes at his home in Las Vegas, Nevada.
One of the most well-known American comedians of the 1950s, ’60s and well beyond, Lewis was born as either Jerome or Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jersey in 1926, according to various sources.
The comedian and actor rose to stardom partly due to his early mimicking talents, which ultimately led to a successful career all over the world.
Lewis was born into an entertainment family. His father, known as Danny Lewis, was a musical arranger, while his mother, Rachel, played piano.
He started performing at age five. When he was just 12 years old, he began miming music that he heard. The unique talent led him to drop out of high school to perform, according to Britannica.
Upon his arrival in New York City, Lewis met singer and actor Dean Martin in 1946.
Martin “would provide the songs and be straight man to Lewis [the] manic comic,” noted The Los Angeles Times.
The two soon became a popular team.
The duo successfully performed in theaters, including the famous New York City Copacabana nightclub, and ultimately signed a deal with Paramount Pictures, as IMDb reported.
“They were hits on radio, on TV, especially as hosts of the NBC’s ‘The Colgate Comedy Hour,’ in live appearances and in a series of comedy features for Paramount Pictures, including ‘The Caddy and ’The Stooge,'” The LA Times also said.
They enjoyed massive success and remained a popular comedic team throughout the mid-1950s.
Others memorable films included “My Friend Irma” and “Living It Up.”
The partnership did not last, however. Lewis and Martin ended up having a falling out after they did a film called “Pardners” in 1956.
Afterward, Lewis continued his career as a solo performer, according to Britannica.
“I consider Jerry Lewis, since the death of Buster Keaton, to be the foremost comic artist of the time.”
He went on to become writer and director of his own films. Lewis was responsible for some of the greatest slapstick gags in history, including those in “The Nutty Professor,” “The Bellboy,” “The Errand Boy,” “Cinderfella” and “The Ladies Man,” according to multiple sources.
In Europe, he was named Best Director of the Year eight times beginning in 1960.
French film critic Robert Benayoun even wrote, “I consider Jerry Lewis, since the death of Buster Keaton, to be the foremost comic artist of the time,” as the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) noted in a biography of Lewis.
One of his most notable efforts, however, had nothing to do with comedy or acting. Rather, it was that charity for which he became well-associated.
MDA is a voluntary health organization in the United States for people living with muscular dystrophy or neuromuscular diseases such as ALS, according to the group.
Lewis made it his mission to raise money for, and awareness of, muscular dystrophy.
Lewis was its national chair for over five decades.
“Jerry won the admiration and respect of millions for providing help and hope to people of all ages, races and backgrounds living with neuromuscular diseases,” the group noted on its website.
Over the years, Lewis made it his mission to raise money for, and awareness of, muscular dystrophy.
The MDA Telethon was broadcast each Labor Day weekend for 45 years, according to MDA. Lewis hosted the event for 44 of those years, until 2010; he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for those efforts.
He is also credited with inventing the video assist system in cinematography, according to multiple sources.
He won numerous awards for his work over the years, and has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, according to that organization’s website. In 2005, he was awarded the Governors Award of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Board of Governors, considered the highest Emmy Award that’s presented.
In 2005, Lewis was awarded the Governors Award of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Board of Governors.
In 2012, Lewis was hospitalized for two nights in New York after collapsing with what was reportedly a low blood sugar problem, as Fox News Digital reported.
In the years leading up to his death, he suffered from a back condition, which was linked to a fall from a piano during a comedy routine, plus health issues.
He reportedly suffered two heart attacks.
Lewis was married twice — once to Patti Palmer for over 36 years and once to SanDee Pitnick for 34 years until his death.
He was a father of six sons and one daughter.
When he died at age 91, he was at home, according to his publicist via AP.
Jerry Lewis “was perhaps the last in a line of … great clowns,” Fox News Digital reported previously.
“He created an indelible character — a sort of outlandish man-child who couldn’t be controlled, not even by the laws of physics.”