Jerry Lewis, comedy legend and charity fundraiser, dies at 91

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August 20, 2017 23:40

Lewis traveled to Tel Aviv for a weeklong film festival in his honor, produced in association with the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archives.

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Comedian Jerry Lewis reaches out to cover the camera lens as he arrives at the 12th annual American

Comedian Jerry Lewis reaches out to cover the camera lens as he arrives at the 12th annual American Comedy Awards.. (photo credit:REUTERS)

The legendary Jewish comedian Jerry Lewis died on Sunday at the age of 91. His family said he passed away peacefully at home.

Lewis, who was born in New Jersey to Russian Jewish immigrants, had a long, illustrious career in comedy, including starring in, directing and producing dozens of films.

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Lewis, born Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey, started in upstate New York’s Borscht Belt comedy circuit as a singer at age five, but rose to fame as a goofy foil to suave partner Dean Martin. He was also a comic icon in France.

He and Martin had a popular nightclub act which landed them first on TV, then in feature films, giving them household name recognition. But the duo split in 1956, and Lewis went on to create many more hit films, including The Nutty Professor and The Bellboy.

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 childlike 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.”

He starred in more than 45 films in a career spanning five decades. His cross-eyed antics often drew scorn from critics but for a time he was a box-office hit who commanded one of the biggest salaries in Hollywood.

In 1971, at the height of his career, Lewis wrote and directed The Day the Clown Cried, a Holocaust film set in a concentration camp that was never released. The film was mired in controversy from the outset, and Lewis later said he would never release it since it was embarrassingly bad. In 2016, the BBC released a behind-the-scenes documentary about the film.

In an interview that year with the Los Angeles Times, Lewis swore the film would never see the light of day, and refused to discuss it.

“Can’t talk about it,” Lewis said last year. “I won’t. You can ask me anything you want, that doesn’t mean I’m going to answer you.”

Though he had largely stopped making films by the 1980s, Lewis continued his activism on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Lewis, who was chairman of the MDA since its inception in 1950, was well-known for hosting the organization’s annual Labor Day telethon from 1966 through 2010.

But Lewis didn’t entirely leave show business behind. In 2016, he returned to the silver screen with Max Rose in a drama about an aging jazz pianist dealing with his wife’s infidelity.

In 2003, Lewis traveled to Tel Aviv for a weeklong film festival in his honor, produced in association with the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archives.

Shawn Levy, who wrote the 1996 book The King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis, said the comedian was never observant, but was still very Jewish.

“His grandmother sent him for Hebrew lessons so he could be bar mitzvahed, but he didn’t have a strong religious life,” Levy told JNS.org in 2015. “Philanthropy was part of the Jewish showbiz world, where he came of age. He was a professional entertainer from the time he left high school.”

Reuters, JTA and JNS.org contributed to this report.

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