Jerry Lewis a king of comedy and show biz legend

August 21, 2017

Actor and comedian Jerry Lewis, recipient of a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and a Chevalier, Ordre National de la Legion d’Honneur, France, was a star of such magnitude that it may be hard for today’s youth to comprehend the fame he commanded in his day.

Lewis, who died yesterday at age 91, excelled in film, radio, nightclub performing, recording, television and was for decades the host of an enormously popular annual humanitarian telethon crusade to raise money for a cure for muscular dystrophy.

He received rave reviews for playing Jerry Langford, a sour and cynical version of himself in Martin Scorsese’s 1982 comedy-drama “The King of Comedy.”

Although the artist had his detractors, Lewis was an undeniable inspiration to countless young actors and comics who followed in his tsunami-like wake, most notably Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Martin Short, Jim Carrey and Steve Martin, who were inspired by his antics and flair for slapstick and the absurd.

From his humble beginnings as the Newark, N.J.-born son of vaudeville performers working in the Catskills — where Lewis made his debut at age 5 singing, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” — he was catapulted to stardom as the rubber-faced, shrill-voiced, child-like half of a team alongside the tall and handsome crooner and movie-star-to-be Dean Martin.

Martin and Lewis, whose ­famous nightclub act was mostly improvisational, found further fame as a supporting team in such film comedies as “My Friend Irma” (1949) and its sequel, “My Friend Irma Goes West,” with the virtually forgotten star Marie Wilson.

Like Abbot and Costello before them, Lewis and Martin co-starred as comically hapless American soldiers in “At War with the Army” (1950). Their screen collaboration reached a zenith with the 1955 effort “Artists and Models,” directed by Warner Bros. “Looney Tunes” veteran Frank Tashlin.

Lewis would go on as a solo act to star in the Tashlin- directed films “The Sad Sack” (1957), opposite Phyllis Kirk; “Rock-A-Bye Baby” (1958) with Marilyn Maxwell and Connie Stevens; “Geisha Boy” (1958); “Don’t Give Up the Ship” (1959); and “Cinderfella” (1960).

He later famously directed his own films, making his debut with the smash hit “The Bellboy,” a 1960 film Lewis shot during the day at Florida’s Fontainebleau Hotel, while performing at the hotel in the evenings.

“The Bellboy,” with its slapstick bits about the way Lewis’ bumbling character mishandles customers’ baggage, showed the debt Lewis owed to silent film star actor-director Buster Keaton.

Lewis, who was declared an auteur by directors and critics of the French New Wave, directed, co-wrote and starred as both the awkward, oddly voiced Julius Kelp in the smash hit “The Nutty Professor” (1963), as well as his suave, sharp-suited and hip Jekyll-and-Hyde-like alter ego Buddy Love, with Stella Stevens as the romantic interest.

It was as if Lewis was playing both himself and the Dean Martin role in one movie. Lewis was held up to ridicule for the lachrymose effort “The Day the Clown Cried,” a 1972 film he directed and later shelved in which he plays Helmut Doork, a clown who entertains Jewish children at a Nazi death camp.

His star further dimmed for his role in the flop “Slapstick of Another Kind,” (1982), an adaptation of a novel by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

But the actor-director redeemed himself in many eyes with his unflinchingly nasty, tough-as-nails turn as the held-for-hostage Langford in the Scorsese film.

More recently, Lewis turned in an estimable performance in the title role in the 2013 drama “Max Rose,” a film about an aged jazz pianist.

“I’ve had great success being a total idiot,” Lewis once said of himself. He also had his less amusing faults, most of which have been held up at length to public scrutiny. But in spite of everything, Jerry Lewis was a show business giant and a comedy icon.