A consummate entertainer and world-renowned humanitarian, Jerry Lewis is not just a cultural icon in the U.S. and France, he’s one of “The Most Recognized Personalities on the Planet,” named so by Newsweek magazine. He is also the only entertainer ever to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
One of the most successful performers in show business history—with worldwide box office receipts in excess of $800 million (when most tickets were sold for 25-50 cents)—Lewis has received global acclaim for his groundbreaking comedy. He has been said to carry the torch lit by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, which has earned him the moniker “The King of Comedy.” As the top box office star in the world from 1952-56 with Dean Martin and from 1957-64 solo, Lewis’ brand of comedy has influenced generations.
Celebrated for his groundbreaking physical comedy, “Jerry went back to the silent era and brought visual sight gags back to the American movie theaters,” says Steven Spielberg, who once attended a class in film direction taught by “Professor” Lewis at the University of Southern California.
First on stage at age five, Jerry performed alongside his parents in Vaudeville and later left high school to embark on a career of “Satirical Impressions and Comedic Pantomimicry.” He began performing stand-up at the age of 15. After a few menial jobs (drugstore lunch counterman, usher and shipping clerk in a hat factory), his meteoric rise to fame began in 1946 at the age of 20, when he teamed with Dean Martin…and the rest is history! “They were the biggest stars in the world as a comedy team,” said Billy Crystal about the duo, “who caused Beatles-esque pandemonium wherever they went”.
Lewis was the first mainstream filmmaker since Chaplin to do it all himself—writing, producing, directing and starring in his own movies. Still performing at the age of 85, he has appeared in more than 50 films, directed a dozen movies, had 13 television specials, three television series (including a stint as host of the immensely popular Colgate Comedy Hour from 1950-55 with Dean Martin), an NBC radio show, recorded numerous records and albums (Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody sold over a million copies in 1956); been the hero of a comic book series; authored four books (and been the subject of many more); and made thousands of other appearances on TV, stage (including a hit Broadway and tour run in Damn Yankees from 1994-97) and in nightclubs all over the world.
As well as being an entertainer, “Jerry Lewis was a major innovator in motion pictures,” stated director Francis Ford Coppola. “His invention of putting a video camera next to the motion picture camera so he could play it back and direct himself, has been used for decades by every director in the movie industry. I watched him on the set of The Ladies Man in 1961 and was amazed by his groundbreaking innovation, the Video Assist.”
Some of his most-celebrated films include The Nutty Professor (1963), Who’s Minding the Store? (1963), The Disorderly Orderly (1964), The Patsy (1964), The Family Jewels (1965), The Ladies Man (1961), The Errand Boy (1961), Cinderfella (1960), The Bellboy (1960), Visit to a Small Planet (1960), The Geisha Boy (1958), Rock-A-Bye Baby (1958), The Delicate Delinquent (1957), and 16 Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis films between 1949 and 1956 that showcased them at the pinnacle of show business.
Lewis has been honored with numerous awards including not one, but two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (one for his work in film and one for television); the Governor’s Award at the Emmy Awards (2005); a Career Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (2004); a Lifetime Achievement Award in Comedy at the American Comedy Awards (1998); and many, many more.
Enormously popular in Europe, particularly France, Lewis was awarded that country’s two most distinguished honors in 1984, making him a Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters, and inducting him into the Legion of Honor by the Decree of President Francois Mitterrand.
In addition to his status as a legendary performer, Lewis has long been a tireless and dedicated philanthropist. For more than 60 years, he has been the driving force behind the fight against muscular dystrophy. As national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Jerry raised more than $3 billion for patient care and research. His creation, the MDA Labor Day Telethon, is the most successful fundraising program in the history of television and established a new benchmark in charitable giving.
Wrote late Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, then a congressman from Wisconsin, when nominating Lewis for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1977, “Jerry Lewis is a man for all seasons, all people and all times. His name, in the hearts of millions, has become synonymous with peace, love and brotherhood.”
Lewis has received numerous awards for his charitable endeavors, including: an honorary Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award (2009), presented on special occasions by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to an individual whose humanitarian efforts have brought notable credit to the industry; the American Medical Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, becoming only the fifth person in AMA history to receive the honor (1996); and the U.S. Defense Department’s highest civilian award, the Medal for Distinguished Public Service (1985), among many others.
Today—after more than eight decades as a performer—Lewis remains busy with a myriad of appearances (in Las Vegas where he resides, around the country and overseas) and developing entertainment projects for film, television, DVD and stage. Beyond the pratfalls, jokes and public persona, he is a devoted family man with seven children, 10 grandchildren, two great grandchildren, and two chihuahuas.
Lewis has a motto that reflects more than anything else his ongoing love affair with humanity: “I shall pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again!”
Lewis’ latest movie release, Max Rose, which he stars in with Kevin Pollak and Claire Bloom, opens in select theatres around the county in September.