Jerry Lewis, legendary actor, filmmaker, and controversial standup comedian, has died in his Las Vegas home.
Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John Katsilometes tweeted a statement on Saturday that Lewis had “passed away peacefully today of natural causes at 91 at his home w/ family by his side." Variety confirmed the news via Lewis’s agent.
Best known for his string of vintage comedy movies with his nightclub partner Dean Martin, Lewis was a hardworking standup comedian who graduated to radio and then movie stardom alongside Martin. His entertainment career spanned a staggering seven decades, though his fame was increasingly accompanied by notoriety in his later life.
Lewis’s comedy was raw, edgy, absurdist, and experimental
Lewis was known for his physical comedy and improv-heavy style of interaction with Martin. Here he is demonstrating his chief quirks in a 1952 appearance with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope — the celebrity duo of comedians whose movie star partnership Lewis and Martin would essentially replace with a string of hits during the ’50s.
It’s been a hard year for the legacy of nightclub comedy. Lewis’s death comes just days after the death of standup comedian Dick Gregory, and earlier this year, another cantankerous comedian, Don Rickles, died at 90. But Lewis loomed particularly large in the landscape of 20th-century comedy, achieving fame as both a standup comic and an actor-director.
Born in 1926 in Newark, New Jersey, Lewis was hitting the road as an entertainer while still in his teens, performing in burlesque houses and nightclubs as a comedian, pantomime, and even lip-sync artist. That all changed when a friend introduced him to heartthrob crooner Dean Martin.
“Like so many entertainment explosions, we happened almost by accident,” Lewis wrote of his 1945 meeting with Martin. “We came straight out of the blue — nobody was expecting anything like Martin and Lewis. A sexy guy and a monkey is how some people saw us, but what we really were, in an age of Freudian self-realization, was the explosion of the show-business id.”
Martin and Lewis would go on to rule the comedy club circuit, then conquer radio, and finally reign over Hollywood as the leading box office draw from 1950 to ’56. Like Crosby and Hope, the two formed a bromance between a straight man (Martin) and a buffoon (Lewis) characterized by an emphasis on banter, absurdity, and physical comedy. But Lewis’s humor in particular was marked by a raw, edgy energy that would distinguish him within the comedy landscape.
Between 1949 and 1956, Martin and Lewis would appear in 17 films together, until an acrimonious breakup sent them their separate ways — Martin toward his singing career and Lewis toward his solo film career. The peak of his Hollywood stardom was unquestionably the 1963 classic The Nutty Professor, in which his physical comedy and zany persona was a perfect match for the role of an absent-minded, socially awkward teacher who tries to Jekyll and Hyde himself into a social makeover. That same year, Lewis had a cameo among the league of Hollywood legends who littered Mel Brooks’s 1963 film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
Lewis also moved into directing, and became acclaimed especially in Europe for his work — particularly for his debut, 1960’s The Bellboy, a film he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in. The Bellboy, a film in which Lewis almost never speaks, features meticulous staging and detail, and allows Lewis to do experimental comedy on a grand scale while skewering the casual narcissism of everyday modern life.
The film had direct echoes in French director Jacques Tati’s 1967 comedic masterpiece Playtime. Perhaps not coincidentally, Lewis’s directing career was embraced by French cinephiles, who inducted him into France’s distinguished Legion of Honor in 1984 and made him a commander in 2006.
Lewis continued to work in American film for decades through the years leading up to his death, most notably in the 1982 Martin Scorsese film The King of Comedy, in which he starred as a late-night talk show host opposite Robert DeNiro’s increasingly obsessive fan.
However, as his career wore on, Lewis and his conservative-leaning strain of humor often wound up on the outside of an increasingly progressive comedy scene.
Lewis’s latter-day career was marked by controversial statements
Despite being a lifelong humanitarian and serving for years as the public face of the annual Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon, Lewis gained increasing notoriety in the final decades of his life. He became known offstage to some as “an egomaniacal, completely narcissistic, narrow-minded, arrogant, mean-spirited, temperamental, socially antiquated boor,” according to critic Michael Posner.
He also became increasingly known for his misanthropy, misogyny, and problematic humor. In 2007 he apologized after pointing to a cameraman during the live Muscular Dystrophy telethon and referring to him as an “illiterate fag”; he also was known for racist and misogynistic remarks throughout his comedy routines in his later career. This included a 2000 incident in which he disparaged the work of Lucille Ball, stating that “a woman doing comedy doesn’t offend me but sets me back a bit. … I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies into the world.”
But despite his increasingly controversial legacy, Lewis remained active until his death. The Cannes film festival showcased his film Max Rose as a special selection in 2013, and as recently as late 2016 he was vehemently rejecting the idea of retirement and expressing his desire to keep working.
"Funny is my life," he stated in a 2011 GQ interview. "You've got to get down to the bottom. You go in."