Jerry’s Life and Legacy

A consummate entertainer and world-renowned humanitarian, Jerry Lewis was not just a cultural icon in the United States — he was one of the most easily recognized personalities on the planet. Widely regarded as a comic genius and as one of the true giants of the motion picture industry, and internationally celebrated for his vast contributions to humanity, Jerry personified the term “living legend.”

Muscular Dystrophy Association

Since first committing himself to MDA's cause in 1952, Jerry helped the organization turn muscular dystrophy into a household term. As National Chairman of MDA for more than five decades, he dedicated himself to the fight against muscular dystrophy, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and related life-threatening diseases with fierce determination. 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.

Jerry’s determined efforts to raise funds for MDA’s worldwide research and comprehensive service programs aimed to turn the hope of a better future into reality. In 1986 and 1987, MDA-supported investigators identified the genetic cause of Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), which at the time was the most common and fatal childhood form of muscular dystrophy. Building on that breakthrough, MDA-backed researchers have discovered the specific causes of most genetic neuromuscular disorders, including other forms of muscular dystrophy, spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT).

MDA takes a big picture perspective on neuromuscular diseases, including ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), that limit muscle strength and mobility so we can reach across diseases to find effective treatments and cures. Jerry and MDA made ALS, commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease after the legendary New York Yankees first baseman whose career was cut short by the disease, one of their primary targets in MDA’s earliest days. Gehrig’s widow, Eleanor, assisted Jerry by serving as MDA national campaign chairman. MDA supports a nationwide network of more than 150 Care Centers, nearly 50 of which have been designated as MDA ALS Care Centers devoted exclusively to treating people with ALS and conducting cutting-edge clinical trials.

In February 2001, Jerry led a delegation of MDA scientists and clients to testify before a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate, chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter. Because MDA research laid the groundwork necessary to develop treatments for muscular dystrophies, Jerry told the Senate it was time for the federal government to infuse needed funds to accomplish the next step — saving lives through treatments and cures based on the foundation of knowledge built by MDA. Testimony by Jerry and others resulted in the passage of the MD-CARE Act, a first step toward securing a boost in federal research funding for all forms of muscular dystrophy.

The Telethon

In 1956, Jerry and his partner Dean Martin co-hosted a television program from New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall to benefit the fledgling Muscular Dystrophy Association of America (MDAA). Thanksgivings 1957 and 1959 brought the first two telethons hosted by Jerry. But because of Lewis’ film commitments, he didn’t host another telethon until the mid-1960s. The first MDA Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon was broadcast in 1966 by a single station in New York (WNEW-TV, now WNYW-TV). It also was the first to raise more than $1 million.

The telethon became an American tradition broadcast every Labor Day Weekend by television stations across the country with combined audience ratings making it the most-watched show of its kind — and that’s not including the countless numbers of people around the world who watched the telethon via live stream on mda.org. Over the years, the broadcast originated from New York, Las Vegas and Hollywood.

It consistently enjoyed robust support from the biggest stars in show business. Over the years, countless megastars appeared on the program. When it comes to memorable moments from the nearly 1,000 hours of live television broadcast during MDA Labor Day Telethons, the surprise 1976 Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis reunion organized by Frank Sinatra still tops a truly incredible list of unforgettable television highlights.

On May 16, 2011, Jerry announced that he was retiring as host of the annual Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day Telethon.

No. 1 Volunteer

Over the years, Jerry made hundreds of appearances on behalf of MDA at corporate conventions and meetings of civic, fraternal and youth groups. In fact, hardly a day passed in which Jerry didn’t meet, work for, phone or just talk about kids and adults living with neuromuscular diseases and MDA’s efforts in their behalf. He corresponded with many of those served by MDA.

Long before his 2001 testimony before Congress, Jerry was effective in enlisting aid for hundreds of thousands of people with neuromuscular disorders through legislative action. In 1973, he appeared before the California Legislature and won approval for the appropriation of $1 million for the Jerry Lewis Neuromuscular Disease Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, one of several major research and clinical centers established by MDA. During a visit to the White House on March 16, 1981, Jerry presented President Ronald Reagan with a framed photograph of the UCLA center in gratitude for the president’s invaluable support — as governor of California — of the state’s historic Neuromuscular Disease Research Act of 1973. The act made possible the partnership between the state and MDA that resulted in construction of this major research facility.

Humanitarian Awards

“Jerry Lewis is a man for all seasons, all people and all times. His name has, in the hearts of millions, become synonymous with peace, love and brotherhood.” The late Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, then a congressman from Wisconsin, penned those words in 1977 in the conclusion of his nomination of Jerry for the Nobel Peace Prize. Never in the history of show business has an entertainer been so honored.

In 1984, the government of France made official its long-standing admiration of Jerry Lewis by giving him its two most distinguished awards. First, Lewis was made a Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters, and extolled by French Minister of Culture Jack Lang for his “human qualities and generosity. You are a child’s friend and a model for adults.” Later that same year, Jerry was inducted into the Legion of Honor by the decree of President Francois Mitterand. Legion membership honors individuals whose accomplishments demonstrate extraordinary public service.

Back in the United States, on June 8, 1985, the Defense Department presented Jerry with its highest civilian award — the Medal for Distinguished Public Service. The citation that accompanies the engraved gold medal reads, in part: “His service has had a profound effect on the youth of our country, on men and women in uniform today and their children, and on those children who shall one day serve our country in its defense.”

In December 1996, the American Medical Association presented its Lifetime Achievement Awards to Jerry and MDA “for significant and lasting contributions to the health and welfare of humanity.” Jerry was honored for his decades of dedication to MDA, becoming only the fifth person in AMA history to receive this award.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2009 presented Jerry with one of its greatest honors, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Named after renowned actor, past Academy president and motion picture industry supporter Jean Hersholt, the award is presented on special occasions to an individual whose humanitarian efforts have brought notable credit to the industry.

As MDA National Chairman, Jerry devoted two-thirds of his lifetime to the effort to eradicate neuromuscular diseases. His unflagging, year-round work for this cause endeared him to millions. Under Jerry’s leadership, the organization has been — and will continue to be — the recognized leader in the worldwide fight against these diseases.

Other Honors

In addition to his induction into the Legion of Honor and his Nobel Peace Prize nomination, Jerry received widespread recognition for his role in the fight against neuromuscular diseases and his personal commitment to those affected by them.

In 1971, the AFL-CIO presented Jerry with the Murray-Green Award for Community Services, the labor organization’s highest honor. In September 1976, the U.S. Senate unanimously adopted a resolution of appreciation to Jerry “for his outstanding contributions in the fight against muscular dystrophy.” And in June 1978, the communications industry honored him with the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) Award of the Year for his humanitarian efforts in raising funds through his annual MDA Telethons.

In June 1978, Jerry also received the Jefferson Award for the Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged in special ceremonies held at the U.S. Supreme Court. The Jefferson Award is presented annually by the American Institute for Public Service to nine outstanding Americans for highest achievement in the field of public service in the United States.

Following the ceremonies, Jerry was invited to the White House, where he had a private meeting in the Oval Office with President Jimmy Carter. Afterward, President Carter praised Jerry for his many years of devoted service on behalf of those with neuromuscular diseases.

In January 1980, the Touchdown Club of Washington honored Jerry with its prestigious Hubert H. Humphrey Humanitarian Award, given annually to the individual who best exemplifies the ideals and courage of the late senator.

Jerry also received the N. Neal Pike Prize for Service to the Handicapped from the Boston University School of Law in November 1984. The award, presented by Boston University President John R. Silber, “recognizes individuals who have made special contributions that have improved the lives of people with disabilities.”

In 1987, Mercy College in Westchester, N.Y., honored Lewis with a Doctor of Humane Letters degree when Jerry gave the commencement address to the graduating class. Mercy College President Wilbert J. LeMelle described Jerry as “a shining example for people everywhere that one person can have an impact on society and change the world.”

The following year, Jerry was honored in the American debut of the Award of Professionalism and Achievement from the Eterna Watch Corporation in recognition of his “outstanding humanitarian contributions and dedication to the Muscular Dystrophy Association.” In 1993, he also received a Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Emerson College in Boston for his work as the organization’s voluntary National Chairman.

Jerry was honored at the Research America Advocacy Awards Dinner at the National Academy of Science in Washington, D.C., on March 19, 2002.

He received the Variety Club International Lifetime Achievement Award on May 26, 2002, and then received the same honor from Rotary International in Barcelona, Spain, on June 23, 2002.

In 2004, Jerry was given the Franklin Pierce College Doctor of Humane Letters Degree in New Hampshire, and in 2010, he received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Chapman University in Orange, Calif.

Legendary Entertainer

One of the most successful performers in show business — with worldwide box office gross receipts of his films in excess of $800 million — Jerry Lewis received global acclaim for his unique ability and style with both comedy and drama. Best known for his comedic genius, he was considered among the elite in the history of comedy. He had an exceptional feel for comic timing and possessed all the other unique qualities of a great clown. Critic Harriet Van Horne described Jerry’s screen persona as “a sort of witless genius,” while Hollywood director Leo McCarey called Jerry, “the Pied Piper of the business, the heir to the mantle of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.”
 

