Jerry Lewis, the high prince of low-brow comedy on stage and in movies as well as a fundraising powerhouse with his annual Labour Day telethon, died of “natural causes” at the age of 91, his family said.
Lewis who rose to fame as a goofy foil to suave partner Dean Martin and was a comic icon in France.
He once summed up his career by saying “I’ve had great success being a total idiot” and said the key was maintaining a certain child-like quality.
“I look at the world through a child’s eyes because I’m nine,” he told Reuters in a November 2002 interview. “I stayed that way. I made a career out of it. It’s a wonderful place to be.”
The son of vaudeville entertainers, Lewis became a star in the early 1950s as Martin’s comic sidekick in nightclubs, on television and in 16 movies. At their height, they set off the kind of fan hysteria that once surrounded Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.
Their decade-long partnership ended with a bitter split and Lewis went on to star in his own film comedies.
Lewis’ movie persona, like the character he created in the act with Martin, varied little from film to film. He was zany and manic, forever squealing, grimacing and flailing his way through situations beyond his control.
He starred in more than 45 films in a career spanning five decades. His cross-eyed antics often drew scorn from critics but he was for a time a box-office hit who commanded one of the biggest salaries in Hollywood.
Long after his celebrity faded at home, Lewis was wildly popular in France, where he was hailed as “le Roi du Crazy” (the king of crazy) and inducted into the Legion of Honour, France’s highest award, in 1984. He received a similar honour in 2006.
Lewis, born Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey, started on upstate New York’s Borscht Belt comedy circuit as a singer at age five.
He first teamed with the debonair Martin in 1946 while they were performing in an Atlantic City, New Jersey, nightclub Martin as a singer and Lewis as a comic.
Their largely improvised act, with Lewis making wild comic forays into the audience, was an immediate hit. Their 1950 movie debut, My Friend Irma, was followed by My Friend Irma Goes West the next year.
Their relationship soured, however, and by the time they made their last movie together, Hollywood or Bust, they reportedly were not speaking. They parted after a 1956 nightclub show, 10 years to the day after they first teamed.
They reunited in 1976 when Sinatra brought Martin on stage during the muscular dystrophy telethon and they remained friends until Martin’s 1995 death.
In 1960, Lewis made his movie directorial debut with The Bellboy and starred in the storybook parody Cinderfella. Three years later, he starred in his most popular movie, the self-directed Nutty Professor.
Lewis became closely associated with his annual Labour Day telethon, raising in excess of $2 billion for the fight against muscular dystrophy.
Lewis had a movie revival in 1983, winning acclaim as an arrogant talk show host kidnapped by an obsessed fan in The King of Comedy.
Lewis was beset for years by numerous ailments, including heart attacks, an inflammatory lung disorder and chronic back pain caused by pratfalls earlier in his career.
He had six sons with singer Patti Palmer, including Gary of the rock group Gary Lewis and the Playboys. After a divorce, Lewis married San Dee Pitnick in 1983, with whom he adopted a daughter.