LAS VEGAS (CBSNewYork/CBS News/AP) — Entertainment legend and Hollywood icon Jerry Lewis has died.
He was 91 years old.
Publicist Candi Cazau says the Newark-born comedian passed away Sunday morning of natural causes at his home in Las Vegas with his family by his side.
As CBS2’s Hazel Sanchez reported, Lewis was known around the world as the classic funnyman whose slapstick comedic contortions made him a household name.
“So funny, so original, and so crazy, ‘Nyah! Nyah! Nyah! Nyah!’” said comedian George Wallace. “I don’t know if anybody will ever be able to copy him or whatever.”
Wallace performed several times with Lewis on Lewis’ annual Muscular Dystrophy telethon at Labor Day.
“He will always be a funny person, because everybody — you have to learn something from everybody,” Wallace said.
Lewis’ career spanned the history of show business in the 20th century, beginning in his parents’ vaudeville act at the age of 5. He’s perhaps best known for his trademark slapstick brand of humor, playing the comedic relief to Dean Martin’s straight man in the iconic duo of “Martin and Lewis” from 1946 to 1956.
After his split with Martin, Lewis went on to make such favorites as “The Bellboy” and “The Nutty Professor,” was featured in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” and appeared as himself in Billy Crystal’s “Mr. Saturday Night.”
In the 1990s, he scored a stage comeback as the devil in the Broadway revival of “Damn Yankees.” And after a 20-year break from making movies, Lewis returned as the star of the independent drama “Max Rose,” released in 2016.
In his 80s, he was still traveling the world, working on a stage version of “The Nutty Professor.” He was so active he would sometimes forget the basics, like eating, his associates would recall. In 2012, Lewis missed an awards ceremony thrown by his beloved Friars Club because his blood sugar dropped from lack of food and he had to spend the night in the hospital.
In his 90s, he was still performing standup shows.
A major influence on Jim Carrey and other slapstick performers, Lewis also was known as the ringmaster of the Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Association, joking and reminiscing and introducing guests, sharing stories about ailing kids and concluding with his personal anthem, the ballad “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” From the 1960s onward, the telethons raised some $1.5 billion, including more than $60 million in 2009. He announced in 2011 that he would step down as host, but would remain chairman of the association he joined some 60 years ago.
His fundraising efforts won him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2009 Oscar telecast, an honor he said “touches my heart and the very depth of my soul.” But the telethon was also criticized for being mawkish and exploitative of children, known as “Jerry’s Kids.” A 1960s muscular dystrophy poster boy, Mike Ervin, later made a documentary called “The Kids Are All Alright,” in which he alleged that Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Association had treated him and others as objects of pity rather than real people.
He was the classic funnyman who longed to play “Hamlet,” crying as hard as he laughed. He sassed and snarled at critics and interviewers who displeased him. He pontificated on talk shows, lectured to college students and compiled his thoughts in the 1971 book “The Total Film-Maker.”
Film critic Jeffrey Lyons said on WCBS 880 Sunday that Lewis could nail comedic and serious roles alike – and had an influence far beyond acting and comedy.
“What struck me is that people didn’t see everything about him. You just think of Jerry Lewis as, ‘Hey Dean!’ and being a stooge – the title of one of his movies. But he did so much more,” Lyons said. “Did you know he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for his humanitarian work? He won an honorary Oscar – the Jean Hersholt Award; humanitarian award. He invented something called a video assist device, which helped subsequent directors. He taught Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. He has two Hollywood stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.”
Lyons also emphasized the cultural importance of Lewis and Martin beginning more than 70 years ago.
“And he started with Dean Martin in the late ’40s, 1946, and I can remember as a child how enormous they were – what a hit they were – in movies and on TV, they were the talk of everybody in the postwar world,” Lyons said.
The White House released a statement in memory of Jerry Lewis late Sunday:
“Jerry Lewis kept us all laughing for over half a century, and his incredible charity work touched the lives of millions. Jerry lived the American Dream—he truly loved his country, and his country loved him back. Our thoughts are with his family today as we remember the extraordinary life of one of our greatest entertainers and humanitarians. Thank you, Jerry. You will be missed.”
Condolences also immediately started pouring in across social media.
The Friars Club tweeted Sunday: “No words can do his contributions justice. Losing the original funny man & charitable entertainer #JerryLewis is an immeasurable loss.”
“How did my life get good enough that Jerry Lewis would smile at me? And how sad to lose him,” comedian and entertainer Penn Jillette tweeted.
“My mentor & friend Jerry Lewis has passed away. A visionary. A pioneer in all forms of entertainment. A charitable human. A father,” comedian and actor Dane Cook tweeted.
“It was incredible knowing & laughing with the Amazing Jerry Lewis! He’ll keep’em laffin in the ever after,” actor Samuel L. Jackson tweeted.
“That fool was no dummy. Jerry Lewis was an undeniable genius an unfathomable blessing, comedy’s absolute! I am because he was!” Jim Carrey tweeted.