1991: Jerry received two impressive honors as the show business industry recognized his lifetime of achievement. On Jan. 13, he received the Comic Life Achievement Award during cable television’s annual ACE Awards. The National Association of Broadcasters paid tribute to Jerry by inducting him into the Broadcast Hall of Fame on April 17.

1992: Jerry was inducted into the International Humor Hall of Fame.

1998: On Feb. 22, Jerry received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Comedy Hall of Fame.

1999: Legendary film director Martin Scorsese presented Jerry with a career Golden Lion award at the Venice International Film Festival in Italy. Jerry was honored as “an extraordinary example of the total filmmaker: scriptwriter, director and protagonist of his films, therefore fully responsible for his work.”

2005: In January, the Los Angeles International Press Academy presented him with the Nikola Tesla Award in recognition of visionary achievements of advanced entertainment, technology cinematography for his “video assist.”

2005: In February, Jerry received a Lifetime Achievement Award (the Golden Camera) from the Berlin Film Festival plus a Lifetime Achievement Award for achievement in directing (the Golden Bear).

In September, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences honored Jerry with the Governors Award (Emmy) for Lifetime Achievement. The Television Academy Board of Governors bestows its esteemed Governors Award upon individuals, companies or organizations that have made a substantial impact and demonstrated the extraordinary use of television.

2006: In February, the French Culture Minister, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, presented him with a medal and induction into the Legion of Honor as Legion Commander.

In June, The Friars Club in New York City “roasted” Jerry and made him the Abbot of the New York Friars.

2009: At the 81st Academy Awards, Jerry received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

Born to be in Show Business

Jerry was destined to be in show business. He was born Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926, in Newark, N.J., to Danny and Rae Lewis — both professional entertainers. While his father, as Jerry puts it, “was the total entertainer,” his mother played piano at New York City radio station WOR, made musical arrangements and was her husband’s musical director.

At age 5, Jerry made his debut at a hotel in New York’s Borscht Belt Circuit, singing “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” as his father, the master of ceremonies, watched from the wings. By the time he was 15, Lewis had perfected a comic routine known as “The Record Player,” miming and silently mouthing lyrics of operatic and popular songs played on a phonograph offstage.

He attended high school in Irvington, N.J., quitting after two years, a move he often regretted. Then came a variety of jobs, including counterman behind a drugstore lunch counter, usher at Loew’s State Theater in New York City and shipping clerk in a hat factory.

Meanwhile, dressed in a drape jacket and pegged pants, Jerry continued to brave the offices of booking agents. When he finally got a booking, it was at a burlesque house in Buffalo, where he was hooted off the stage with shouts of “bring on the broads” before he’d even started his act.

Disheartened and ready to give up, Jerry was encouraged to keep trying by veteran burlesque comedian Max Coleman, who had worked with Jerry’s father for years. Max went to Jerry and got his attention, telling him, “If you’re quitting, you’re no son of Danny Lewis.”

Martin and Lewis

In July 1946, Jerry was performing at the 500 Club in Atlantic City when one of the other entertainers suddenly quit. Jerry, who had already worked with a young crooner named Dean Martin at the Glass Hat in New York, suggested Dean as a replacement. They started out performing separately but were soon ad-libbing together, improvising insults and jokes, squirting seltzer water, hurling bunches of celery and creating a general atmosphere of zaniness. In less than 18 weeks, their salaries soared from $250 a week to $5,000, and a partnership was born that dominated show business for 10 years, turning both men into household names.

After movie producer Hal Wallis saw the two perform at the Copacabana in New York City, he signed the duo to a movie contract with Paramount Pictures.

Of their 1949 film debut, “My Friend Irma,” prominent New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote: “We could go along with the laughs which were fetched by a new mad comedian, Jerry Lewis by name. The swift eccentricity of his movements, the harrowing features of his face and the squeak of his vocal protestations ... have flair. His idiocy constitutes the burlesque of an idiot, which is something else again. He’s the funniest thing in the picture.”

For 10 years, Martin and Lewis sandwiched 16 money-making films between nightclub engagements, personal appearances and television bookings. Their last film together was “Hollywood or Bust” in 1956. On July 25 of that year, the two made their last nightclub appearance together at the Copacabana, exactly 10 years to the day from when they began as a team.

Jerry Lewis Goes Solo

From then on, Jerry was constantly on the move. He recorded several records and albums — one of which, “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby,” released by Decca Records, sold nearly 4 million copies. With increased confidence, Jerry plunged into screenwriting, producing and directing as well as acting. In the spring of 1959, a contract between Paramount and Jerry Lewis Productions was signed — then the biggest single transaction in film history for the exclusive services of one star — specifying a payment of $10 million plus 60 percent of the profits for 14 films over a seven-year period. The partnership was dissolved in 1965.

