by Benjamín Harguindey
Legendary slapstick comedian Jerry Lewis passed away yesterday in his home of Las Vegas, Nevada. He was 91.
Born Joseph Levitch in Newark in 1926 to Russian Jews Daniel Levitch, a vaudevillian, and Rachel, a radio station piano player, he would kick off his comedy routine as early as age five and develop his “Record Act” – in which he mimed song lyrics with his trademark exaggeration – by fifteen. He would eventually drop out of high school to pursue a career in comedy.
Lewis rose to stardom by teaming up with nightclub singer Dean Martin in the famous comedy act “Marting and Lewis”, playing the funnyman to Martin’s straight man. The duo debuted in 1946 at Atlantic City’s 500 Club to hysterical acclaim and quickly became one of the highest paid acts in show business, branching out into radio, TV and a total of 17 comedy films throughout the 1950s, beginning with My Friend Irma (1949).
Despite their unique chemistry – fueled by their friendly improvisational banter as much as their off stage friendship – the duo split following final film Hollywood of Bust (1956) and each went on to head succesful solo careers. In all Lewis wrote, produced and directed himself in 13 movies, including the famous The Bellboy (1960), The Ladies Man (1961) and The Errand Boy (1961) and, infamously, the “bad, bad, bad” The Day The Clown Cried (unreleased as of 1972).
Perhaps Jerry Lewis’ most iconic movie role is that of Julius Kelp, the titular The Nutty Professor (1963). A parody of Robert L. Stevenson‘s book The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Lewis plays Kelp as his trademark spastic geek, only to transform by night into a suave ladies man named Buddy Love. In 2004, the movie was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
1983 saw the release of Cracking Up, Lewis’ last movie as director, as well as Martin Scorsese‘s The King of Comedy, in which he went against type and as “Jerry Langford” played an embittered version of himself whose claim to comedy royalty is threatened by upstart fanboy Rupert Pupkin, played by Robert de Niro. The role earned Lewis a BAFTA nomination.
In the 60s Lewis taught a film class at the University of Southern California, which was attended by none other than a young Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Lewis was a lifelong philanthropist as well, hosting benefitial telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association from 1966 to 2010 and earning billions of dollars in donations. For his efforts he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 and presented with the French Legion of Honor in 1984.
Lewis’ last movie was Max Rose, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. The film, which saw him in the title role, was his comeback appearence following a 20 year absence from the big screen.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).