Aug. 21, 2017 -- Jerry Lewis, a consummate performer on stage and screen who used his fame to raise billions of dollars toward a cure for muscular dystrophy and other neuromuscular diseases, died Sunday at his home in Las Vegas. He was 91.
Born Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926, in Newark, NJ, to vaudeville parents, Lewis wrote, appeared in, and directed 80-plus movies and TV shows over 5 decades in show business. He was memorable for his goofball antics and rubbery face (“The Nutty Professor,” “The Bellboy,” and “The Ladies Man”) and for his capacity for self-parody. Early in his career, he formed half of a comedy team with the late Dean Martin, with whom he hosted "The Martin and Lewis Radio Show" and made 16 films. In 1956, Lewis recorded an album (Jerry Lewis Just Sings) that made the Top 20 on the Billboard charts.
For many people, Lewis will be remembered best for raising awareness and money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) during the 50-plus years he hosted the nationally televised Labor Day weekend telethon. In all, the shows raised more than $2 billion.
An Annual Television Event
From 1956 until 2010, Lewis was the face of muscular dystrophy, a relatively rare neuromuscular disease that often begins in childhood and progressively robs a person of mobility. Lewis would wrap up the 21 1/2-hour annual show with a heartfelt version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” He would typically sing it in a voice hoarse from hours of urging viewers to contribute to the cause, and probably from smoking on air throughout the broadcast.
In 1977, Lewis was nominated for a Nobel Prize for his 50 years of fighting muscular dystrophy.
The reason for his stepping down as host of the telethon isn’t clear -- The Hollywood Reporter wrote that he was “unceremoniously dumped” -- but Lewis never seemed to have talked about it publicly.
The MDA, on its website, praised Lewis’ efforts, saying it “will be forever grateful to Jerry Lewis, a world-class humanitarian, for his indefatigable and inspiring work on behalf of kids and families with neuromuscular diseases, and for the countless dollars his commitment helped raise for critical research and services.”
Perhaps Lewis left because the telethon, which had shrunk to a 2-hour show, had outlived its usefulness. In May 2015, the MDA announced it would end the telethon because of the expense and the “realities of viewership” and concentrate its fundraising on social media and other web-based channels.
The MDA raises money for medical research on 40 neuromuscular diseases, including Duchenne/Becker muscular dystrophy, the most prevalent form of MD, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. In 2015, the organization said it was focusing support on gene therapy research and new drugs.
A Lifetime of Performances
While Lewis did not suffer from a neuromuscular disease, he struggled with health issues for years. He had type 1 diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis, a condition in which tissue deep in the lungs scar and stiffen, making it more difficult for oxygen to get into the blood and causing shortness of breath. He suffered two heart attacks. He also had prostate cancer surgery in 1982. He had chronic back pain, which led to an addiction to the prescription painkiller Percodan, which he successfully replaced with an implanted device that dulls nerve impulses. In 2003, he had to wean himself off of steroids used to treat his lung disease.
Lewis’ last performances on stage were in March 2014, when he sold out two shows at La Mirada Theatre in California. He was 88 at the time, although he appeared in the 2016 film The Trust, with Nicolas Cage and Elijah Wood.
Lewis was divorced from Patti Lewis, with whom he had six children, and married SanDee Pitnick in 1983. They adopted a daughter together. In 2009, Lewis’ youngest son, Joseph, who struggled with drug addiction, committed suicide at age 45. In an interview he gave to The Hollywood Reporter in June 2014, Lewis was broken up by Joseph’s death, saying, “To this day I don't understand it because it's unfair -- not unfair to me, but unfair to him. That he went that way made the unfairness stupidity. But he was my son and he's gone, and there's not a lot I can do about that. I beat myself a thousand times.”
He was beloved throughout the world, but the French were particularly enchanted by Lewis. In 2006, for his 80th birthday, Lewis was awarded a medal and induction as a commander into the Legion of Honor, which is considered the highest decoration in France. It is akin to being knighted by the queen in England.
Lewis has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2009 Oscars ceremony. He received many other honors throughout this life, both for his humanitarian work and his work as a TV and movie star, and as a producer and director.