Jerry then moved to Columbia Pictures, where he produced, directed and starred in “Three on a Couch”; then to 20th Century Fox to write, produce and star in “The Big Mouth” and “Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River” for Columbia release. From there, he went to England to direct Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford in “One More Time” for United Artists, before moving to Warner Brothers to produce, direct and star in “Which Way to the Front?”

After a hiatus of several years, Jerry returned to the screen in 1981 with “Hardly Working.” Since then, his motion picture credits have included acting in such films as Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” (1983) with Robert DeNiro; “Arizona Dream” (1995) with Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway; and “Funny Bones” (1995) with Oliver Platt, filmed on location in Great Britain. He also completed filming “Max Rose,” a movie focusing on the dignity of aging, the value of family and the power of marriage. It co-stars Ben Gazzara and Peter Bogdanovich and was released in 2016.

Jerry made numerous television dramatic appearances, among them the ABC made-for-TV movie “Fight for Life” (1987); five episodes of the Emmy-nominated CBS series “Wiseguy” (1988-89); and an episode of the Emmy-winning NBC series “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (2006). His autobiography, Jerry Lewis in Person, written with Herb Gluck, was published by Antheneum in 1982.

In 1995, Jerry fulfilled a lifelong dream when he starred on Broadway for six months as Applegate in the successful revival of “Damn Yankees.” His 185 "standing-room" performances were adored by audiences and critics. Jerry went on to tour with the show and during its second year, the tour broke all attendance records of any previous traveling Broadway production. He also played the role for two months in the London production during the summer of 1997.

In 2005, Jerry, along with James Kaplan, penned a New York Times best-selling book published by Doubleday about the days of Martin and Lewis entitled Dean and Me: A Love Story.

On July 24, 2012, Jerry oversaw the Nashville pre-Broadway world premiere of a new musical, “The Nutty Professor,” based on his 1963 classic film. The production, directed by Jerry, featured music by the late Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner Marvin Hamlisch (“A Chorus Line”) and a book and lyrics by three-time Tony award recipient Rupert Holmes (“The Mystery of Edwin Drood”). The show, which opened to rave reviews, had a limited run of one month at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.

From the Director’s Chair

A fact not widely known in the United States is that Jerry had been named Best Director of the Year eight times in Europe since 1960. The French film critic Robert Benayoun wrote: “I consider Jerry Lewis, since the death of Buster Keaton, to be the foremost comic artist of the time. He corresponds to his era both reflecting and criticizing our civilization.” French director Jean-Luc Godard remarked: “Jerry Lewis is the only American director who has made progressive films ... He is much better than Chaplin and Keaton.”

In February 1993, Jerry journeyed to Paris to receive yet another recognition from his French fans. He was given the Cinematech’s most prestigious honor, a 10-day homage acknowledging his body of work.

Although gratified by such esteem, Jerry valued more the words of his friend, President John F. Kennedy, engraved on a plaque in his dressing room: “There are three things that are real ... God, human folly and laughter. Since the first two are beyond comprehension, we must do the best we can with the third.”

Inventor

Jerry is also credited with inventing the video assist, a device widely used in movie production today and often referred to as Video Village. He created the closed-circuit television system to facilitate motion picture production.

The Not-So-Nutty Professor

In addition to his varied entertainment and philanthropic responsibilities, Jerry also served as an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California, where he taught a graduate course in film direction. The Total Film Maker, a book based on recordings of 480 hours of his classroom lectures, was published by Random House in 1971.

The ‘Real’ Jerry Lewis

Behind the pratfalls, the jokes and the public persona, Jerry was a devoted family man who always carried snapshots of his family in his pockets for luck. The entertainer married Patti Palmer on Oct. 3, 1944, and together they had six sons — Gary, Ron, Scott, Chris, Anthony and Joseph (died Oct. 24, 2009). Patti and Jerry divorced in September 1980. On Feb. 13, 1983, Jerry married SanDee “Sam” Pitnick of Winston-Salem, N.C. The couple has a daughter, Danielle, born in 1992.

Jerry was famous for his love of children, and the immense popularity he enjoyed among them is hardly surprising. “I get paid for doing what children are punished for,” he reasoned. Or, as one 14-year-old fan put it: “Jerry is just a nice big kid who makes us laugh. Kids love him because he’s really one of us.”

The philosophy behind Jerry’s years of dedication to MDA and humanity is summed up in a motto he often quoted: “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.”

Significant Motion Picture/Television/Stage/Recording Credits

Key: 1 — actor; 2 — director; 3 — writer; 4 — co-author; 5 — producer; 6 — cameo; 7 — guest; 8 — host; 9 — narrator

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