By Jacqueline Cutler, ReMIND Magazine
Outside of Santa, how many people usher in a season?
Every Labor Day weekend, as Jerry Lewis’ bow tie unraveled and sweat soaked the Brylcreem out of his hair, we knew fall was nearly here. For 44 years, Lewis helmed the Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day Telethon, raising $2.6 billion. He used his connections to cajole Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Carole King and Sean Hayes onto that stage. Don’t discount those connections — President Kennedy was a friend.
Lewis, who died of cardiovascular disease, was a complicated man. Praised for his charity, he could also seem heartless: He cut his six sons from his first marriage out of his will. He could treat fans as nuisances and reporters as something worse. Yet, long before multi-hyphenates ruled, he was exalted as one: performer-comedian-writer-actor-director-visionary and lecturer. Lewis reveled in true highs — an honorary Oscar, an honorary Emmy, his status as a comic genius in France. He surprised even himself charting with Al Jolson’s “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.”
Like Jolson, Lewis anglicized his name. He was born Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jersey to vaudevillians. When they hit the road, he stayed with relatives, leaving Lewis with a never-quenched need for affection. He dropped out of high school to turn pro. A medical deferment kept him out of World War II, and a chance encounter put him on the same bill as a sexy crooner: Dean Martin. For precisely a decade until their famous breakup, Martin and Lewis were red hot. They made 16 films together, and Lewis used his skinny frame, seemingly made of rubber, for the sort of slapstick few pull off with such aplomb.
Lewis’ favorite of his movies was 1963’s The Nutty Professor, which he also directed. For Martin Scorsese, he gave a stunningly subtle performance in 1982’s The King of Comedy.
Along the way, Lewis suffered some lows. He was to star in 1977’s revival of Hellzapoppin, which was Broadway-bound — until it bombed on the road. Someone had to return all those advance-sale checks and, in pre-PayPal days, that fell to the theater’s young mailroom clerk, who, surprised to see Lewis in a backstage office, his hair still reflecting light, stammered, “Hi.” He sneered: “What the hell do you want, kid?” It was perfect, vintage Lewis.
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