“Jerry was a pioneer in comedy and film. And he was a friend. I was fortunate to have seen him a few times over the past couple of years. Even at 91, he didn’t miss a beat. Or a punchline. You’ll be missed.” — Robert DeNiro said in a statement.
“So saddened to learn of the passing of Jerry Lewis, a true comic icon. In Boston 1947 I roared at his and Dean’s first ever performance,” tweeted Carl Reiner.
“Jerry Lewis, a complicated soul who made the whole world laugh has died,” tweeted Bette Midler.
“Oh NOOOOO!!! Jerry Lewis just died! Another comic legend has left us. Martin&Lewis were the Beatles of comedy! Nobody was EVER bigger!” tweeted Rob Schneider.
“We lost one of the great ones today…possibly the greatest. Jerry Lewis was one of my comedy heroes & was a gigantic inspiration to me. I am so grateful to have shared some valuable time with him,” Sean Hayes wrote on Instagram.
“Condolences to the family of Jerry Lewis. The world is a lot less funnier today,” tweeted William Shatner.
“Sad to read about the passing of Jerry Lewis. We met when we both received honorary degrees from Emerson in `93; how he made me laugh!” tweeted Marlee Matlin.
Lewis’ death came a day after the passing of comedian and activist Dick Gregory. Margaret Cho honored both in a tweet.
“Dick Gregory and Jerry Lewis were two of the funniest, most legendary and prolific entertainers of our generation and I bow to their genius,” she tweeted.
Fans were also mourning the loss of the entertainment legend Sunday.
“It’s always sad to hear people like that dying,” said Frank Jackman. “You just remember them when you were kids. It’s like an end of an era.”
“He was funny. He was crazy. Dean Martin, you know, the whole thing – he was, you know, I feel sad,” a woman named Judy told 1010 WINS’ Carol D’Auria.
“He was just not a phony. He was just an everyday kind of guy — down to earth,” said Magdalena Steinbok. “That’s what I liked about him.”
Late Sunday, Lewis’ name was back in lights. The Gotham Comedy Club at 208 W. 23rd St. in Chelsea honored the legendary funny man by making him the headliner on their marquee.
Comedians who are now following in Lewis’ footsteps said there will never be another entertainer like him.
“He’s too hard to mimic. He’s that good,” said Mark Norman. “He’s too much of an original.”
“It all comes through at the end when you sum it all up,” said comedian Kirk Rosario. “He was one of the greatest comedians and we were blessed to have him.”
Lewis was born Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jersey, on March 16, 1926. His father, billed as Danny Lewis, was a singer on the borscht and burlesque circuits. His mother played piano for Danny’s act. Their only child was often left alone in hotel rooms, or lived in Brooklyn with his paternal grandparents, Russian Jewish immigrants, or his aunts in New Jersey.
“All my life I’ve been afraid of being alone,” Lewis once said. In his later years the solitude haunted him, and he surrounded himself with an entourage at work and at home.
Joey Levitch made his professional debut at age 5, singing the Depression tearjerker “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” to great applause. He recalled that he eventually lost all interest in school and “began to clown around to attract people’s attention.”
By 16, Jerry Lewis (as his billing read) had dropped out of school and was earning as much as $150 a week as a solo performer. He appeared in a “record act,” mouthing crazily to the records of Danny Kaye, Spike Jones and other artists. Rejected by the Army because of a heart murmur and punctured eardrum, Lewis entertained troops in World War II and continued touring with his lip-sync act. In 1944 he married Patti Palmer, a band vocalist.
The following year he met Martin, on a March day in 1945 in Manhattan, Broadway and 54th to be exact. Lewis was on his way to see an agent, walking with a friend, when his friend spotted an “incredibly handsome” man wearing a camel’s hair coat. Lewis and Martin were introduced and Lewis knew right off that this new acquaintance, nine years older than him, was “the real deal.”
“‘Harry Horses,’ I thought,” Lewis wrote in the memoir “Dean and Me,” published in 2005. “That was what we used to call a guy who thought he was smooth with the ladies. Anybody who wore a camel’s-hair overcoat, with a camel’s-hair belt and fake diamond cuff links, was automatically Harry Horses.”
Lewis couldn’t escape from small-time bookings. The same was true of Martin, who sang romantic songs in nightclubs. In 1946, Lewis was playing the 500 Club, and the seats were empty. Lewis suggested hiring Martin to bolster the bill, promising he could do comedy as well as sing.
Fame brought him women and Lewis wrote openly of his many partners. After 36 years of marriage and six sons, Patti Lewis sued her husband for divorce in 1982. She later wrote a book claiming that he was an adulterer and drug addict who abused their children. Son Gary became a pop singer whose group, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, had a string of hits in 1965-66.
In his late 50s, Lewis married Sandra Pitnick, 32, a former airline stewardess. They had a daughter, Dani, named for Jerry’s father.
A memorial tribute for Lewis will be set up at the Friars Club, 57 E. 55th St.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)