It’s a sad day in the Bottom Shelf. One of my heroes is gone. He was a nightclub comic, movie star, producer, writer, director, inventor, and humanitarian. He could also be a son of a bitch at times, but the same could be said of all of us.
Lightning struck (the figurative kind) in 1946, when the uniquely goonish comic Jerry Lewis teamed with the equally funny and talented Dean Martin. The comic pairing was a phenomenon unlike anything that the comedy world had seen since Chaplin was mobbed in the 19-Teens (and wouldn’t see again until Steve Martin sold out rock stadiums in the late 1970s). The team would last for ten years, playing nightclubs, while hosting The Colgate Comedy Hour on television, and starring in sixteen feature films (not counting cameos in a couple of Bob Hope movies).
In 1952, in response to a request from a staff member of The Colgate Comedy Hour, Dean and Jerry first began hosting telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Years after the breakup of the team, Jerry continued raising money for the charity, as the national chairman of the MDAA and host of the telethon until 2011.
After a final stage appearance on July 24, 1956, the team of Martin & Lewis went its separate ways. Jerry’s solo films were immediate box office gold, and he soon moved to directing his own comedies, including classics such as The Bellboy, The Ladies Man, The Errand Boy, The Nutty Professor, The Patsy, and The Family Jewels.
While producing The Ladies Man, Lewis created the “video assist,” a technique of using video cameras and multiple closed circuit monitors to allow him to review “takes” during filming, rather than waiting for the dailies to be developed. The “video assist” saved both time and money, and soon most directors were using the working methods that Jerry detailed in his book
The Total Film-Maker (and in the college course that he taught at USC).
It must be stated that Jerry Lewis was an excellent director. While the writing in his movies is uneven, varying from absolute genius to cringe inducing from scene to scene (although weighted more heavily on hits than misses), the direction is always spot on, maximizing the impact of the gag. Films made by Jerry Lewis don’t look like the films of any other director. His style instantly recognizable. And it is exactly his status as an autuer that endeared him to French film critics (and led to all the snarky jokes).
On a personal note, I saw Jerry live in the early ’90s — third row, center — close enough for spittle. He also responded to a letter from my Maltese, Weasel McPuppy, with a blown-up personal photograph, rather than a standard head shot. I’ll always love him for that.
I’m not going to make a habit of eulogizing beloved entertainers, but Jerry meant a lot to me. I loved his silliness, his smarmy showbiz obsequiousness, his talent, his egotism, and his innovation — the whole package. I’m going to miss the guy.
Goodnight, Jerry. Thanks for the laughs,
Here are some highlights from an exemplary career:
From Hope & Crosby’s U.S. Olympic Team Telethon (Bing disappears as soon as Jerry comes on stage, because he was afraid Jerry might rip off his toupee):
The second MDA Telethon (1953)
From The Colgate Comedy Hour (1954):
From Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958):
From Cinderfella (1960):
From The Ladies Man (1961):
From The Errand Boy (1961):
From The Nutty Professor (1963):
From The Patsy (1964)
From the 1976 MDA Telethon: